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The Chronicler of Damages Caused; More on “The Book that Will Never Be”

By sheer accident I have just found a tantalizing description of the book that W.G. Sebald was writing at the time of his death December 14, 2001, a topic that I wrote about in a recent post “The Book that Will Never Be.” The description comes from a web page that I printed out in 2004 and had not looked at closely.

In May 2000, Sebald had been awarded a four-year fellowship valued at 73,000 British pounds from NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. According to its website, NESTA is “the largest single endowment devoted exclusively to supporting talent, innovation and creativity in the UK.” NESTA has recently updated its entire website (www.nesta.org.uk) and the page I found in 2004 no longer exists. But at one time NESTA had an “Awardee Story” that profiled Sebald and his project.It has been replaced by a page that simply states: “WG (Max) Sebald was an internationally renowned novelist, historian and poet. A NESTA awardee, tragically his work was cut short when he died in a car accident in December 2001.”

The profile I found at the NESTA website in 2004 began with a revealing piece of self-description by Sebald:

I consider myself not a writer of fiction, but some sort of chronicler of damages caused. The genre is completely undefinable. It’s a form of prose fiction.

The remainder of the profile consisted of a memorial to Sebald provided by Richard J. Evans, a specialist in 20th century German history at Cambridge. Evans wrote in the capacity as Sebald’s “NESTA mentor.”Toward the end of Evan’s remembrance, he described the project for which Sebald won the fellowship.

The new project was to centre on two real women, who might or might not have been merged into a single fictional figure, whom Sebald had known in his childhood and youth in Bavaria; but it was also to involve the history of his own family, in the trenches of the First World War and the German Revolution of 1918.One of the things we were trying to discover for example was whether the notoriously ruthless head of the Red Guard in Munich during the most radical phase of the revolution was related to Max through his mother, whose maiden name he shared.The elite boarding schools established by the Nazis to educate the future rulers of the ‘thousand-year Reich’ were to be the setting for another part of the book.

Max wanted to know about many other things, including the identity of a naval officer with an English name who apparently served with the German armed forces during the Second World War. He was, he told me, always on the lookout for the odd and the anomalous, the sort of things that historians such as myself do our best to smooth out of our work.I did my best to help him in his historical researches, to point him towards the right archives and supply him with literature on the topics he was pursuing….

I am convinced that the book Max was writing when he died would have been his greatest yet….

I hope Professor Evans will not mind my quoting him at such length, but since the original web page has been vaporized this is probably the only place where one can still read a description of the work-in-progress that was forever left unfinished by Sebald’s death.It’s a book we all would have dearly loved to have bought and read one day.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    Max also translated the extensive “Nachwort” that appears in vol. 2 of an edition of early Expressionist documents that I brought out in the early 1980s: Die Schriften des Neuen Clubs (Gerstenberg, 1980-83).
    Max and Richard Evans knew each other at UEA in the 1970s. Both worked in the School of European Studies. Richard has an extensive web-site with c.v. and you can get the exact dates from there. It was obvious that he had a brilliant future ahead of him and he is now the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge. Max’s NESTA application is still preserved: probably in two copies even.
    Oddly enough, my father taught David Irving German at Brentwood School, Essex, and when my father was ill, which he often was thanks to a combination of cigarettes and World War II, Irving would visit him at our house. He presented my father with a couple of his early books and these I still have. But Brentwood also produced Jack Straw, the author of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the judge who presided over the MacLibel trial and the judge who presided over the Max Moseley trial last year. … I’m not sure what all that proves.
    Yours, Richard Sheppard

    May 25, 2009

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