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Truth on a Crooked Route: A Hard-to-Find Interview with W.G. Sebald

If it weren’t for a footnote on Christopher Bigsby’s book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory, I probably never would have found an interview between Toby Green and W.G. Sebald , which was conducted shortly after the Harvill publication of Vertigo late in 1999. Green is the author of a number of books, including Inquisition, Thomas More’s Magician, and Saddled with Darwin. He also reviews books for’s website.

In the interview, which is called The Questionable Business of Writing, after a phrase in The Emigrants, Sebald talks about motivations for writing, Kafka, guilt, the sublime, his early influences Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and why he was the only person in his university not to use a computer. At the end of the interview, Green asks Sebald about the use of photographs in his books. Finally, coming back to the way you put your books together, I wanted to ask you what the role of the pictorial element was in them?

Sebald: I have always had a thing about old photographs. The older pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world where the departed are. A black-and-white photograph is a document of an absence, and is almost curiously metaphysical. I have always hoarded them. They represent a sense of otherness. The figures in photographs have been muted, and they stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something.

They have become part of my working process, part of the way in which I declare my position. Although I try to stay as anonymous as possible in the text, at the same time I’m anxious to declare my position. I don’t think one can now attempt to write a book which hasn’t got that notion of relativity in it. And the photographs fulfill this function for you?

Sebald: Yes, because they are part of the process. They act as a token of authenticity– but they can be deduced, forged or purloined. And of course that in turn throws up one of the central problems of fiction writing, which is that of legitimacy and the arrival at the truth on a crooked route. This is why “vertigo” in German has a double meaning–schwindel in German means “swindle”. What right do you have to write about any of these things? Have you been there, and felt these things for yourself?

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