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On Noise

In an interview with Toby Green W.G. Sebald reveals the reason he never used a computer: they are noisy.

Sebald: … these days, of course, if you are born in parts of Washington or London, you only have nature in a very reduced form. I’m sure that I sense this particularly because I grew up in such a remote part of Germany, and have felt very much over the last thirty years as if machines have been invading. And with the proliferation of machines has gone a proliferation of noise.

Right now we can hear the traffic outside, the noise of the generator, the aeroplanes above–this proliferation just makes rigorous thought that much more impossible. It is impossible to imagine Wittgenstein thinking out a problem in front of an audience today. Impossible. How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our perceptual abilities?

Sebald: Enormously so. I received a letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn, claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole Bay–off Lowestoft–had been heard in London. Newton heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years. [Note: Lowestoft is nearly 80 miles distant from Cambridge and about 100 miles from London.] How do you feel about the acceleration of this process?

Sebald: Everything is becoming generalised. I am the only person in the University not to have a computer, and that is regarded as quixotic. It is the only sort of eccentricity that is left. But when I first came here, almost every other colleague was slightly eccentric. That was the whole point–people were different, so they could tell you things from their different standpoints. They have all been eliminated.

As we know, Sebald grew up in a tiny village in the Bavarian Alps, where, one imagines, the noise was of a very different order from today’s noise. (Just as an aside, the filmmaker Werner Herzog, another artist fascinated with noise and silence, and who was born two years earlier than Sebald, also grew up in what Wikipedia refers to as a “remote village in Bavaria.” Does anyone know where?)


By sheer coincidence, the next book I read after this interview was Milan Kundera’s fabulous book The Torn Curtain. (Note the great jacket cover featuring a detail from Jean-Etienne Liotard’s painting called Portrait of Maria Adelaide of France in Turkish Costume, 1753.) On pages 120-123, Kundera writes about an obscure Czech novel from the early 1930s by Jaromir John (the title of which would be called something like The Internal-Combustion Monster if it was ever translated into English) in which the main character, a forester, retires to Prague circa 1920, and, suddenly bombarded by the noise of cars and motors, cannot find any place that is quiet enough to live.

I hadn’t thought much about the role of noise in the novel before, but my immediate instinct was to see how Robert Musil dealt with it in The Man Without Qualities, a quintessential novel about modernization in the early twentieth century. And sure enough, the first two pages describe the Vienna of 1913 largely in terms of its noises.

Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna.

To my knowledge, Sebald never wrote about Musil, which is a shame.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve a short piece I suppose unified by the theme of noise- to be crassly reductionist- in the kind of quiet place where Sebald may have felt not too dislocated below, crass though such linking may unfortunately be:

    July 7, 2009
  2. Wikipedia seems to have expanded on their Werner Herzog entry – they now list the town in which he grew up – Sachrang (he was born in Munich).

    July 17, 2012
  3. Katja Hock #

    hi, i really enjoy your writing on Sebald! It appears that you might be able to help…., i have read a quote somewhere about that S doe not write about the Holocaust but the reader cannot think about anything else but the H – do you have an idea where i might have seen this one, it drives me mad not to find it…..
    many thanks,

    February 14, 2014
    • Katja, I am temporarily stumped on where to look for this, but I’ve asked for help from someone more expert than me. Obviously, Sebald writes about the Holocaust in Austerlitz. I’ll let you know if anyone comes up with an answer for you.

      February 15, 2014
      • Katja Hock #

        Hi Terry,
        yes, I know; in that sense my search for the quote appears meaningless. However, it general it is the theme that is constantly running through the writing, but more like a river that has been moved underground, ready to errupt anyime…

        February 15, 2014
    • Found it, by chance! It’s cited in the Intro to The Emergence of Memory, attributed to Andre Aciman, in a 1998 essay. Written before Austerlitz, in other words. I haven’t tracked down the essay itself, mind you, but one step closer to it…

      February 19, 2014
      • Nice detective work!

        February 19, 2014
      • Hock, Katja #

        Brilliant!!! Thank you ever so much!!!!! All the best and I will keep on following the great work, Very best wishes Katja

        K. K. Hock Sent from my iPhone

        February 21, 2014
    Reading it in context, I think it is a specific comment on a passage in Rings of Saturn rather than necessarily being intended to apply across Sebald’s oeuvre.

    February 21, 2014

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