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W.G. Sebald in the Potting Shed

If you want to read great interviews with writers, get the two volumes of Christopher Bigsby’s Writers in Conversation (Norwich: The Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies, 2000 and 2001), many of which were originally done for the BBC. A Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, Bigsby has written at length about W.G. Sebald in a book I have mentioned earlier, Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust. In his interviews, Bigsby brings depth and an obvious sense of curiosity.Volume Two contains eighteen interviews, including John Ashberry, Paul Auster, John Barth, Robertson Davies, Joan Didion, John Fowles, Ursula le Guin, Arthur Miller, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, Isaac Bashevis Singer, George Steiner, Paul Theroux, Alice Walker, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker, and Tom Wolfe. Writers in Conversation, Volume Two also contains perhaps the best interview ever made with W.G. Sebald, who was his friend and colleague at the University of East Anglia.

Bigsby Writers in Conversation

In this interview, conducted in January 2001, Bigsby explores Sebald’s family, his youth in rural Germany, his academic career, his writing habits, some of his key books, his use of photographs in prose fiction, and much more.Bigsby and Sebald had an obvious rapport that results in revelations on every page. But I’ll just pick one example to quote as a way of urging readers to find the book themselves. Bigsby asks Sebald how, after twenty years of academic writing, he turned to a very different kind of book with the publication of Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo) in 1990. Here’s part of Sebald’s answer:

Increasingly I felt drawn to write in a much more tentative sort of way and I moved from the straight monograph to the essayistic exploration, dealing with my subjects in an elliptical sort of way. But even so, I constantly came up against a borderline where I felt, well if I could go a little bit further it might get very interesting, that is, if I were allowed to make things up.

That temptation to work with very fragmentary pieces of evidence, to fill in the gaps and blank spaces and create out of this a meaning which is greater than that which you can prove, led me to work in a way that wasn’t determined by any discipline. It wasn’t history, it wasn’t literary criticism, it wasn’t sociology, but it was all of these things together.

Then, of course, the other reason was that once you have been in an academic career for twenty years certain chores are given you and your range of freedom becomes restricted. Demands of all kinds are made at the same time as family pressures begin to mount and you feel that at that midway point in your life your personality is being eroded and you must think of measures of self-defence. One of the best means of self-defence, as one knows, is to go into the potting shed and build something that no one understands or no one knows what it is meant to be.

That is how the writing of literary texts began for me.It was an eccentric pastime that no one knew about; not even people in my own house knew what I was doing exactly. I just pottered away and produced these bits…

sebald-reading.jpg W.G. Sebald reading at Literaturhaus Stuttgart, November 19, 2001.

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