The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald (Part 1)
Vertigo is pleased to be able to share the following interview with W.G. Sebald conducted by Jens Mühling in 2000, when Mühling was an MA student in comparative literature at the University of East Anglia. Although not a student of Sebald’s, Mühling thought that an article on the teaching of creative writing might be of interest to a German audience, where such classes are relatively unheard of. Ultimately, however, the interview was never published in Germany, but first saw the light of day in Pretext 7 (Spring/Summer 2003), a literary magazine formerly published at the University of East Anglia. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. This is Part 1 of 3.
The Permanent Exile of W.G. Sebald
© Jens Mühling
On 14 December 2001, German novelist Winfried Georg Sebald, who had spent the greater part of his life as an emigrant in England, died in a car crash. Observers of that year’s Christmas festivities in Sebald’s native country couldn’t help noticing that the writer’s death had come, at least for the German publishing industry, as something of a Christmas gift. Every last book store’s Christmas decoration featured Sebald’s works. The literary press unequivocally named Sebald author of the year. A friend told me that his father, a middle-aged German physician, had received four, and given away three, Sebald novels as Christmas presents.
And yet, in spite of Sebald’s sudden celebrity, his tragic death could by no means be called that of a celebrated German author. Even though he had stuck to his native language throughout his entire career as a writer, Sebald had always remained peculiarly absent from Germany’s literary world. Spatially removed – he had been living in Norwich for more than thirty years when he died – Sebald had led a rather secluded life, and had shown little inclination to participate in any kind of literary scene, let alone the German one.
This reluctance on the part of Sebald, the person, to promote the books of Sebald, the author, resulted in a peculiar situation. In Germany, his books were initially well reviewed, but otherwise went largely unnoticed. When translated into English, however, his works quickly became surprisingly successful, especially in the USA, where Susan Sontag went so far as to propose Sebald as a possible answer to her rhetorical question ‘Is literary greatness still possible?’. To the German public, Sebald’s success in the English-speaking world came as a bit of a mystery, as no one could quite imagine how his peculiar German style could possibly be translated into English – the slowness of it, its longwinded sentences, its abundance of archaisms, its overall reminiscence of the nineteenth century.
Obviously the reception of Sebald’s work in the English-speaking world and in Germany was fundamentally different. In the English translations, the foreignness of Sebald’s style seemed natural and self-evident – after all, Sebald was an emigrant writing about emigrants. In German, where his style felt no less outlandish – as it seemed to date from a bygone era – Sebald’s books created a kind of awkwardness, as readers were unsure whether to regard his way of writing as headstrong traditionalism or self-conscious anachronism. Either way, Sebald’s success in the Anglo-Saxon world did not go unnoticed in Germany: in the years before his death, his novels finally started to find their way into the book shops, and Sebald received the prestigious Heinrich Heine Award.
Was Sebald a German author? He wrote in German, but the use to which he put his native tongue was so different from any contemporary form of the language that this can hardly count as a criterion. Was Sebald an English author? ‘I have lived here for thirty years,’ he said shortly before his death, ‘and yet I do not feel in the least at home here.’ It seems as if there was no such thing as a home country for Sebald anymore, only, as for the emigrants in his novels, the loss of home countries. It seems as if Sebald had emigrated, permanently, into his books. Thus it would be wrong to interpret the above quote in the sense that Sebald did not enjoy living in Norwich. He had been a teacher at the University of East Anglia for many years, was Founding Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, and among his students and colleagues, Max – as Sebald called himself in England – is remembered with warmth.
His role as a teacher of Creative Writing classes, it may be added, was another factor which estranged Sebald from Germany’s literary world, as such workshops are a phenomenon largely unheard of and often frowned upon in Germany. It was chiefly with this background that I interviewed Sebald in 2000, about his experiences with teaching aspiring authors, and about his view of the differences between England and Germany. A conversation which might help us, now, to understand a little bit better where this permanent emigrant saw himself.
The following is a transcript of an interview with W. G. Sebald which took place in the writer’s UEA office in April 2000. Sebald had agreed to pick me up at the campus cafeteria, as I did not know where his office was located. As we made our way across the campus, he dropped a facetious remark about the astonishing number of people who roamed the corridors in what seemed like theatrical poses of soliloquy – it took me a moment to realise that he was referring to students who were talking into their mobile phones. This seemed to confirm certain rumours I had heard on campus, according to which Sebald was not exactly the most ardent admirer of technological innovation. Thus on entering his office, the absence of a computer came as no big surprise. However, it took me more than a little courage to ask Sebald whether he minded if I taped our conversation – he didn’t, and his smile seemed to indicate that he found humour in my scruples.
Our conversation started – for no particular reason – with an anecdote about a jar of pickled gherkins that was standing on his desk. He told me it was a special, Russian, variety of pickles, which had been sent all the way from France by a friend of his. Intended as a birthday present, it had arrived with considerable delay, which led Sebald to assume that the peculiar weight and size of the parcel must have caused the British customs authorities to suspect that it was a bomb. He insisted that I try one, noting that vinegar was “good for all kinds of things”. In my otherwise perfectly factual notes I later found the cryptic entry “weird comb. of sweet & sour”.
Our conversation then turned to Sebald’s role as a teacher of Creative Writing students. Sebald emphasised that he saw warning aspiring authors about the specific difficulties encountered by professional writers as one of his most important tasks as a teacher.
SEBALD: Being a writer is by no means an easy profession. It is full of difficulties, full of obstacles. For a start, there is the psychology of the author, which is not a simple one. There are these situations when suddenly nothing seems to work anymore, when you feel unable to say anything. In such cases it is very helpful if someone can tell you that this happens to everybody, and show you how one might deal with such problems. In these situations it is very often the case that people neglect the research aspect. Every writer knows that sometimes the best ideas come to you while you are reading something else, say, something about Bismarck, and then suddenly, somewhere between the lines, your head starts drifting, and you arrive at the ideas you need. This research, this kind of disorderly research, so to speak, is the best way of coping with these difficulties. If you sit in front of a blank sheet of paper like a frightened rabbit, things won’t change. In such situations you just have to let it be for a while.
Another important psychological problem occurs the very moment a publisher shows interest in your first manuscript. That is a most vulnerable situation for a writer. The publisher presents you with some contract, and you will sign anything, without thinking about the consequences, if only it helps to get your book published. It is very important to remind students that there are certain rules for such contracts – not many, but there are some. For example, you should never sign a contract for life, you should only sell the rights for the hardback edition, and so on. If you sign that standard contract that is used in England and Germany and anywhere else today, you will lose lots of money, which is something that few people know about. If you become a dentist, the way you earn your money is all regulated. But if you become a writer, you have to sort it all out for yourself.