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Will Self’s Sebald Lecture

As several readers of Vertigo have mentioned, an “edited” version of Will Self’s January 11, 2010 lecture on W.G. Sebald has been published in the Times Online.  Unfortunately, the article is now behind their paywall. In the piece, Self touches on several of Sebald’s books and a cast of characters that includes Woody Allen, Albert Speer, Alexander Kluge,Bernhard Schlink, Hannah Arendt, and many others.  It’s a complex, dense, thoughtful, broad ranging and controversial speech that is definitely worth reading.  Here are a few quotes:

Sebald is rightly seen as the non-Jewish German writer who through his works did most to mourn the murder of the Jews.

To read Sebald is to be confronted with European history not as an ideologically determined diachronic phenomenon – as proposed by Hegelians and Spenglerians alike – nor as a synchronic one to be subjected to Baudrillard’s postmodern analysis. Rather, for Sebald, history is a palimpsest, the meaning of which can only be divined by rubbing away a little bit here, adding on some over there, and then – most importantly – stepping back to allow for a synoptic view that remains inherently suspect.

In England, Sebald’s one-time presence among us – even if we would never be so crass as to think this, let alone articulate it – is registered as further confirmation that we won, and won because of our righteousness, our liberality, our inclusiveness and our tolerance. Where else could the Good German have sprouted so readily?

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. petebyrne #

    Hi Terry:

    Thanks for the link to the Will Self lecture. Exhibit “A” as to why I continue to visit your site on an almost daily basis. I had not been much of fan of Self, but I now stand corrected.

    Are you familiar with William Vollman’s “Europe Central?” In reading it my thoughts kept turning to Sebald and to V. Grossman’s “Life and Fate.”

    Thanks again.

    Pete Byrne

    January 30, 2010
    • I’ve not read Europe Central. I gave up Vollman after a couple of earlier books, but may give this one a whirl. Thanks!

      January 30, 2010
  2. The online literary magazine Five Dials dedicated an issue to Sebald recently:

    January 31, 2010
  3. Donald Ellis #

    I am stunned at such a blatant articulation of the cry of victory as expressed by Self. We did win, but not because we occupied the moral high-ground but because we could churn out weapons of mass-destruction at a greater rate. In the on-going saga of man’s inhumanity to man we rank right up there with The Third Reich. You haven’t really understood the message of Sebald if this is what you conclude. Hollywood Nazis are not only out of fashion but never existed in the first place. So let’s rejoin the human race.

    February 3, 2010
  4. Donald, it’s true in one way that what Self said there was as crass as he said it was… Of course that’s a disingenuous technique for saying something while not wanting to appear to be saying it.

    But I feel you are at cross purposes to what he’s saying. You’re American, yes? You see, when Americans talk about winning the war, they inevitably refer to the bit of it that was most about them – the war against Japan, the atomic bombs, the D-Day landings, the liberation of the concentration camps. America joined the war late and as a result of Pearl Harbour.

    When British people talk about it, they are talking about resisting Hitler – the Munich agreement, the months of uncertainty, the phoney war, then being bombed daily and everywhere in the Blitz, rationing and shortages and conscription, and living with the constant fear that all of that still might not work. Right now I’m reading a book about Cyril Connolly’s Horizon magazine, which struggled to maintain its paper allowance during the war, because paper was strictly rationed. Its office was bombed, as was Virginia Woolf’s house across the square. Horizon was considered ‘war work’ precisely because it helped to keep culture and the arts going through the dark days; some f its contributors, and subscribers, were soldiers at the front.

    If Britain managed throughout the war to avoid being invaded, it was because of this indomitable spirit and its active assertion of what was being defended – the principles of Britishness – righteousness, liberality, inclusivity, tolerance. I mean, I’d have phrased it differently, but something in the extreme braveness and steadfastness of the British resistance is what Self is getting at here.

    Sebald lived in East Anglia, which is where the North Sea faces towards the Continent, and which still bears the physical signs of the struggle. He was at the cusp, perched if you like on the rim of the world.

    March 9, 2010
  5. Stephen Bardle #

    I recently watched a video of an interview with Sebald filmed in the late 1990s. He said he liked England because it was in a long-time decline, and this had made it a tolerant country. England’s historical decline is extensively surveyed, and located around the time of the first world war in Rings of Saturn, whereas Germany is viewed across his books as a nation which still pursues a specific destiny, a destiny which demands willfully forgetting both the perpetrated and the suffered horrors of the second world war.
    Will Self and the other commentators here mistake tolerance with winning, in other words – tolerance is the loser’s provenance, and it is the world of the winner which Sebald views as threatening humanity.

    July 19, 2011

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