Saturn’s Moons – Conversations with Sebald
W.G. Sebald, Self-Portrait, Manchester, 1967 [back cover image from Saturn’s Moons]
I’m back after a brief vacation that was highlighted by the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Alban Berg’s powerful and darkly comic opera Wozzeck. I continue to dip into the important new book Saturn’s Moons: W.G. Sebald – A Handbook, edited by Jo Catling an Richard Hibbett. I just finished a short section entitled Three Conversations with W.G. Sebald, which includes what must be one of the earliest Sebald interviews as well as one of the last public conversations he held before his death. Each of these transcribed (and, in one case, translated) conversations shows us a Sebald who was extraordinarily articulate and nuanced about his own inspirations, methods, and goals as a writer. Here are just a few of the gems to be found.
Statements by Sebald from “Echoes from the Past: A Conversation with Piet de Moor,” published May 6, 1992:
I am not a littérateur in the true sense of the word. As a 21-year old I wrote a novel. When I read it out to my girlfriend, she fell asleep. So I thought I’d better just give up.
I myself work like a painter who has to consider how big to make the frame. The painter’s craft has always fascinated me. I envy painters because of the craftsmanship that is involved in their art.
As a matter of fact there is an interesting parallel between the solving of a crime and the way in which memory works. You try to shed light on something in your mind. Somewhere, pieces of evidence must be lying around under the carpet or in the loft or in other hidden places that offer explanations for the course of your own life. That is why writing is also a forensic activity.
Statement by Sebald from “Lost in Translation: A Conversation with Jon Cook,” held at the University of East Anglia, February 9, 1999:
I’m not very confident of my ability to write English…If you look at cases where a transition happened from one language into another, it was usually forced by circumstances like in the case of Nabokov…The only exception that comes to my mind is Beckett, and he really is an exception because he was a fine-tuning micro-engineer…
Statements by Sebald from “In This Distant Place: A Conversation with Steve Wasserman,” held at the Los Angeles Public Library, October 17, 2001:
Photographs are something I’ve always collected in a random sort of way that began much earlier than my attempts at writing prose fiction. And when I began to write, somehow it became clear to me that they, these images, were part of the material that I had stored up. And so I, right from the beginning, somehow saw no reason for excluding them from the actual process of writing. It seemed to me unquestionable right from the beginning that they had a right to be there, as very frequently they provided the starting points or they came from the photo albums of the people I had talked to – sometimes over long periods of time – and summed up experiences and parts of these people’s lives which would have been very, very difficult to convey in words only.
As a small boy I looked through [my parent’s] albums and I thought there was nothing particularly either exciting or remarkable in them and turned the pages without being disturbed. But when I revisited these albums many years later the images revealed a different quality because I had comprehended by then the historical context. I asked myself why there were pages on which some of the pictures were missing and only the glue was left behind and [where] perhaps a kind of jocular caption had been written underneath but which made no sense without the image.
…certainly it an almost biological fact that forgetting is what keeps us going…So naturally, there is a curious dialectic between forgetting and remembering, and they’re not just two opposed moral categories, one positive and the other negative, but they’re interlaced in an extremely complicated way and in a different fashion in each individual.