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The Literary Award at the Bottom of the Wannsee

After a brief hiatus I’ve picked up Saturn’s Moons again and I just read the three essays that focus on W.G. Sebald’s time as a professor at the University of East Anglia: Gordon Turner’s “At the University: W.G. Sebald in the Classroom,” Luke Williams’ “A Watch on Each Wrist: Twelve Seminars with W.G. Sebald,” and Florian Radvan’s “The Crystal Mountain of Memory: W.G. Sebald as a Classroom Teacher.”  Here is one of the more intriguing excerpts from Turner’s essay, where he writes about Sebald’s general reticence to talk about his life as a writer to most of his colleagues and students.

It is a common perception among colleagues and friends that where his writing was concerned Max played his cards very close to his chest, revealing, if anything, very little, and, if ever, very often after the event.  Even though we knew that Max would occasionally submit pieces for publication in German periodicals and literary magazines, successes such as the publication of Nach der Natur (After Nature) in 1988, as well as his being shortlisted for the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1990, were communicated to us casually in typical throwaway lines.  A case in point is the story which he recounted on his return to UEA shortly after receiving the Johannes-Bobrowski-Medaille in Berlin in June 1994.  At one of our regular convivial gatherings in the German Sector office, Max described how, early in the morning after the award ceremony in Berlin, he had made his way down to the shores of the Wannsee.  He had with him what he dubbed the “indescribably hideous” plaque which he had received at the ceremony.  Unable to contemplate ever being able to find houseroom for it, Max, an aesthete through and through, had hurled it into the water, where, he assured his incredulous colleagues and to his evident glee, it had sunk without a trace.

Turner pulls together the recollections of some of Sebald’s students and one of the conclusions he draws is that, as Sebald’s “reputation grew as a writer, so he felt able to express his opinions about literature and other subjects considerably more vehemently in seminars and lectures.”

Turner also appends reproductions of several of the reading lists that Sebald distributed for various classes, including his “Essential reading” for a late 1970s or early 1980s seminar on twentieth century European drama, the nine films to be examined for his 1984 seminar on “German Cinema in the Twenties,” twenty-four books to read for his 1993 class “Post-War German Literature – From 1945 to 1968,” the eleven books to read for a 1996/7 class on “Major Trends in European Fiction,” and so on.  These make for fascinating reading.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ransmayr and Dinesen’s names are misspelled?

    January 11, 2012
    • That’s exactly right. Sebald (or someone in his department) misspelled these names. It might be hard to tell from my post, but the page I reproduce is a photograph of the original typed course listing.



      January 11, 2012
      • Prof. Richard Sheppard #

        PS. Max told me the same story about the J-B-Medaille, but claimed to have thrown it into the Wannsee at the point where Heinrich von Kleist committed suicide!! I’ve no idea whether that detail is true, but if anyone writing a Ph.D. on Max has a metal detector and small boat, there’s a very nice bit of watery research to be done in Berlin.

        January 26, 2012
  2. Fascinating. Ransmayr? Really? And Gargoyles is a bizarrely unrepresentative pick for Bernhard.

    Happy to see Sarraute there, and would not have expected it. The Hansen is good too.

    But the Borgen is a bizarre pick, and there is absolutely no Spanish, Italian, or Eastern European presence. Those omissions seem huge. Were they not representative?

    January 12, 2012
    • Well I suppose the danger of letting Sebald’s reading lists into the world without any context is that we don’t know why these particular books were chosen or what he intended to teach about them.

      January 12, 2012
      • Jo #

        Indeed so, the course is evidently a co-taught one and as such reflects the specialist interests of the colleagues involved and the languages and literatures taught and studied in the department at the time (French, German, Scandinavian). As the ‘list of seminars taught’ which precedes the lists shows, this was part of an MA programme, so ‘coverage’ and ‘representation’ were less likely to be pressing issues.
        As for the typos, it seems extremely unlikely that Max Sebald would have typed it himself, computers were well on the march by 1996!

        January 13, 2012
      • Sebald was teaching the German language books. Possible he had no input into the other selections at all. Ransmayr was really big at the time; perhaps that was enough to get his book on the syllabus. Nonetheless, I would not expect a syllabus like this from Coetzee, for example.

        January 14, 2012
    • Prof. Richard Sheppard #

      The omission is probably because, in those days, Spanish, Italian and Eastern European Literature were not much taught at UEA

      February 24, 2016
  3. Prof. Richard Sheppard #

    To the above points: A secretary would have typed out the programme as Max didn’t use a computer – hence the typos. No-one at UEA in those days taught Iberian or South American literature and Spanish was taught only as a subsidiary language.

    January 26, 2012

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