Conversation with Uwe Schütte
Uwe Schütte is a Reader in German at Aston University, where he has taught since 1999. He has a PhD. from the University of East Anglia, where he studied under W.G. Sebald. His new book about the poetry of W.G. Sebald has just been published by Edition Isele in Eggingen, Germany, at the very affordable price of 16 Euros.
Vertigo: Your new book Figurationen is a study of Sebald’s poetical writings. Why did you decide to write about this aspect of Sebald’s work?
Schütte: The book actually came about by chance. For a long while I meant to write an essay on Über das Land und das Wasser (2008), the collection of Sebald’s poetry edited by Sven Meyer, but I never really got round to doing it. Then the opportunity arose to present a paper on Sebald’s poetry at a conference in Cardiff, Wales. I actually couldn’t attend due to illness but nevertheless wrote the essay for inclusion in the conference proceedings volume.
Taking a closer look at the poems, which I had so far only considered to be appendixes to the prose texts, I discovered that they have considerable merits independent of the prose books. In connection with my research, I came across some articles by the Swedish scholar Axel Englund which contained incisive close readings of several poems that stimulated my interest further. Another factor were the often eye-opening explanatory notes provided by Iain Galbraith, the translator and editor of Across the Water and The Land (2011), the English version of the poetry collection.
That in turn led me to also look more closely at the micro poetry written around the time of Austerlitz, which appeared in the collections For Years Now (2001) and Unerzählt (2003), which was published in English as Unrecounted in 2004. I had previously disregarded these small texts as I felt that they seemed too casual in their brevity and also made an odd postscript to Sebald’s œuvre. However, a closer examination of the poems – again – revealed them to be far more meaningful and relevant than initially had assumed.
Having completed the two pieces, I realized that I only needed to add a chapter on Nach der Natur (1988), published in English as After Nature in 2002, to create a book that would cover all aspects of Sebald’s poetical œuvre. Edition Isele was very receptive to the idea of a study on the poetry, so a deal was quickly struck and the book appeared a mere six months after I had started work on the first article.
Vertigo: It’s my impression that Nach der Natur has received more critical attention than Sebald’s other books of poetry – especially the micro poems – in part because it is such an autobiographical book. So let’s talk more about the micro poems and the other late poetry. How do you see the micro poems fitting into Sebald’s oeuvre? Are they autobiographical in any way?
Schütte: They are autobiographical only in the sense that they display Sebald’s pronounced idiosyncrasy. The micro poems in that sense fit very much into his work for the very reason that they counteract common expectations and public demands. Sebald never really wanted to comply with these. My personal guess is that after Austerlitz he sought to do something completely different. And he did. You have to bear in mind that the very last book published during his lifetime is not the big novel but the “below-the-radar” collaboration with Tess Jaray.
Vertigo: It’s curious that both of these books of micro poems are collaborations with artists. Unerzählt was done with Sebald’s long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp and For Years Now was done with a British artist, Tess Jaray. Why do you think Sebald wanted to do these books as collaborations?
Schütte: The plan for the collaboration with Tripp actually harked back many years, the pair just never really got round getting it done. At least not during Sebald’s lifetime. Given the importance he placed on the combination of pictures and text it was only a logical step to enter into a collaborative (side) project of this sort. As it turned out then, both books were essentially the product of the respective artists with Sebald only supplying texts – although they are now of course perceived as original Sebald books featuring illustrations by someone else.
Vertigo: Did you interview Tripp or Jaray? If so, what was that like?
Schütte: Tripp (like Sebald) is a digitalophobe. He was terribly difficult to get hold of; I sent postcards that were returned with “addressee unknown” and rang him numerous times, leaving messages, but all to no avail. I got hold of him though after several weeks of trying and we talked on the phone for an hour or so. Jaray was easier. She is on email and responded quickly. I just had to catch the train from Birmingham to London one sunny Saturday in June 2013 to visit her in her new studio in Camden. She was terribly helpful, providing me with lots of highly relevant information on the book. She shared her correspondence with Sebald, too, and I quote from that frequently in the book. Also, she let me have a scan of the autograph of Sebald’s favorite poem that I wanted to have reproduced on the cover of the book. Unfortunately, my publisher decided against that, opting for a rather bland design.
Vertigo: Which poem is that?
Schütte: It’s the one about his beloved grandfather, who died when Sebald was a boy aged 11. This traumatic event, I argue, was the key factor for his melancholic disposition and his obsession with reaching out into the realm of the dead, being far more important than the guilt he felt for the crimes committed by the Nazis. In the German original, the poem just says the smell of the poet’s writing paper reminds him of the smell of woodchips in a coffin. In the English version, Sebald makes the crucial and revealing addition that the coffin he talks about is his granddad’s. To me, it appears as if he needed to write in the foreign language to be able to openly talk about the very origin of his life-long sadness.
of my writing paper
puts me in mind
of the woodshavings
in my grandfather’s
[from For Years Now: Poems by W.G. Sebald/Images by Tess Jaray, Short Books, 2001]
Vertigo: What did you discover when you studied the Sebald Archive in Marbach?
Schütte: A truly vast number of unpublished poems, particularly from the nineties! Many of them were – uncharacteristically for Sebald – in a handwriting that was difficult to read. Fortunately, I met a young Sebald scholar from the US called Melissa Etzler who had already researched the vast majority of the poems and showed me her transcriptions, which was very helpful. These days, it is difficult for me to travel to the archive as it is located in a pretty remote and provincial part of South-West Germany – an irony that Sebald would, of course, have liked a lot. So when I finally managed to get to Marbach, the book was nearly completed. Realizing how much unpublished stuff there is, both in English and German, I contemplated abandoning my original book for a while and thought of starting a new one just on the late and unpublished poetry.
Vertigo: In 2011, you published W.G. Sebald : Einführung in Leben und Werk (W.G. Sebald: Introduction to his Life & Works) (Stuttgart: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht). What is the relationship between these two books on Sebald?
Schütte: This general introduction was very much the preparatory exercise for the important project that should finally see the light this year, I hope – a major study of Sebald’s critical writings called Interventionen. Literaturkritik als Widerspruch bei W.G. Sebald (Interventions. Criticism as Contradiction in the Works of W.G. Sebald). It will run to some 700 pages and comprehensively cover the entirety of his non-literary texts. When I wrote the introduction in 2010, I primarily saw it as a way to re-read all prose books and to acquaint myself with the (often pretty dismal) criticism on Sebald; also, I assumed that there would be some sort of commemoration going on around the tenth anniversary of his death in the German papers. Surprisingly, or not, that wasn’t the case. Sebald is truly adored by his readership but still little liked by cultural establishment in Germany. Quite the reverse of the all-encompassing adoration in the Anglophone world. Many important critics as well as highly-regarded writers (such Günter Grass) and a whole bunch of academics have not forgiven him for breaking the cozy consensus by his vitriolic attacks on celebrated figureheads of German post-war literature such as Alfred Andersch, Jurek Becker and others.
I am exploring these and other issues in Interventionen and, to return to your question, I perceive Figurationen very much as a companion volume to the big monograph on the critical writings – both books aim to shed light on neglected areas of Sebald’s œuvre. Don’t forget that he published his first poems in 1964 and his first academic monograph in 1969. Poetry and critical texts, which he then continued to write over the course of nearly four decades, are the background from which his prose texts developed during the comparatively short period he produced his celebrated prose books.
Vertigo: Can we expect more publications by you on Sebald once Interventionen has appeared?
Schütte: I am afraid so. Just as Sebald predicted when I first mentioned that I would like to do a PhD. with him in order to pursue an academic career, the situation of German studies in the UK has much deteriorated, constantly eating away at academic freedom and imposing misguided bureaucratic mechanisms to demonstrate the relevance and so-called “impact” of one’s research. I am under pressure to increasingly publish in English and have already started to work on a contribution to the “Writers and Their Work” series by Northcote Publishers, due to appear later this year or in early 2015. It is not a translation of my German general introduction but rather written from scratch with an English-speaking audience in mind. It will be my fourth book on Sebald in as many years – and I guess I should then declare a moratorium on Sebald research for the time being…