Key Sebald Interview Now Available In Print
On December 6, 2001, only eight days before the automobile accident that killed him, W.G. Sebald sat down in Los Angeles for a revealing thirty-minute interview with Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW radio’s exceptional program Bookworm. Among other topics, Sebald talked about his debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he felt was practically the only German-language author who had never compromised his writing. To be morally compromised, Sebald said, ultimately leads to being aesthetically “insufficient.” Sebald described Bernhard’s style as a “periscopic form of writing” in that he only tells you what he sees – nothing more, nothing less – a style Sebald used to some extent in Austerlitz. It’s one of the best interviews Sebald gave and now it’s available in a newly published volume Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt, published by The Song Cave. A brilliant mind and an astute reader, Silverblatt is one of the most intelligent interviewers in literature. The volume includes Silverblatt’s conversations with a very impressive group of writers: John Ashbery, John Berger, Octavia Butler, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes, William H. Gass, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, W.G. Sebald, Stephen Sondheim, Susan Sontag, and David Foster Wallace. Although Bookworm stopped production in 2022, its back catalog of broadcasts can be listened to here. Writing on the Los Angeles Review of Books website, Chris Via says: “The depth and breadth of Silverblatt’s literary knowledge is, of course, the stuff of legend.” In his review of the book he discusses each one of the interviews, most of which were multi-part endeavors. Here’s what Via says about Silverblatt’s conversation with Sebald.
One of the great pleasures of reading W. G. Sebald is his style, so it is deeply fulfilling that much of Silverblatt’s conversation with the author is dedicated to examining his prose, tracing its influences back to 19th-century German literature, and connecting it to Sebald’s appreciation for naturalist and scientific writing. At the end of this spectacular discussion, Silverblatt summarizes their talk in a breathtaking passage that bears quoting in full:
It was once explained to me that there was in German prose something called das Glück im Winkel, happiness in a corner. [I think that your radical contribution to prose is to bring] the sensibility of tininess, miniaturization, […] to the enormity of the post-concentration camp world. [So] that a completely or nearly forgotten prose tone is being brought into the postmodern century, and that the extraordinary echo, almost the immediate abyss that opens between the prose and subject, is what happens, that automatically, ghosts, echoes, trance states—it’s almost as if you are allowing the world to howl into the seashell of this prose style.
For me, this captures the essence of what sets Bookworm above any other program about books: Silverblatt’s manifold powers as a reader. He recalls a concept from German prose that most of us don’t know; he poetically situates Sebald’s work historically and highlights its idiosyncrasies; and he reconnects their earlier discussion about the ghostliness of the prose and the shrouded, foggy atmosphere of the pages, using imagery that hasn’t left me since I first heard it. This is why listening to (or reading) each of these conversations is like following a sacred commentary on the pleasures of reading a great book.
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