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Posts from the ‘Sebald: Interviews, Profiles, Bios’ Category

Knowing What Happened

Christian Boltanski, from Gymnasium Chases, 1991 (3 photogravures)

In an interview with Christian Scholz, published in the new book Searching for Sebald: Photography after W.G. Sebald, Sebald talks about photographs and their role in his books. At one point he speaks about the experience of looking at family albums that one has not seen for decades.

Normally you’ve already leafed through these albums as a child, in complete naiveté; you had no term for history, no concept of history; you didn’t know anything about the Third Reich; you didn’t know what role your parents might have played in this historical phase, what position they had. You just aimlessly leafed through these things. And then you left them in a drawer without paying further attention. When you pick them up again, lets say as a forty-year old, after a period of twenty-five or twenty years, then the whole thing has something of a negative revelation. Because in the meantime you have learned what history is. You know what happened.

You know what happened. What Sebald is pointing to here is not foreshadowing, the hinting at the outcome. He’s saying that we are implicated in history once we know what happened. That he could never look at his family’s photographs – or at his family – the same once he knew what had happened. (Sebald often suggests that portraits and viewers engage in a visual dialogue.) Sebald uses foreshadowing when he begins The Emigrants with a photograph of a graveyard. But by the end of the book, as the four quiet stories each conclude with their own private nightmares of despair and death, the dead are staring back at us from their photographs.

Who the young women are I do not know. The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera…..the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady and relentless a gaze that I cannot meet it for long.

The visual artist that I immediately think of is Christian Boltanski. While his work is frequently in the form of memorials to victims of the Holocaust, his work is also about memory itself. In 1991, Boltanski made a particularly haunting portfolio of twenty-four photogravures published by Crown Point Press under the title Gymnasium Chases. The images depict the 1931 graduating class of the Gymnasium Chases, a Jewish High School in Vienna. Our frisson as viewers comes partly from foreshadowing the fate that awaits these students as we connect the dots between …Jewish…Vienna…1931. But Boltanski goes beyond relying on us to connect the dots. He smudges around with the portraits until their distinguishing features are encased in shadow. The students smile or stare back at us while we helplessly watch their faces turn to skulls, which makes it that much easier for us to superimpose our own features on the face of death as if we were suddenly able to foreshadow and witness our own death at the same moment.

For me at least, a reaction this powerful seems possible only with photographs. Thanks to a casual reference that Alex Ross made recently on his blog, last night I pulled down a CD to play. Steve Reich’s 1988 piece for string quartet and recorded voices called Different Trains struck me as the musical equivalent of the enterprise that both Sebald and Boltanski were undertaking. Reich’s piece, which is a kind of musical documentary, weaves recorded voices of three Holocaust survivors into the train-like sounds of the strings. Remembering childhood train rides in America between his divorced parents, Reich says: “I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains.” Different Trains is a strong piece, but for me the effect of voices could not compare with the chilling effect of photographs. Maybe this is simply that our culture privileges the visual or maybe it is something deeply rooted in being human.


This is the first of what will be several posts as I slowly – and rather randomly – read Searching for Sebald, the new 632-page book that is a goldmine to anyone interested in Sebald.

Emergence of Memory

Schwartz Emergence of Memory

The novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Seven Stories Press have added a new anthology to the growing shelf of books devoted to W.G. Sebald. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, which came out a few weeks ago, gathers together four previously published articles and five of the elusive interviews that were made with Sebald over the relatively short course (not much more than four years) of his fame, including two interviews which had previously appeared only on radio. This is the first non-scholarly anthology published in English designed to introduce Sebald to a general audience: no footnotes and relatively little jargon, as one would expect from pieces which first saw the light of day in places such as The New Yorker Online, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic.

In each of the five interviews included here the truly remarkable voice of Sebald is laid bare upon the page. One gets a clear sense of the deep intelligence and the wry, self-deprecating humor so modestly displayed and so spontaneous. (For a real treat, go listen to Sebald speak with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm.) Two of the interviews in The Emergence of Memory are made available in printed form for the first time: Eleanor Wachtel’s CBC interview and Silverblatt’s KCRW interview. The interviews conducted by Joseph Cuomo and Arthur Lubow, originally published in The New Yorker Online and The Threepenny Review, respectively, are presented here in expanded versions. Michael Silverblatt gains my vote for the most perceptive reader of Sebald, but I thought Carole Angier’s interview from The Jewish Quarterly vies for the most original piece of writing in the book; she intersperses a traditional interview format with her own astute observations. For whatever reason, Sebald attracted intelligent, well-read, curious, and articulate interlocutors.

Of the five essays here, Ruth Franklin’s Rings of Smoke, from The New Republic, is the outstanding one by a country mile. She discusses most of Sebald’s books and quickly gets to the heart of each one. She is also capable, as Schwartz puts it, of assessing “the risks involved in what she sees as Sebald’s aestheticizing of collective disaster.” Michael Hofmann, on the other hand, set out to be “the dissenting voice,” to quote Schwartz again, but he is a dissenter who seems to have an axe to grind. Hofmann is a translator I admire deeply, but his essay A Chilly Extravagance from Arts and Books, Prospect, betrays a deep misreading of Sebald: “the complete absence of humor, charm, grace, touch is startling,” he complains. I disagree that Sebald lack these traits. I also wonder what theory of literature requires them for greatness? Hofmann is even more startled that Sebald’s books “enjoy any sort of success in England,” suggesting that Sebald’s fans have been “expertly manipulated.” Hofmann, to put it bluntly, is simply the wrong reader for Sebald: “the ‘beauty’ so often reflexively attested to I frankly don’t see.” Scwhartz is correct that Sebald doesn’t have many nay-sayers, but Hofmann’s essay is not the way to redistribute the weight of opinion. The remaining two essays are from writers Tim Parks and Charles Simic. Parks provides a lucid review of Vertigo, but Simic’s piece, Conspiracy of Silence from The New York Review of Books, simply doesn’t hold up well against any of the other selections (how can anyone refer to Jacques Austerlitz as the “hero” of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz?).

The only new piece of writing in The Emergence of Memory is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Introduction, which provides about as good an introduction to Sebald the man and Sebald the writer as one could hope for in less than fifteen pages. It’s a fellow writer’s appreciation for what Sebald accomplished and how he makes it happen on the page.

Baffling classification, [Sebald’s books] take the shape of the author’s consciousness. What unifies them is the narrator’s distilled voice – melancholy, resonant as a voice in a tunnel, witty: the effluvia of their’s author’s inner life. And against all odds, from these stories of exile and decay, the voice wrests a magical exhilaration. Several of the writers included here mentioned the urge to go back and read his books over as soon as they reach the final page. They are not only magnetic, drawing you back. They are evanescent, evaporating as the pages turn.

Schwartz is a perceptive reader and I wish she had written more about Sebald in her own anthology.

The subtitle Conversations with W.G. Sebald initially led me to believe that The Emergence of Memory would exclusively consist of interviews with Sebald. Now that would have made for a great anthology. Instead, we have a hybrid. In her Introduction, Schwartz says what she believes each of these interviews and essays brings to the table, adding that she decided to nake sure the anthology possessed “cogent accounts of almost all of Sebald’s books.” I’m sorry that cogency trumped the better option of an anthology of interviews. By limiting herself to these five interviews from the dozen or so that exist, Schwartz skipped over some terrific contenders that need to be more widely available. I’m especially thinking of the essential interview conducted by Christopher Bigsby (from his book Writers in Conversation with Christopher Bigsby, volume two), a pair of pieces published by Maya Jaggi in The Guardian as a result of a single interview, James Woods’ difficult-to-find interview in the Canadian literary magazine Brick, Toby Green‘s nearly-impossible-to-find interview on website, and Jens Mühling’s interview in Pretext, which goes off in some wonderfully unexpected directions. Ruth Franklin’s fine essay notwithstanding, we would have all been better served with a great gathering of interviews with one of the great voices in literature.

On Noise

In an interview with Toby Green W.G. Sebald reveals the reason he never used a computer: they are noisy.

Sebald: … these days, of course, if you are born in parts of Washington or London, you only have nature in a very reduced form. I’m sure that I sense this particularly because I grew up in such a remote part of Germany, and have felt very much over the last thirty years as if machines have been invading. And with the proliferation of machines has gone a proliferation of noise.

Right now we can hear the traffic outside, the noise of the generator, the aeroplanes above–this proliferation just makes rigorous thought that much more impossible. It is impossible to imagine Wittgenstein thinking out a problem in front of an audience today. Impossible. How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our perceptual abilities?

Sebald: Enormously so. I received a letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn, claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole Bay–off Lowestoft–had been heard in London. Newton heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years. [Note: Lowestoft is nearly 80 miles distant from Cambridge and about 100 miles from London.] How do you feel about the acceleration of this process?

Sebald: Everything is becoming generalised. I am the only person in the University not to have a computer, and that is regarded as quixotic. It is the only sort of eccentricity that is left. But when I first came here, almost every other colleague was slightly eccentric. That was the whole point–people were different, so they could tell you things from their different standpoints. They have all been eliminated.

As we know, Sebald grew up in a tiny village in the Bavarian Alps, where, one imagines, the noise was of a very different order from today’s noise. (Just as an aside, the filmmaker Werner Herzog, another artist fascinated with noise and silence, and who was born two years earlier than Sebald, also grew up in what Wikipedia refers to as a “remote village in Bavaria.” Does anyone know where?)


By sheer coincidence, the next book I read after this interview was Milan Kundera’s fabulous book The Torn Curtain. (Note the great jacket cover featuring a detail from Jean-Etienne Liotard’s painting called Portrait of Maria Adelaide of France in Turkish Costume, 1753.) On pages 120-123, Kundera writes about an obscure Czech novel from the early 1930s by Jaromir John (the title of which would be called something like The Internal-Combustion Monster if it was ever translated into English) in which the main character, a forester, retires to Prague circa 1920, and, suddenly bombarded by the noise of cars and motors, cannot find any place that is quiet enough to live.

I hadn’t thought much about the role of noise in the novel before, but my immediate instinct was to see how Robert Musil dealt with it in The Man Without Qualities, a quintessential novel about modernization in the early twentieth century. And sure enough, the first two pages describe the Vienna of 1913 largely in terms of its noises.

Hundreds of noises wove themselves into a wiry texture of sound with barbs protruding here and there, smart edges running along it and subsiding again, with clear notes splintering off and dissipating. By this noise alone, whose special quality cannot be captured in words, a man returning after years of absence would have been able to tell with his eyes shut that he was back in the Imperial Capital and Royal City of Vienna.

To my knowledge, Sebald never wrote about Musil, which is a shame.

Truth on a Crooked Route: A Hard-to-Find Interview with W.G. Sebald

If it weren’t for a footnote on Christopher Bigsby’s book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory, I probably never would have found an interview between Toby Green and W.G. Sebald , which was conducted shortly after the Harvill publication of Vertigo late in 1999. Green is the author of a number of books, including Inquisition, Thomas More’s Magician, and Saddled with Darwin. He also reviews books for’s website.

In the interview, which is called The Questionable Business of Writing, after a phrase in The Emigrants, Sebald talks about motivations for writing, Kafka, guilt, the sublime, his early influences Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and why he was the only person in his university not to use a computer. At the end of the interview, Green asks Sebald about the use of photographs in his books. Finally, coming back to the way you put your books together, I wanted to ask you what the role of the pictorial element was in them?

Sebald: I have always had a thing about old photographs. The older pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world where the departed are. A black-and-white photograph is a document of an absence, and is almost curiously metaphysical. I have always hoarded them. They represent a sense of otherness. The figures in photographs have been muted, and they stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something.

They have become part of my working process, part of the way in which I declare my position. Although I try to stay as anonymous as possible in the text, at the same time I’m anxious to declare my position. I don’t think one can now attempt to write a book which hasn’t got that notion of relativity in it. And the photographs fulfill this function for you?

Sebald: Yes, because they are part of the process. They act as a token of authenticity– but they can be deduced, forged or purloined. And of course that in turn throws up one of the central problems of fiction writing, which is that of legitimacy and the arrival at the truth on a crooked route. This is why “vertigo” in German has a double meaning–schwindel in German means “swindle”. What right do you have to write about any of these things? Have you been there, and felt these things for yourself?

Sebald’s Voice

Max Ferber CD Cover

Audio CD
There are a couple of ways to listen to W.G. Sebald speaking or reading.  Sebald personally recorded only one audio CD during his lifetime – Max Ferber (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn Verlag, 2000). In this double compact disc set, Sebald reads in German from the “Max Ferber” section of Die Ausgewanderten.

Max Ferber CD Insides

KCRW Interview
Sebald can also be heard in a superb interview conducted on December 6, 2001 by Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW radio’s exceptional “Bookworm” program. In this thirty-minute interview, held only eight days before the automobile accident that killed Sebald, he talks at length about his debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he feels was practically the only German-language author to have not compromised his writing. To be morally compromised, Sebald says, ultimately leads to being aesthetically “insufficient.” Sebald describes 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 uses to some extent in Austerlitz. It is a great pleasure to listen to Sebald’s voice and his immaculate, slightly obsolete English responses to Silverblatt’s intelligent observations and questions.  Click here to go to the Sebald interview on Bookworm.

Sebald at 92nd Street Y

Reading at 92nd Street Y
On October 15, 2001, a few weeks before the radio interview mentioned above, Sebald gave a public reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which can be seen on YouTube.  The video is 49:23 long.  Sebald introduces his just-published book Austerlitz for about five minutes and then reads for twenty-five minutes from the section in which Jacques Austerlitz and Marie travel to the spa town of Marienbad.  That selection is not only a very important part of the book, it’s an interesting one to watch Sebald read since it contains segments in both French and German and so we hear Sebald actually reading in three different languages.

That night at the 92nd Street Y, Sebald shared the stage with Susan Sontag and so they are seen sharing the question-and-answer period.  Sontag is asked about her admiration for Nabokov and to elaborate on the consequences of the controversial essay she wrote for The New Yorker immediately after 9/11.

Sebald is shown answering two questions.  The first has to do with his use of photographs.  He explains that often the photographs precede the writing as was the case with the cover image for Austerlitz, which was “the point of departure” for the whole book.   Sebald says that photographs “hold up the flow of discourse” in the text, slowing down the reader’s path down the “negative gradient” of a book.  All books must come to an end, therefore the book is inherently an “apocalyptic structure.”  Photographs also serve as an affirmation to the reader that the story is based in truth.  But, at the same time, “pictures can be used as means of forgery” and Sebald confesses to have tampered with “not a few” in his books and he admits that he uses photographs to “develop complex games of hide and seek.”  Sebald notes that historic photographs “demand” that the reader address the lost lives they represent.

The second question posed to Sebald had to do with translation and why he uses a translator.  In the midst of his response, Sebald mentions that authors occasionally have to “intervene” with a translator and he hints – not for the first time – that he had to do so himself.  As to why he uses a translator, he offered two reasons.  He doesn’t completely trust his English and, because feels he is running out of time, he doesn’t want to spend his days translating himself.  He says he “sees the horizon.”  (Two months later he was dead.)

The final question was addressed to both Sontag and Sebald: What is their favorite book of the ones they’ve published.  Sontag: “the last two novels” Volcano Lover and In America.  Sebald’s answer is to say that “books written look like abandoned children” and so he cannot pick a favorite.  But there are certain rare sections of his books that are his favorites, namely those pages that came to him “without hesitation”.  Here, Sebald talks a bit about the “Il ritorno in patria” section of Vertigo, which flowed from pencil to pad.

[This post updated August 2013.]