W.G.Sebald

 

1944-2001

1944-2001

 

‘Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice.’

T.S.Eliot. ‘Ash Wednesday’

 

With W.G.Sebald’s death his books changed essentially. At the time (the 11th of December 2001) I had read only two of them: The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I was intending to read the others – those that had been translated into English and published: The Emigrants and Austerlitz. This latter I had received in proof from Simon Prosser, my editor at Hamish Hamilton, who a few months before had also become Sebald’s editor. I started reading Austerlitz almost as soon as it arrived, but stopped after fifty or so pages. Why? The answer to this has, I think, a great deal to do with what has changed about Sebald’s books with his death.

I began to make some notes on this subject in a wide wooden shelter overlooking the beach at Southwold. My intention, on setting out on the walk to town that morning had been to go to Southwold’s Sailors’ Reading Room, and work there on a Sebald essay which had, for some time, been weighing heavily upon my mind. But the weather of the day was so perfect that I couldn’t force myself to contemplate going inside. And so I ended up stranded halfway between Sebald’s two most important Southwold locations: Gunhill and the Reading Room.

Sitting in the shelter reminded me of an anecdote from Graham Greene’s autobiography. It is so choice as to be almost unbelieveable, but I present it here as I remember Greene telling it. Once, upon sitting down in a small and very dark shelter overlooking the sea in Brighton (I think Greene may have been there researching the novel that was to become Brighton Rock), Greene found that he was not alone. A voice spoke from the corner of the shelter, out from the gloom: ‘I’m Old Moore…’ When Greene did not immediately reply, the voice added: ‘You know… the Almanack.’ Now, that is the anecdote, to the best I can recollect it. I know that it’s in one of Greene’s two autobiographies (A Sort of Life and Ways of Escape) but I do not know which. If I were Sebald, this uncertainty would not be allowed to last – other kinds of uncertainty can endure, but not those of textual or historical reference.

During his lifetime, I had admired Sebald’s writing, but it made me feel anxious. After I read both The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, I came up with a phrase for what I felt he was doing. (I should apologise for this in advance; it isn’t flattering, either to myself or to Sebald.) I called his books ‘academic porn’. The reasoning behind this was fairly simple: whilst writing his non-academic books, Sebald was able to indulge himself in the kind of unbounded and unfounded speculation that academics can usually only fantasize about in the privacy of their studies. A good example of this comes in the first section of The Rings of Saturn. Sebald is writing of Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, reproduced across two pages, in which a Dr Tulp is shown surrounded by surgeons; the dissection from which this famous image derives took place in Waaggebouw; Sebald writes, ‘It is somehow odd that Dr Tulp’s colleagues are not looking at Kindt’s body, that their gaze is directed just past it to focus on the open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being, such as envisaged by the enthusiastic amateur anatomist René Descartes, who was also, so it is said, present that January morning in the Waaggebouw.’

Sitting in the shelter, making notes, I was harsher on this passage (remembered) than I should have been. I wrote: ‘In The Rings of Saturn [Sebald] indulges himself in a way that would shame even the crummiest biographer; two major historical figures were in a city at the same time, they both shared an interest in anatomy, therefore it is almost inevitable that they both attended X’s lectures. This is a very low-level parlour game; fascinating and almost as meaningless as Virtual History.’ Sebald’s tendency, it seemed to me at that time, of allowing himself to get away with the academically discreditable, ‘so it is said‘, overtook all his work: the introduction of the first person (the exquisitely miserablist narrrator), the emphasis on human temporality (of both the narrator and his subjects), the centrality of the haphazard (as both subject-giver and investigational method) – all these distinctive characteristics seemed weaknesses.

When challenged that a grocer’s son from Stratford couldn’t possibly have written Shakespeare’s plays, G.B.Shaw replied that, on the contrary, they were exactly the sort of plays one would expect a grocer’s son from Stratford to write. Sebald’s books, I believed, were exactly what you might envisage a German academic’s busman’s holiday as being. The porn-y aspect was, I thought, also what made Sebald appeal so strongly to borderline-academic writers such as Susan Sontag – (who loved him up with a famous quote). He was violating some of the same decorums as her. His getting away with it gave these almost-academics license, a feeling of running-naked-along-the-beach freedom.

Imagine that – in Southwold.

After it arrived through the post, I felt no urgency about reading the proof of Austerlitz. It might be nice, I thought, to have read it before it came out; to have formed an opinion before the reviewers had formed theirs – not to speak of the public. But Austerlitz appeared to me then as merely another of Sebald’s books. Lawrence Norfolk, with whom I’d discussed Sebald both before and after reading him, had told me that (in his experience), for most people the first book by Sebald they read always remained their favourite. With each further publication, the book by Sebald became a book by Sebald and then merely another book by Sebald – one, now, of a series that would continue until he ceased publishing. In total there would be twelve, perhaps, or fourteen. (The fact that Sebald’s books did not come out properly chronologically in England added to the earlier feeling that each was not just another.) On his death, Austerlitz became if not Sebald’s last book (we English were playing catch-up again) then his last published book. (There were other prose works to come. The Luftwaffe book, The Natural History of Destruction. Also, a book of poetry, After Nature. Also a rumoured screenplay about Emmanuel Kant.) The fact there was now a definite and already-reached limit to Sebald’s production was, I thought, of definite benefit to those books that remained. This is the thing that changed in them with Sebald’s death: each became instantly more characteristic of itself. Their serial nature corroded – the next few books would not be anothers, they would be uniquenesses.

Why is this important? Well, Sebald’s work – on one’s first encounter with it – is so strange in tone that each further book can only diminish from the reader’s sense of that original book’s singularity. (This, I think, was Lawrence Norfolk’s point.) There were comparisons to be made: was Vertigo better or worse than The Emigrants? With merely one book in print, the question had been more: What the fucking hell is this? Where can we possibly place it? Sebald is a librarian’s nightmare. He could legitimately be shelved under FICTION, HISTORY, ART HISTORY, AUTOBIOGRAPHY, TRAVEL WRITING, PHILOSOPHY and LITERARY CRITICISM. There was, I was sure, some quality about Sebald’s writing which made it amazingly addictive. Perhaps because, unlike so many of the other proses out there, it so resolutely didn’t button-hole the reader. But the first book one read was more addictive than those subsequent; the hit was less each time.

In The Rings of Saturn Sebald depicts himself as taking a coastal walk – his rough itinerary includes Southwold. As is usual with him, his perambulations lead to thoughts historical. Here is one such moment of transition (I feel like saying ascension) from the diaristic to the elegiac: ‘Footsore and weary as I was after my long walk from Lowestoft, I sat down on a bench on the green called Gunhill and looked out on the tranquil sea, from the depths of which the shadows were now rising. Everyone who had been out for an evening stroll was gone. I felt as if I were in a deserted theatre, and I should not have been surprised if a curtain had suddenly risen before me and on the proscenium I had beheld, say, the 28th of May 1672 – that memorable day when the Dutch fleet appeared offshore from out of the drifting mists, with the bright morning light behind it, and opened fire on the English ships in Sole Bay.’ There follow three and a half pages describing the Battle of Sole Bay; then comes: ‘Just as these things have always been beyond my understanding so too I found it impossible to believe, as I sat on Gunhill in Southwold that evening, that just one year earlier I had been looking across to England from a beach in Holland.’ Now, these sentences, or more accurately these kinds of sentences – parsing the academe – are, for me, the most fascinating in Sebald’s writing. (I mean so it is said, and on the proscenium I had beheld, say, the 28th of May 1672 and so too I found it impossible to believe.) They are where the feebleness of his transitions reveals itself as extreme, inventive daring.

Yet the most banal part of me, upon reading this passage, would like an answer to the simple question – When Sebald sat on that bench, at that hour, did he really have all those facts present in his mind? I feel a certain envy.

One of the most notable things about Sebald’s books (and a contributing factor to their academic porniness) is their total lack of footnotes. This might be presented as an irony of their form: the footnotes, in fact, are the majority of the work, it’s just they have been absorbed into the overall text. The two sentences I’ve quoted above (‘Footsore and weary…’ and ‘Just as these things…’) are the original text, what follows is implicitly footnote. Under this interpretation, The Rings of Saturn could be reduced to the banal 3,000 word diary of a not-particularly-interesting walking tour. Alternatively, the main argument of the book could be seen to be the meditations – which, in turn, are loosely, collapsingly strung together by overfreighted sentences such as the two. The second one, in particular, spends most of its length saying ‘I was there – remember – I know it’s a while ago, and there isn’t that much to recall, but I was there and this is what I was doing.’

However, since his death I have come to characterise Sebald’s writing another way; and I would like to approach it by asking a question: What is the time of Sebald’s writing?

The answer, I think, is that Sebald writes in four completely separate times, often simultaneously. I would define these times as follows:

      Real.

      The time of the initial experience, when Sebald was physically where he describes himself as being.

 

      Diary.

      The time of written recollection – almost certainly in a different location; a study, library or provincial tea-room.

 

      Research.

      The extended time period during which the suggestions of the initial experience and the elaborations of the written recollection are further elaborated.

 

      Style.

      This time is not singular but takes up the entire period throughout which Sebald became a writer, went through the first three time-periods (Real, Diary, Research), wrote, rewrote and finally left alone the sentences of his that he was prepared to publish.

 

Real time, clearly, may not involve any writing – or even the anticipation that the experience being gone through will one day prove noteworthy. But, Sebald being a writer, some form of inscription does wordlessly take place. Either ‘My tables, – meet it is I set it down’ or ‘Your face forever is remember’d here.’

Diary time is easy to isolate. ‘In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk…’ Clearly, though, these are not the words that Sebald would have written in his diary the first night of the walking tour. The second half of the sentence reveals the distance that intervenes between him and his remembered self, ‘in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.’ Style has intervened and rewritten. Literary overlayings are taking place: Auden, Proust, Chaucer. It might therefore be better to call this Memoir time, only I am not sure that Sebald didn’t eventually become an inveterate adder-of-distance between himself and his experience. His Diary was, I suspect, already half-Memoir.

I moved across into Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room at about this point in my note-making, as it was getting too cold in the shelter. It was just past eleven a.m. on January 16th. There was a great deal more to be said of Sebald’s antecedents, but I thought it had already been said, elsewhere, by others, ad nauseam. Sebald, for me, was more interesting – in the times of his writing – than almost all his forbears; Proust, I would exclude.

Research time intervenes at some time, at many times, between the real walk and the finished book. I would say it comes first, at an early stage, well before the first draft. But this would be a guess. I know from Simon Prosser, Sebald’s editor, that Sebald was working on another book at the time of his death. It was to take as its main object the silence of Sebald’s German elders concerning the years of National Socialism. In particular, Sebald was interested in making use of some home movies he had discovered of SS troops acting out Aryan myths. Simon Prosser suggested to me that Sebald’s time of research was almost over and his moment of writing was about to begin. One day, when his manuscripts have become public, probably Texan, we will all know more about this than we could possibly want. Guessing is more enticing.

Research takes in the reading-up on subjects Sebald remembers having thought about. Going to Gunhill, which has six seaward facing cannons, it seems almost inevitable that thoughts of repulsed invasions would occur to one. But I don’t believe that all those facts were present to Sebald at the moment of sitting.(Envy, again.) Thus Research added to Diary means that it is possible for Sebald to quote half a page of source material without getting a comma wrong. However, Sebald’s time becomes at this point confused; or, one might say, elaborated. For his initial Real thoughts are partly memories of previous Research, which he must now check in further Research. Hence Research both precedes and post-date the Real moment on Gunhill.

Style is too small and too big a word, but by it I mean intellectual style as well as prose style. Tone might perhaps be better, though it would not suggest, as style half does, that it is the style of man Sebald was which led him to be sitting on that bench at that moment. I might here begin to write rhapsodically of Sebald’s participation in European intellectual history, and of the maudlin delight he takes in having Sic transit gloria meditations in very bad fast food restaurants. Style is the dominant time of Sebald’s writing: it is what enables him to write at all. To other writers what is most thrilling about Sebald the time of his Style.

When he was alive I felt that were was a certain get-out clause here: that the film subtitle aspect of Sebald’s writing – the fact it is a translation, albeit one in which the writer was a collaborator (to what extent will, I’m sure, become clear in the next few years) – allowed Sebald to say things an English writer writing in English wouldn’t dare. Although he is doing something very different, I think there is something comparable here to in the writing of Alain de Botton – particularly in the more fictionally tainted of his books, Essays in Love and The Romantic Movement. There is something embarrassing about a sentence like this, written in English. ‘For those in love with certainty, seduction is no territory in which to stray.’

I was sitting at a wide wooden table. Tacked to the rough surface of the table was a photocopied sheet, outlined in black, NO CAMERAS. When I lifted my elbows, the surface of the table had left guilty sawdusty white on the black of my coat. A clock with the word REGULATOR upon its glass, in front of the swinging brass pendulum, ticked and very definitely tocked on the far wall.

A pony has just gone past. I’ve promised to be back by twelve and it is now twenty to.

The moment of Sebald’s Style, as presented in his writing, is one of great duration.

My epigraph is obvious but unsatisfactory.

 

Southwold and elsewhere, 2003

 

One thought on “W.G.Sebald

  1. Interesting. I am glad that I did not read this essay prior to my most recent encounter with Sebald but you have articulated the elements of his work that captivates me as a non-academic reader and leaves me with the sense that I have spent time in his presence. I entered the new year with The Emigrants which was, for entirely personal reasons, the perfect fit.

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