Category Archives: w.g. sebald

Sebald’s “Maxims” on Writing and More

Ready Steady Blog points me to Issue 5 of Five Dials (pdf), which is dedicated to the work of W.G. Sebald. The offerings are a little short (mostly just one page), although they’re nice to see.

The magazine also collects Sebald’s maxims on writing as recorded by two of his former students. They include:

Fiction should have a ghostlike presence
in it somewhere, something omniscient.
It makes it a different reality.

Some of them, however, are better than others:

Characters need details that will anchor
themselves in your mind.

Also worth your time is the article in which four translators discuss "the world’s second-oldest profession."

W.G. Sebald Essay

Will Self has a lengthy essay in The Guardian about how he developed an affinity for W.G. Sebald:

So, with such sporadic immersion, you can appreciate that mine is not
an academic critical approach, yet nor is it an exercise in overweening
fandom, such as that enacted by Nicholson Baker to John Updike in his –
very funny – book U & I. Unlike Baker, I did not require Sebald’s
affirmation, or even acknowledgment. With most dead writers such
intercourse would be an impossibility, but the intensity of Sebald’s
authorial voice, and the conviction expressed in his work again and
again that the barrier between the living and the dead is
semi-permeable, might have led a writer more credulous than I to tap
upon Ouija keys rather than qwertyuiop ones.

There is some interesting stuff here for Sebaldians. For instance:

So, no great critic – and maybe with a hint of snobbery as well.
There’s worse, too, for while Adorno may have ascribed to Beckett’s
work a "joyful pessimism", in Sebald’s we find, emanating in palpable
waves from their nebulous narrator, a kind of fey melancholia: this is
a sensibility that revels in its solipsism, finding there an ineffable
sweetness. Some critics of The Rings of Saturn, for example, were taken
by the improbability of anyone walking – as Sebald’s alter ego does –
for the 25-odd coastal miles from Lowestoft to Middleton in Suffolk,
without meeting a considerable number of people. But you have only to
read his other books (I hesitate to call them "novels") to discover
landscape after cityscape devoid of population. Sebald’s narrator is
always walking in empty streets, sitting in empty railway carriages, or
eating in restaurants purged of their clientele. Admittedly, he often
finds this "curious", as he does much he encounters along the way, but
when he does come upon people they are too often "dwarfish", subsumed
to their mode of transport, or scattered about – as are the backpackers
outside Venice station in Vertigo – like corpses.

Self on Sebald

The English Center of PEN has published some notes from a talk Will Self gave on W.G. Sebald, loosely based on the novel he (Self) wrote as a sort of homage to Sebald:

Primed with this affinity and inspired by the writer’s picaresque, Self embarked on one of Sebald’s walks, both virtually and literally: ‘I thought somewhere between these two places lay Sebald’s world.’ But after his three-and-a-half day journey from Flamborough on the east coast of Yorkshire to Spurn Head, Self was in a ‘terrible state’ and ‘completely overtaken’ by Sebald. ‘People talk about a writer’s influence. When I did the walk I felt Sebald on my shoulders; I felt so possessed by Sebald, I was talking Sebaldian notes… I’m not that fond of my literary style but I missed it!’ Thankfully, Self has since recovered. However, he was not convinced that there could be a new generation of post-Sebaldians, ‘like post-Wordsworthians walking the Lake District’, as Hopkinson ventured. While Sebald marched with psychogeographic writers like Iain Sinclair, Self contended that the former was ‘more interested in the ambulatory as a way of ridding the man machine matrix – the prescribed mechanised way of living off credit cards to rush to the Maldives and make it sink.’ He concluded: ‘I would say Sebald is unique but I don’t think there can be a school of Sebalds in that way.’

And later on:

An audience member, who was once a student of Sebald’s at UEA, declared
that he also used to actively avoid fiction, although he would take it
to the extreme by reading trade magazines and even phone books.

n + 1 on Bolano

n + 1 has a fairly good take on why Bolano matters for U.S. readers. As always, it’s nice to see writing on 2666 that actually has something to say; that is, that gets beyond the well-plowed territory that most reviews of 2666 I’ve read has stayed within.

The piece gets off to something of a weak start with some seemingly uninformed and sadly flip remarks about Latin American writers and politics:

In the ’90s, it didn’t matter to most American readers that Sebald had
taken the hoariest tropes of German romanticism (the solitary
wandering, the unnamable sorrow) and renovated a totally discredited
literary tradition by employing it to honor the victims of that variety
of German romanticism known as Nazism. What mattered was simply that
these were literary books about the Holocaust. Bolaño, of course, was not Jewish or German, and was released from
Pinochet’s prisons after a few days. He returned to Mexico to read
books and smoke weed. (Later on, he took heroin.) Nevertheless, if you
can only take your serious literature with a lump of state terror,
eventually you run out of authentic Nazis and have to make do with the
next best thing: South American generals of the ’70s. Foreign writers
are like our own candidates for President: it helps to have been a
prisoner of war or at least to have grown up poor. (Poor Mario Vargas
Llosa, preppy and smooth with excellent hair, is the John Kerry of
Latin American letters.)

To characterize "South American generals of the ’70s" as the "next best thing" to "authentic Nazis" is bad enough, but to treat them as some kind of street-cred-burnisher for aspiring authors is just lame, first off for rather obvious reasons, but also because it’s perfectly incoherent. Borges, as lionized as Latin American authors can be, was never a foe of powers that were in Argentina until Peron pissed him off by cutting his salary. His startling selfishness and apoliticality didn’t keep him from becoming a legend of "serious literature." (Likewise, English-speaking audiences have managed to canonize Garcia Marquez and embrace his rather politically themed novels despite his lack of participation in wars and/or political intrigue.)

Yes, it’s true that Bolano’s story has helped his become a superstar (I’ve argued that point before), but his upbringing and his participation in Chile’s resistance are but small parts of that story, ones often glossed over in order to play up his antics against Octavio Paz and his drugged-out vagabonding. As with Borges and Garcia Marquez, what matters is the quality of the writing. (To further this point, Bolano never actually saw firsthand the Sonoran tragedy that pretty much everyone has said he portrays with substantial power in 2666.) The fact that these authors’ work has been so thoroughly pervaded by a certain kind of politcal terror, in spite of the fact that they were not directly victims of political terror, is perhaps more usefully considered as indicative of a quality endemic to Latin American writing.

As to the odd remarks about Vargas Llosa, I suppose Kerry and Vargas Llosa are similar in that both blew very winnable bids for the presidency of their nations, but that’s about where the comparisons end. The sad fact is that Vargas Llosa isn’t derided in literary circles for being born rich and good-looking; he’s looked down upon because he has been an apologist for some of the farthest right, most excessive governments in recent Latin American history, even going so far as to lend his prestige to cover-ups of state-sanctioned murder and massacres. The fact that he is still taken seriously as a novelist is a testament to either great ignorance or our ability to ignore the life of the writer when reading her work.

But anyway, once past this point, n + 1’s piece proceeds to make some astute points about Bolano, rather usefully comparing him to  W. G. Sebald, each of whom it argues are the two latest "canonizations" in American letters:

American critics and regular readers alike usually don’t care for
sweeping literary-historical arguments. And yet in recent years we have
been celebrating Sebald and Bolaño as if we really do believe in some
big metanarrative about the novel—one that proclaims that, even post
postmodernism, the form remains in crisis. Sure, Sebald and Bolaño deal
with fascism, and both died at the height of their powers. More
decisive is that neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can’t be a really important novelist anymore unless you can’t really write novels.

Of course, when the unsigned editorialist says "can’t really write novels," he/she is referring to novels in the 19th century (and maybe early 20th century) sense. Sebald’s and Bolano’s works are certainly novels, just not in the sense that some critics would like novels to only be viewed as. The editorial continues:

writers are striking for the documentary or testimonial, as opposed to
fictional, feel of their productions. Sebald assembled his material
from interviews (especially in The Emigrants) and library-burrowing (The Rings of Saturn),
and from his own life. He also interlards his texts with snapshots,
ticket stubs, archival photographs: documentary proof. He makes no
effort to write convincing scenes or dialogue: a character stands
silent and motionless as an old Victrola, then the needle drops and the
aria commences. Sebald’s fiction consists of facts and reworked
testimony, and constantly points to their opposite: what we’ll never
know about what really happened. Whereas ordinary novels,
epistemologically unruffled for two centuries, have mostly delivered
unimpeachable accounts of events that never took place.

The case
of Bolaño is more complex. Where Sebald perfected a single deep and
narrow mode, Bolaño was an experimenter. The impression you get from
the short stories is that nothing at all has been made up, and nothing
comprehended. There is a virtually Seinfeldian ban on moral growth or
learning. These stories’ conclusions are by no means the poetic or
pregnant endings we know from magazine fiction; they are the flat
conclusions we know better from life: Then he died. Or: We lost touch. Or: That’s all I know.
And yet Bolaño boasts tremendous powers of invention; especially in his
longer novels, truly fictional characters, with no originals in life,
proliferate alongside the personages à clef. Curiously, he treats the
pure inventions as he does the lightly fictionalized acquaintances.

It’s true that Bolano’s affectlessness, whether discussing an obviously flat construction or a believably real character, is a hallmark of his style, and I think that the fact that he doesn’t strive for anything so quaint as morals or explanations is an important one. And yet, this observation must be squared with the fact that anyone who reads Bolano cannot help but be convinced of the great moral content of his work. It quite clearly rails against cowardice and complicity, and it seems to stand sullen in the face of incomprehensible atrocity.

I think the strand that unites these aspects of Bolano’s fiction is his insistence on the great dignity that can be achieved while toiling in the shadows. Do your own thing, Bolano seems to be telling us, do out of love and free from regard for what anyone else says and you will perhaps carve out a dignified stalemate with the "desert of boredom."

Sebald’s First Publication

Vertigo reports on the German-language publication of a new collection of W. G. Sebald ephemera. The collection is built around a speech Sebald gave in 2001 (collected in Engilsh in Campo Santo), but what got my attention is this:

The second inserted facsimile is Sebald’s very first entry in the literary world – a 1961 student literary magazine called Der Wecker, co-edited by Sebald and his friend Jan-Peter Tripp.  (Cover photograph below by Tripp.)  All sixteen pages are reproduced including articles on Algeria and Albert Camus and ads for beer and Coca Cola.


Very cool.

Sebald in the Theater

There’s been some talk lately of a Sebald-inspired play called "I-Witness" (seems to be most to do with The Rings of Saturn). Those of you interested in more can now watch a five-minute snippet of the play right here. (Thanks to Vertigo for bringing this to my attention.)

The play is a production fo the Volcano Theater Company and is showing in the UK. Wales Online has a write-up.

Searching for Sebald

One of the nice things about having this blog is that I get to see what you buy through my Amazon links. (Don’t worry, it’s all completely anonymous.)

And sometimes you buy quite interesting things indeed.

Product Description
W.G. Sebald’s books are sui generis hybrids of fiction, travelogue, autobiography and historical expos , in which a narrator (both Sebald and not Sebald) comments on the quick blossoming of natural wonders and the long deaths that come of human atrocities. All his narratives are punctuated with images–murky photographs, architectural plans, engravings, paintings, newspaper clippings–inserted into the prose without captions and often without obvious connection to the words that surround them. This important volume includes a rare 1993 interview called "’But the written word is not a true document’: A Conversation with W.G. Sebald about Photography and Literature," in which Sebald talks exclusively about his use of photographs. It contains some of Sebald’s most illuminating and poetic remarks about the topic yet. In it, he discusses Barthes, the photograph’s "appeal," the childhood image of Kafka, family photographs, and even images he never used in his writings. In addition, Searching for Sebald positions Sebald within an art-historical tradition that begins with the Surrealists, continues through Joseph Beuys and blossoms in the recent work of Christian Boltanski and Gerhard Richter, and tracks his continuing inspiration to artists such as Tacita Dean and Helen Mirra. An international roster of artists and scholars unpacks the intricacies of his unique method. Seventeen theoretical essays approach Sebald through the multiple filters of art history (Krauss), film studies (Kluge), cultural theory (Benjamin), psychoanalysis (Freud), and especially photographic history and theory (Barthes, Kracauer), and 17 modern and contemporary art projects are read through a Sebaldian filter. If Sebald’s artistic output acts as a touchstone for new critical theory being written on "post-medium" photographic practices, Seaching for Sebald suggests a model for new investigations in the burgeoning field of visual studies.

This book is 600 pages, by the way. Aside from this, I know of:

I’ll toss it out to the group: What else out there among the growing body of Sebald criticism is worth reading?

A World Without Past

Alain Robbe-Grillet discusses his script for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

The universe in which the entire film occurs is, characteristically,
that of a perpetual present which makes all recourse to memory
impossible. This is a world without a past, a world which is
self-sufficient at every moment and which obliterates itself as it
proceeds. This man, this woman, begin existing only when they appear on
the screen the first time; before that they are nothing; and, once the
projection is over, they are nothing again. Their existence lasts only
as long as the film lasts. There can be no reality outside the images
we see, the words we hear.

Thanks to bright stupid confetti for the quote. It is from the essay "Time and Description in Fiction Today" from the collection For a New Novel. Google Book gives you access to the majority of the essay.


Dead but blurbing.

Perhaps there’s money to be made for universities that want to license out caches of letters and assorted private documents to praise-hungry publishers.

I see a future for the Department of Homeland Security in this.

Sebald at Marienbad

I have been in the midst of a long-overdue reading of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, and now, about 2/3 of the way through, I am delighted to find that the titular character visits the spa at Marienbad, Czechoslovakia.

This is, undoubtedly, unconsequental to many of you, but the Bioy Casares fans among us have probably already made the connection to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film Last Year at Marienbad. Robbe-Grillet’s film was famously inspired by Bioy Casares’s masterpiece, The Invention of Morel, and both the movie and the book take memory and its workings as a central issue.

Anyone who knows anything about Sebald knows that memory is also one of his main concerns (perhaps the main concern), and many consider Austerlitz to be his novel in which memory is most significant of all. Thus I am more than tempted to wonder if Sebald’s invocation of Marienbad was not accidental; it seems certain that Sebald was aware of Robbe-Grillet’s film, and I  wonder if he was aware of Bioy Casares’s novel.

There would certainly be some reason to believe this. Morel is about a man who cannot ever speak to a woman he loves and Sebald’s episode at Marienbad deals with Austerlitz’s inability to speak his love (or much of anything else) to a woman. (For the record, Robbe-Grillet’s movie also turns on a similar point.) Here’s a good breakdown of what happens in Austerlitz, from a very interesting online Sebald essay that I have just discovered:

One of the most powerful and abstract passages contributing to the
water-time metaphor is Austerlitz’s cold-war visit to Marienbad,
the well-known spa resort which Austerlitz’s family had visited
just before World War II.  He accompanies Marie, the woman he
will later regret having lost through his own strange inability to
live in the present.  Of the reception clerk at the hotel Austerlitz
recalls “that although he could not have been much over forty
his forehead was wrinkled in fan-like folds above the root of his
nose” (208) and that he “went through the necessary
formalities without another word, very slowly, almost as if he were
moving in a denser atmosphere than ours” (208).  These are
the first of several details which portray Marienbad as a resort
submerged, for a man submerged in water would have wrinkled skin, be
unable to speak, and move slowly.  Moreover, there is a layer of dust
on the desk of their hotel room, a detail which perhaps refers to the
billiard table without dust in the sealed room which contained the toy
Ark.  Austerlitz initially felt deeply content lying next to Marie,
but as he fell asleep, his “mind became gradually
submerged” (211), and in the morning he “sat up and,
like a man seasick, had to perch on the edge of the
bed” (211).  Looking out the window he sees “the
grand hotels ranged in a semicircle rising to the heights, the
Pacifik, the Atlantic, the Metropole, the Polonia and Bohemia with
their rows of balconies, their corner turrets and roof ridges emerging
from the morning mist like oceangoing steamers from a dark
sea” (212).  Walking through the deserted town, he
“kept feeling as if someone else were walking beside
[him]” (212).

Sebald thus intimately links this passage to Austerlitz’s
childhood vision of the submerged village of Llanwddyn.  Compare, for
instance, Marie’s plea to Austerlitz: “why do I see your
lips opening as if you were about to say something, maybe even cry out
loud, and then I hear not the slightest sound?” (215-216)
to Austerlitz’s childhood vision of the former inhabitants of
Llanwddyn “still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and
walking along the road, but unable to speak and with their eyes opened
far too wide” (51-52).  Austerlitz is thus metaphorically
submerged in Marienbad’s past, in particular, the Marienbad he
once visited with Vera and his parents.

When Marie confronts Austerlitz about remaining
“unapproachable” (215) and “like a pool of
frozen water” (215) (this after warning him about
Schumann’s descent into insanity, leading to his attempted
suicide-by leaping into the icy waters of the Rhine), the two are
standing in a spa’s pump room.  “It isn’t true that
we need absence and loneliness” (216) she tells him; she is
here trying to rescue him from his submersion in the past, and this is
why Sebald sets the scene in the pump room.

All this happens at a very propitious time, as the Pacific Film Archive is screening Last Year at Marienbad this very Friday.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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