FROM THE ARCHIVES: An Interview with W. G. Sebald
by Sarah Kafatou
“Masterful” is a term we keep in reserve for fiction that speaks unmistakably in its own voice, immerses us in its own world, and convinces us that what we experience there is crucial to our lives, to who we are. The work of W. G. Sebald meets these criteria in full. His two novels, The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, both recently translated from the German by Michael Hulse, have made clear that this previously unknown author belongs in an arena with Kafka, Borges, and Canetti (to name a few of his elective affinities).
Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and now lives and teaches in England. In addition to The Emigrants (which was awarded the Berlin Literature Prize, the Literatur Nord Prize, and the Johannes Bobrowski Medal) and The Rings of Saturn, Sebald has written two collections of critical essays on Austrian literature, a book-length poem called Nach der Natur, and a fictionalized memoir entitled Schwindel. Gefuhle (which can be roughly translated as “Vertigo“).
All three of these books explore various catastrophes of human history, and all are told by a slightly fictionalized narrator whose peregrinations are eccentric, occasionally hilarious, and often depressing. The Emigrants is about European Jews who suffered the Holocaust at one remove. The Rings of Saturn weaves together scenes of devastation, this time from colonial Africa, China during the Taiping Rebellion, Ireland, and Germany during the Second World War. Dreamlike, these scenes recur and overlap, but unlike dreams they cannot be forgotten because they are inescapably real.
Though Sebald’s subjects are the awesome forces—natural and historical—that dwarf us, the vividness of his prose comes from his Chekhovian attention to detail. Yet the world of his novels is crystallized out of darkness, not detail. The works are shot through with a moral vision that is at once pessimistic, penetrating, and compassionate.
Sarah Kafatou: In The Emigrants, your character Max Aurach gives you the memoir that his mother wrote shortly before she was deported by the Nazis and killed. He says that reading it has made him feel as though trapped in a German fairy tale where you are put under a spell and must continue reading, writing, and remembering until your heart breaks. Later in that chapter you yourself travel to Bad Kissingen, where his mother spent the happy childhood her memoir describes, and visits the salt works there. This is only one of many points in your work where a brilliant correlative is found for the main thing that is being said but that can’t be said in its entirety directly.
W. G. Sebald: The salt works is an immense timber-frame structure. It’s no longer used for a practical purpose, has shifted a bit, and is considered unsafe. Mineral water cascades down through thousands of bundles of twigs stacked up in it that have become gradually mineralized. What takes place is a kind of metamorphosis: something living becomes dead or nearly dead, as Rousseau explains in a curious passage of his on vitrification. This is indeed analogous to what happens in writing: as you become imbued by your subject you become less alive. Works of literature, like the crystallized twigs, are the hardened remains of former lives.
SK: Do you feel that by retelling and reassociating our experience we can restore or repair or redeem it?
WGS: I don’t think so. I have very little faith in psychoanalysis and similar talking cures. We think that by dwelling in or going over the past we can make things better, whereas we generally make them worse.
SK: Apropos of faith, in The Rings of Saturn, in the chapter in which you discuss Kurt Waldheim and the atrocities in Yugoslavia, you describe making a journey to Nuremberg to view the shrine of the medieval Saint Sebald. He is said to have saved children from starvation by giving them bread baked from ash.
WGS: Sebald is a quite obscure saint and almost all that we know about him is legendary. Yes, this baking of ashes into bread … I’m very taken with the whole business of ashes and dust. You’ll find them again and again in my writing; they’re always there in some form or other. Have you read the work of the Swiss writer Robert Walser? He committed himself voluntarily to an insane asylum, living there from the 1930s until the 1950s. He wrote hundreds of short prose pieces, one on needles for example, and there’s one about ash. I admire ash very much, he says: it’s the most humble substance there is! The very last product of combustion, with no resistance in it. Not like a twig, which you can feel through the sole of your shoe. The borderline between being and nothingness. Ash is a redeemed substance, like dust.
In the last chapter of Schwindel. Gefühle I visit the attic in the old house in my home village. There’s a wasp’s nest there. Do you know what a wasp’s nest is like? It’s made of something much much thinner than airmail paper: gray and as thin as possible. This gets wrapped around and around like pastry, like a mille-feuille, and can get as big as two feet across. It weighs nothing. For me the wasp’s nest is a kind of ideal vision: an object that is extremely complicated and intricate, made out of something that hardly exists.
SK: Could you mention some builders of such objects other than wasps? Who might be some of the writers who have influenced you?
WGS: Some French writers of the nineteenth century, and some in German: Adalbert Stifter, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel. Do you know his work? It’s wonderful: he was a writer totally without conceit. A pastor in Karlsruhe. You must go tomorrow and get his Schatzkästlein des rheinischen Hausfreundes. It has a lightness. The cadences of his prose can almost make you feel you are leaving the ground. Like the moment of syncopation in music, which approximates levitation.
SK: The kind of prose rhythm and syntactic structure you yourself prefer, in your most recent work particularly, seems very natural and yet is extraordinarily complex, very periodic, with extended parallelisms and long adjectival phrases.
WGS: I usually start with a fairly short sentence. Then I need to include factual information which doesn’t fit into the next sentence, so I have to recast the sentence I’ve begun. The result is that by the time I’ve finished with it, my sentence is rather like a labyrinth. I do like some writers who work straightforwardly, main clause after main clause. But I tend to prefer those who engage in a degree of elaboration.
SK: There is a historical tendency for language to grow simpler syntactically.
WGS: Yes, and particularly now that language has to compete with other systems and is tending to be displaced by them. Our language is growing more homogenized all the time. But if you look back at earlier writers, Coleridge for example, or at Shakespeare and Marlowe or Jacobean drama or seventeenth-century English prose, you find syntax which is immensely complex. I think of the way my grandfather spoke. He was born in 1872 and still spoke a German that had been influenced by French at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I spent my childhood with him, because my mother was too busy and my father was a prisoner of war. I learned everything from him and still think of him every day. You see, behind all of us who are living there are the dead. In fact, they are here coexisting with us, but we don’t see them. We have unlearned the ability to see them.
SK: How did you choose the people you’ve chosen to portray?
WGS: Before writing The Emigrants I had been concerned, in my academic critical work, with the phenomenon of suicide in old age. I’d been studying Primo Levi and Jean Amery, both of whom suffered from what is known as survivor’s syndrome, that is, that the supposed “good luck” of being a survivor often means only that one is granted a respite. Levi and Amery knew each other in Auschwitz. Amery wrote that to live with that in your heart is to not really be alive, and Levi tried to refute this, but then did take the same step of ending his own life several years later. I had been thinking about that, and one day it occurred to me that I actually knew personally or had known some people who were also in such a situation.
SK: Max Aurach, the painter who gives you his mother’s memoir, is one of them. Incidentally his name is changed, in the English edition, to Max Ferber.
WGS: We changed it because there is an actual English painter with a similar name, and we didn’t want to trespass. The character of Ferber is in fact based on two people: that English painter and a former landlord of mine in Manchester, actually an architect, who is still living.
SK: Aurach’s way of painting is extremely obsessive. Why is obsessiveness a theme to which you often return?
WGS: Well, obsession in the broadest sense of the word is one of the ways that people find of getting along. Particularly if you are an exile, excluded from the social contract, you need to find some place to be yourself, some way of passing time. So you take on a project—it could be the construction of a scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem, such as my friend Alec Garrard is building in The Rings of Saturn.
SK: Alec Garrard is one exemplification of the artist at work. Another, more elusive figure for the spirit of art is the Nabokov-like butterfly collector, who in one of his appearances in your work distracts a character from committing suicide. Yet another is the butterfly itself, or the moth.
WGS: I’ve always been interested in invertebrates, in insects, and very much in moths. They are infinitely more numerous than butterflies, more various, and often more beautiful. They exemplify the biodiversity that is now being lost. A thing that appeals to me particularly in the moth is its secretiveness. Butterflies flit about in daylight, moths hide in darkness. You only see them when, for instance, they get into a house. Then they sit absolutely still in a fold of curtain or on a whitewashed wall, for days on end, until all life has gone out of them and they fall to the floor. Suppose that you had lost your way back out to the garden, to anything living and green! What the moth does in that case is simply to hold quite still until it just keels over. Perhaps that is what we should do, instead of bustling about going to see the doctor and causing trouble to everyone around us. The idea of transformation, metamorphosis, in terms of turning from a pupa into a beautiful winged thing, doesn’t particularly appeal to me. It strikes me as rather trite. To me the really wonderful thing about these insects is the way they perish.
Published on December 8, 2021
First published in Harvard Review 15 (Fall 1998).
First published in Harvard Review 15 (Fall 1998).