01 December 2014

Conversations with Sebald

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W. G. Sebald, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Seven Stories Press, 2010)


I had a good reading plan for German Literature Month—including writing something about one volume from Thomas Bernhard's masterful memoirs, a play by Peter Weiss, a journal issue dedicated to Robert Walser, and a novel by Elfriede Jelinek. But alas, the month was over and I only managed to cover a book of interviews with and essays about W. G. Sebald. It was not even strictly a German book although it offered critical readings of Sebald's works in German or in translation and candid conversations with him about his themes, his influences, and his writing methods.

The pieces in The Emergence of Memory reveal important aspects of Sebald's spectral writings and personality which added to an appreciation of his literary enterprise. That project was centered on elusive, illusory memory and truth and their recovery and representations in art and literature. The greatest essays in this book were those that attempt to describe the nuances of his project, its totality, and its vision. An essay by Tim Parks, for example, tried to define the core of Sebald's vision as "engagement in the present inevitably ... devouring the past." (However, I disagree with Parks's characterization of his prose style as "much lighter" and "more flexible" than Thomas Bernhard's.)

In interviews Sebald made frequent mentions of the "conspiracy of silence" about German war crimes and war experiences in his household, community, and university. This seemed to be the main thing that his writings were trying to respond to. His temperament was often seen as melancholic, his disposition as pessimist. And yet these views were grounded in a playful mental landscape. His powers of association were an instance of a wandering imagination; his solitary walks and constant agitations were not symptoms of a decadent spirit. He was a loner engaged in the natural state of his natural world. Destruction and ruins and madness were the ashes from which he found words of staggering beauty. Nothing could be more paradoxical than Sebald's finding beauty in destruction.

It is a characteristic of our species, in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair, for a number of reasons. Because we have created an environment for us which isn't what it should be. And we're out of our depth all the time. We're living exactly on the borderline between the natural world from which we are being driven out, or we're driving ourselves out of it, and that other world which is generated by our brain cells. And so clearly that fault line runs right through our physical and emotional makeup. And probably where these tectonic plates rub against each other is where the sources of pain are. Memory is one of those phenomena. It's what qualifies us as emotional creatures, psychozootica or however one might describe them.

Deadpan as always. The border between comedy and tragedy in Sebald could hardly matter at all. Tragedy could be uplifting? It could offer consolation? It was a matter of perspective.

There is of course a degree of self-deception at work when you're looking at the past, even if you redesign it in terms of tragedy, because tragedy is still a pattern of order and an attempt to give meaning to something, to a life or to a series of lives. It's still, as it were, a positive way of looking at things. Whereas, in fact, it might just have been one damn thing after another with no sense to it at all.

In writing about horrific subjects, the necessity for restraint was not only a literary requirement. Restraint had to be the only way to get to the core of cruelty and violence. A reinforcement, if not a variation, of Adorno's dictum.

I've always felt that it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities, the attempt, well-nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was, in pursuing these ideas, at the same time conscious that it's practically impossible to do this; to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible. So you need to find ways of convincing the reader that this is something on your mind but that you do not necessarily roll out, you know, on every other page. The reader needs to be prompted that the narrator has a conscience, that he is and has been perhaps for a long time engaged with these questions. And this is why the main scenes of horror are never directly addressed. I think it is sufficient to remind people, because we've all seen images, but these images militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things. And also paralyze, as it were, our moral capacity. So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation.

Two other fascinating essays in the book were contributed by Michael Hofmann and Ruth Franklin. Hofmann was critical of Sebald. His short review essay was puzzled (bitter) at Sebald's success, while Franklin's essay was incisive yet possibly misdirected. I will try to post something on them later.

The November German Lit Month is hosted by Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Lizzy (Lizzy's Literary Life).


  1. (However, I disagree with Parks's characterization of his prose style as "much lighter" and "more flexible" than Thomas Bernhard's.)

    Really? I'd have to go with Parks here - both use complex structures, but there's nothing light about Bernhard's prose...

  2. I should maybe quote Parks's words since my paraphrase is reductive.

    "The time has come to say something about this writer's [Sebald's] extraordinary prose, without which his rambling plots and ruminations would be merely clever and unsettling. Like the coincidences he speaks of, it is a style that recovers, devours, and displaces the past. He has Thomas Bernhard's love of the alarming superlative, the tendency to describe states of the most devastating confusion with great precision and control. But the touch is much lighter than Bernhard's, the instrument more flexible."

    The terms "lighter" and "flexible" can be subjective in this case. And I can see where you are coming from with Bernhard's prose. I posted a bit on this here.

    Sebald himself acknowledged his debt to Bernhard's style, its flexibility and its momentum (here).

  3. Er, the first link should be this: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2013/08/an-indication-of-cause.html