Extracts; full text: Recovered memories
by Maya Jaggi - September 2001
The spectre of the past haunts Sebald, a German born under the Third Reich, though he was a babe-in-arms on VE Day.
"I was born in May 1944 in a place the war didn't get to," he says of the Bavarian village of Wertach im Algäu. "Then you find out it was the same month when Kafka's sister was deported to Auschwitz. It's bizarre; you're pushed in a pram through the flowering meadows, and a few hundred miles to the east these horrendous things are happening. It's the chronological contiguity that makes you think it is something to do with you."
Sebald has lived in Britain since 1966, forsaking the Alps for the flatlands of Norfolk, where he is professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, he sits in a modest office in a squat concrete block.
Now 57, he began publishing what he terms "prose fiction" only in his mid-40s, writing as WG Sebald (his third name is Maximilian), and always in German.
His first book to be translated into English, The Emigrants, published in 1996, came garlanded with awards from the German-speaking world and was one of the most lauded British debuts of the last decade.
Translations of The Rings Of Saturn in 1998 and Vertigo in 1999 - also by the poet Michael Hulse - sealed his reputation as one of the most original literary figures of our age.
Sebald's fiction is an innovative hybrid of memoir, travelogue and history, its text scattered with grainy, black-and-white photographs without captions which lend an unsettling feel of documentary. He often uses real names, in an endless journeying saturated with European cultural allusions and metaphysical meditations on loss, exile and death.
His new book, Austerlitz, out in Germany last spring, is published next month in an English translation by Anthea Bell.
The story concerns Jacques Austerlitz, who is brought up by Welsh Calvinist foster parents and in his 50s recovers lost memories of having arrived from Prague on the Kindertransport, the lifeline to Britain of some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children in 1938-39.
It was spurred by watching a Channel 4 documentary on Susie Bechhofer, who in mid-life remembered coming to Wales on the Kindertransport. She shared a birthday with Sebald, May 18, and was from Munich. "That was very close to home," he says.
Sebald is interested in the long-term effects on émigrés who "may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages to people's inner lives that can never be rectified."
Austerlitz is also partly based on a real architectural historian, a friend whose boyhood photograph is on the cover.
Austerlitz senses that buildings bear witness to the past, as unquiet ghosts in our midst demand redress. "Places seem to me to have some kind of memory, in that they activate memory in those who look at them," says Sebald. "It's an old notion - this isn't a good house because bad things have happened in it.
Where I grew up, in a remote village at the back of a valley, the old still thought the dead needed attending to - a notion so universal it's enscribed in all religions. If you didn't, they might exact revenge upon the living. Such notions were not alien to me as a child."
Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born the only son, with three sisters, of Rosa, daughter of a "country copper", and Georg, from a family of glassmakers in the Bavarian forest.
At 18 his father joined the army, amid mass unemployment in 1929. When the National Socialist party took power in 1933, he "stayed and marched with it". Sebald's parents were from "conventional, Catholic, anti-communist, working-class backgrounds. They experienced upward mobility in the 1930s, like so many Germans; my father finished the war as a captain. Fascism did away with the class system - as in France under Napoleon, and in stark contrast to Britain, where it dominates the army to this day."
Georg was a prisoner of war in France. When he returned to Bavaria in 1947, Max was three.
"I found it odd that this person turned up and claimed to be my father. Then he got a job in a small town and was only home on Sundays. He was a detached figure for me."
Sebald doted on his grandfather, an "exceptionally kind man", who took care of him. "As a boy I felt protected. His death when I was 12 wasn't something I ever quite got over." It brought an early awareness of mortality and that the other side of life is something horrendously empty."
Like most of his generation, Sebald grew up in the "seas of silence" over the war.
"It was an idyllic environment, and only at 17 or 18 did you get inklings. All I knew was that there were families where, out of five sons, none returned."
His father's albums had photographs of the Polish campaign of 1939, first with a "boy-scout atmosphere" and culminating in razed villages. But the images seemed "normal" to Sebald as a child.
At grammar school in the ski resort of Oberstdorf they were shown a film of the liberation of Belsen: "It was a nice spring afternoon, and there was no discussion afterwards; you didn't know what to do with it. It was a long drawn-out process to find out, which I've done persistently ever since."
While Sebald was at Freiburg University in 1965, the Frankfurt trial of Auschwitz personnel began.
"It gave me an understanding of the real dimensions for the first time: the defendants were the kinds of people I'd known as neighbours - postmasters or railway workers - whereas the witnesses were people I'd never come across - Jewish people from Brooklyn or Sydney. They were a myth of the past. You found out they too had lived in Nuremberg and Stuttgart. So it gradually pieced itself together, along with the horrific details."
While Sebald discounts the notion of inherited guilt, he says:
"If you know in the generation before you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accomplices, it's difficult to say you haven't anything to do with it. I've always felt I had to know what happened in detail, and to try to understand why it should have been so."
Yet Sebald found the resulting "official culture of mourning and remembering" flawed.
"There's always an undercurrent - 'Isn't this being forced upon us? Haven't we suffered also?'"
He disparages literary efforts in the 1970s and 80s to address the Nazi years, by such German writers as Alfred Andersch and Heinrich Böll. "They felt they had to say something, but it was lacking in tact or true compassion; the moral presumption is insufferable. Andersch was married to a Jewish woman from Munich, and he divorced her in about 1936, exposing her to danger. I don't think one can write from a compromised moral position."
After studying German literature in French-speaking Switzerland, Sebald came to Manchester University as a language assistant in 1966.
"I scarcely spoke English, and coming from a backwoods, I found it difficult to adapt. But I stuck it out; I got to like the place."
He relished the "anti-hierarchical" new universities ("nobody bossed you around"), and moved to the fledgling University of East Anglia in 1970 to teach modern German literature (remembered being a "sardonic and challenging" lecturer).
Sebald published literary criticism on figures such as the Swiss Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser. But dismay at the Thatcherite "so-called educational reforms" of the early 1980s drove him to other forms. "The pressure of work got inexorably greater, partly to do with moving up the ladder [he became professor of German] and partly because we lost staff right, left and centre. What was once a very congenial workplace became very trying."
Max Sebald lives in an old rectory outside Norwich with his Austrian wife, Ute. They married "very early", in 1967, and have one daughter, a school teacher.
But Sebald ("I'd prefer to keep them out of it") gives only rare interviews and is obsessively private. "I don't want to talk about my trials and tribulations. Once you reveal even part of what your real problems might be in life, they come back in a deformed way."
For Sebald prose fiction "means each line has to be weighed as carefully, and with as much energy, as in a poem of half a page".
Sebald uses pictures, often photographs taken with "cheap little cameras". He says: "In school I was in the dark room all the time, and I've always collected stray photographs; there's a great deal of memory in them." Pointing out a small boy in an old family photograph on his office wall, he says, "he returned from the first world war mentally disturbed after electric shock therapy. This is before he knew. I find that frightful: the incapacity to know what's round the corner."
[...] "There are always versions of history; the real thing we shall never grasp."
On his approach to factual "material", Sebald says:
"There was a vogue of documentary writing in Germany in the 70s which opened my eyes. It's an important literary invention, but it's considered an artless form. I was trying to write something saturated with material but carefully wrought, where the art manifests itself in a discreet, not too pompous fashion." The big events are true, he says, while the detail is invented to give the "effect of the real". "Every novelist combines fact and fiction," he insists. "In my case, there's more reality. But I don't think it's radically different; you work with the same tools."
"I try to let people talk for themselves, so the narrator is only the one who brings the tale but doesn't install himself in it. There's still fiction with an anonymous narrator who knows everything, which seems to me preposterous. I content myself with the role of the messenger."
Sebald has his own scruples about the "morally questionable process of falsification. We're brought up to tell the truth, but as a writer you're an accomplished liar. You persuade yourself it's to achieve a certain end. But there's a problem in departing from the literal truth to achieve an effect - in the worst case, melodrama, where you make someone cry. It's a vice."
One strategy is to avoid the sensational. "The details of Susie Bechhofer's life, with child abuse in a Calvinist Welsh home, are far more horrific than anything in Austerlitz. But I didn't want to make use of it because I haven't the right. I try to keep at a distance and never invade. I don't think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It's like the head of the Medusa: you carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it you'd be petrified. I was trying to write the lives of some people who'd survived - the 'lucky ones'. If they were so fraught, you can extrapolate. But I didn't see it; I only know things indirectly."
Sebald loathes the term "Holocaust literature" ("it's a dreadful idea that you can have a sub-genre and make a speciality out of it; it's grotesque").
He has turned down job offers at German universities, but says: "The longer I've stayed here, the less I feel at home. In Germany, they think I'm a native but I feel at least as distant there. My ideal station", he half smiles, "is possibly a hotel in Switzerland."
He travels almost monthly to the continent, "digging around" in archives, "servicing" his books with readings and appearances ("I try to keep this to a minimum") or visiting friends and relatives.
His sisters live in French- and German-speaking Switzerland, while his mother is still alive in Sonthofen, Bavaria. "Going home is not necessarily a wonderful experience," he says. "It always comes with a sense of loss, and makes you so conscious of the inexorable passage of time... If you're based in two places, on a bad day you see only the disadvantages everywhere. On a bad day, returning to Germany brings back all kinds of spectres from the past."
Sebald: "...we bombed Warsaw and Stalingrad before the US came to bomb us. When Dresden was bombed and there were countless corpses, special commanders were brought in from Treblinka because they knew how to burn bodies."
Sebald prefers his British readers to his German ones: "I get very odd letters from my native country, horrified that there aren't any paragraphs in Austerlitz, or taking me up on errors of fact. It's an attitude problem, an inability to put yourself into the place of another person. There's definitely something like a national character, even though it's frowned upon to say so."
Sebald, who relaxes by "walking and taking the dog out", travels alone: "You can't see anything as a pair; you have to be by yourself."
He is clearly burdened by his writing. "You have no conception when you begin; it seems like an innocent occupation, but it's not easy. You become a boring person for those around you. It must be extremely uncomfortable to live with a writer - all that preoccupation and brooding."
He revises both his English and French translations, scans his Italian ones, and has "intervened massively" in the past ("I literally rewrote them").
He is also oppressed by growing fame. "The phone calls and letters could drive you out of writing. I'm on the brink of saying, no more readings. At the same time, one doesn't want to be too capricious."
[...] At least, he adds, "while you're sitting still in your own room, you don't do anyone any harm".