source: The last word
WG Sebald's literary career was at its height when he died in a car crash last week [14 December 2001]. In his last interview, he told Maya Jaggi about growing up in Bavaria after the second world war, his oblique approach to the Holocaust and why he still wrote in German 35 years after arriving in England
Maya Jaggi: I first interviewed Max Sebald in September, one of his reluctant concessions to publicity that he discharged with kindliness and deadpan humour. In his cramped, defiantly computerless room at the University of East Anglia, where he was professor of European literature, he showed me a sepia photograph of a young boy from his mother's Bavarian clan, who was destined to return mentally disturbed from the first world war. "This is before he knew," Sebald marvelled at the innocent countenance. "I find that frightful - the incapacity to know what's round the corner."
Those words struck me after I learned of his death last Friday, at the age of 57, in a car accident in Norwich. In old photographs he had given me, the boy Max (his third name was Maximilian) stands before the Bavarian Alps, clad in the lederhosen he detested, unaware both of the late flowering of his literary talent (he began writing "prose fiction" only in his mid-40s), and that his career would be shockingly cut short at the height of his powers.
Maya Jaggi: You were born in Wertach im Allgäu, Bavaria, on May 18 1944, in the waning years of the Third Reich. How would you describe your family background?
WG Sebald: Wertach was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, in a valley covered in snow for five months a year. It was a silent place. I was brought up largely by my grandfather, because my father only returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1947, and worked in the nearest small town, so I hardly ever saw him. I lived in that place until I was about 8. My parents came from working-class, small-peasant, farm-labourer backgrounds, and had made the grade during the fascist years; my father came out of the army as a captain. For most of those years, I didn't know what class we belonged to. Then the German "economic miracle" unfolded, so the family rose again; my father occupied a "proper" place in lower-middle-class society.
It was that social stratum where the so-called conspiracy of silence was at its most present. Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. There it was, and we somehow had to get our minds around it - which of course we didn't. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out what had happened. In the mid-60s, I could not conceive that these events had happened only a few years back.
It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country [in 1966], because in Manchester, I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people. [One character in The Emigrants (1993) was based partly on Sebald's Mancunian landlord, a Jewish refugee.] You could grow up in Germany in the postwar years without ever meeting a Jewish person. There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin, but in a provincial town in south Germany Jewish people didn't exist. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places, as doctors, cinema ushers, owners of garages, but they had disappeared - or had been disappeared. So it was a process of successive phases of realisation.
MJ: Your work combines genres - autobiography, travel, meditative essay - and blurs boundaries between fact and fiction, art and documentary. You've said the big events are true while the detail is invented. What inspired your latest novel, Austerlitz, and the character of Jacques Austerlitz?
WGS: Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, or perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons. One is a colleague of mine and another is a person about whom I happened to see a Channel 4 documentary by sheer chance.
I was captivated by the tale of an apparently English woman [Susie Bechhofer] who, as it transpired, had come to this country with her twin sister and been brought up in a Welsh Calvinist household.
One of the twins died and the surviving twin never really knew that her origins were in a Munich orphanage. The story struck home; it cast my mind back to Munich, the nearest big city to where I grew up, so I could relate to the horror and distress.
MJ: Jacques Austerlitz recovers memories in his 50s of having arrived in Britain from Prague on the Kindertransport. Much of your work is about memory: its unreliability, its shattering return after being repressed. Does literature have a special role to play in remembrance?
WGS: The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago.
MJ: Your work is very oblique and tentative in its approach to the Holocaust; you avoid the sensational. What do you think the dilemmas are of fiction writers tackling the subject?
WGS: In the history of postwar German writing, for the first 15 or 20 years, people avoided mentioning political persecution - the incarceration and systematic extermination of whole peoples and groups in society. Then from 1965 this became a preoccupation of writers - not always in an acceptable form. So I knew that writing about the subject, particularly for people of German origin, is fraught with dangers and difficulties. Tactless lapses, moral and aesthetic, can easily be committed.
It was also clear you could not write directly about the horror of persecution in its ultimate forms, because no one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity. So you would have to approach it from an angle, and by intimating to the reader that these subjects are constant company; their presence shades every inflection of every sentence one writes. If one can make that credible, then one can begin to defend writing about these subjects at all.
MJ: Your books have a documentary feel, using captionless black-and-white photographs, but their status is unclear, or whether portraits correspond to people in the text. What's your interest in photography, and why do you strive for uncertainty in the reader about what's true?
WGS: I've always been interested in photographs, collecting them not systematically but randomly. They get lost, then turn up again. Two years ago in a junk shop in the East End of London, I found a postcard of the yodelling group from my home town. That is a pretty staggering experience. These old photographs always seem to have this appeal written into them, that you should tell a story behind them. In The Emigrants there is a group photograph of a large Jewish family, all wearing Bavarian costume. That one image tells you more about the history of German-Jewish aspiration than a whole monograph would do.
MJ: Why do you continue to write in German?
WGS: I have lived in this country far longer than in Bavaria, but reading in English I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn't have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don't trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.