Interview with W G Sebald by Sebastian Shakespeare

Sebastian Shakespeare

Interview with W G Sebald


All your books (‘Austerlitz’, ‘The Emigrants’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘The Rings of Saturn’) are about loss and exile. Why did you leave Germany and choose to settle in England?

Because I was offered a job in Manchester and because, after a while, England seemed as good a place as any other. It compared very favourably with Germany in the 1960s.

How has England changed in the last thirty years? For better or for worse?

Much has changed and most of it for the worse.

Which English authors do you most admire?

Browne, Aubrey, Donne, Pepys, Sterne, Cowper, Woolf.

Which writers have most influenced you?

Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, Gottfried Keller, Johann Peter Hebel, Adalbert Stifter, Robert Walser, Joseph Roth, Giorgio Bassani, Thomas Bernhard.

In your work you take facts from the real world and make them fictional. ‘Austerlitz’ is classified by your publisher as fiction, yet it reads more like a memoir. Do you consciously write fiction? What does that genre mean to you?

I try to write prose fiction but the novel genre is alien to me. By prose fiction I mean a form of text which in all its diverse dimensions seeks to attain a higher degree of intensity and precision than can commonly be found in the contemporary novel.

You like to insert old photographs, drawings and maps into your narrative. Why?

Photographs and other oddments are part of the material I work with and thus, like the endless notes and quotations which go into the making of a text, have a legitimate place in it. There are other, more complicated considerations – aber das ist ein weites Feld.

‘Austerlitz’ is about an orphan sent to England on one of the Kindertransports and placed with foster parents in Wales. Is he based on a real person?

On several real persons.

Jacques Austerlitz has much in common with Paul Bereyter in ‘The Emigrants’. They share an obsession with railways and architecture, both are evasive about the past, and both seek solace in gardening. Are their affinities deliberate?

The affinities are more coincidental than deliberate.

I understand you help with the translation of your work. Why don’t you translate your work into English yourself as did Nabokov?

Because, as a part-time writer, I don’t have the time to take on the whole of this difficult business.

How does the translation of ‘Austerlitz’ compare with the original? What, if anything, is lost in translation?

Translations invariably lose some of the finer grains of the original. It is also impossible, for instance, to capture, in the English rendering, the odiousness of the Third Reich’s administrative jargon which informs the Terezín passages of this book.

Why didn’t you write it in English?

Because I consider my command of English to be insufficient.

Your prose is very precise. Do you find it easy to write?

No. Writing is, for me, an exacting and painstaking business which, however, seems to get steadily harder as one goes along. I stare in incredulity at writers, like Updike for instance, who turn out novels like bakers make buns.

Where do you write?

Anywhere where there is some peace and quiet.

Austerlitz says: ‘Our concern with history is a concern. With preformed images already imprinted on our brain, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.’ Does history lie?

Historiographic accounts (for example, of the battles of the First World War) are scarcely closer to the truth (if there is such a thing) than the most extravagant piece of fiction.

George Steiner said art can only be silent in the face of such an enormity as the Holocaust. What are your feelings about this statement?

It’s wrong, like all generalisations. Not least because there are some writers who have managed to write ‘silence’.

You have been described as Kafka’s heir, a Teutonic Borges, ‘one of the most original new voices to have come from Europe in recent years’ (Paul Auster) and ‘the first contemporary writer since Beckett to have found a way to protest the good government of the conventional novel-form (James Wood). How do you place yourself in literature?

Nowhere in particular.

What is the relation between creativity and mental instability?

‘Inspiration’ – for want of a better word – always comes from the periphery. Borderlines, in the social, psychological, linguistic and topographical sense, are important ingredients in the creative process.

Do you communicate with the dead?

No, I am not a member of a spiritualist circle. But some of the departed I remember are no less dear to me than some of the living. I’d like to think that I am trying to do them justice.

Austerlitz lives his life out of a rucksack and lives outside time. He never wears a wristwatch and doesn’t own a clock of any kind. Do you own a wristwatch? Are you in bondage to time?

I do carry a watch and have been subject to quite relentless schedules for most of my life. Living ‘outside time’, for a few years at least now, and just by the pattern of seasons, is the greatest wish I have.

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