Wednesday 20 March 2002

A Symposium on W.G. Sebald

The Threepenny Review has put together an online symposium in memory of the writer W. G. Sebald, who was killed on December 14 last year in a car accident in Norwich, England, where he had lived since 1970. T. J. Clark wrote:

A friend who spent an evening with Sebald a few months ago—a relaxed evening, the writer talking with people he knew well—told me that in this setting he came across as easily, caustically, a man of the Left. His remarks were brief but their drift unmistakable. We agreed that this was not surprising, but that it mattered that neither of us would have risked a prediction of Sebald’s politics—his political attitudes, his style in the face of day-to-day events—on the basis of the books he had written.

Oddly, I found this resonated with what another friend, a German literary critic, had said to me a year or so before, explaining his failure to go along with the lionizing of Sebald in the English-speaking world. He found Sebald’s prose too reminiscent of a run of late-nineteenth-century elegiac German and Swiss essayists (he named names, but they meant nothing to me and are long forgotten), sharing their slightly aggrieved disappointment in modernity, and like them not giving an inkling of the form of life he would prefer. Not even going in for nostalgia.

I did not doubt the charge, but I ended up thinking that what I admired in Sebald had to do with just this ability to retrieve a late-nineteenth-century tone—a minor tone, if you like, a posture of privacy and bad nerves—and have it apply to the hugeness, the atrocity, of the century following. And in applying, change key. Likewise, the verdict on Sebald’s suspension between past and present seemed to me to cut both ways. The books he wrote are about living in the past, and what it is that conspires to make this a way— maybe the only bearable or defensible one—of living in the present. Preference has nothing to do with it. Sebald’s past is a spell, a medication—sometimes transparently a fake—whose purpose is to figure and resist the madness pressing in on all sides. On goes the querulous patter of the memoir, past flow the indecipherable photographs, up pile the facts about herring and Omar Khayyam—and we are in hell before we know it, smelling the smell, hearing the screams, being offered a path through the fire. It is bitter to think the path now peters out.

(link via wood s lot)

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Comments

Can anyone tell me roughly when Sebald's poem "Dark Night Sallies Forth" was first published in Germany? & when it was written?

Posted by Joseph McElroy on 7 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour