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The last word
WG Sebald's literary career was at its height when he died in a car crash last week. 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 The Guardian, Friday 21 December 2001
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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. He had just moved from the small publisher Harvill to a lucrative deal with the Penguin group. His early prose poem After Nature and the non-fiction Air War and Literature will be published in English by Hamish Hamilton next year. This edited conversation, published here for the first time, was a rare public appearance by Sebald - his last in Britain - and took place on September 24, in partnership with the South Bank Centre, before a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. It formed the annual St Jerome event of UEA's British Centre for Literary Translation, of which Sebald was the founder and a passionate advocate. Although Sebald came to Britain in the mid-60s, and lived with his wife Ute in an old rectory outside Norwich, he wrote only in German. Yet he felt at home in neither country. "My ideal station," he told me with his mock lugubriousness, "is possibly a hotel in Switzerland." 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 eight. 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.
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MJ: Your work is very oblique and tentative in its approach to the Holocaust. Does literature have a special role to play in remembrance? WGS: The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. or whether portraits correspond to people in the text. so I could relate to the horror and distress. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. meditative essay . MJ: Jacques Austerlitz recovers memories in his 50s of having arrived in Britain from Prague on the Kindertransport. it cast my mind back to Munich.not always in an acceptable form. as doctors. What do you think the dilemmas are of fiction writers tackling the subject. Much of your work is about memory: its unreliability.or had been disappeared. can easily be committed. They get lost. people avoided mentioning political persecution . particularly for people of German origin.WG Sebald: The last interview | Education | The Guardian http://www. Austerlitz.] You could grow up in Germany in the postwar years without ever meeting a Jewish person. There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin. Tactless lapses. is fraught with dangers and difficulties. cinema ushers. I found a postcard of the yodelling group from my home town. will come back at you and it will shape your life. but in a provincial town in south Germany Jewish people didn't exist. owners of garages. One of the twins died and the surviving twin never really knew that her origins were in a Munich orphanage. its shattering return after being repressed. had come to this country with her twin sister and been brought up in a Welsh Calvinist household. but they had disappeared . the nearest big city to where I grew up. using captionless black-and-white photographs. I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people. travel. So you would have to approach it from an angle.. I was captivated by the tale of an apparently English woman [Susie Bechhofer] who.. as it transpired. What's your interest in photography. So it was a process of successive phases of realisation. you avoid the sensational.and blurs boundaries between fact and fiction. It was also clear you could not write directly about the horror of persecution in its ultimate forms. because in Manchester. their presence shades every inflection of every sentence one writes. WGS: In the history of postwar German writing.co. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives.guardian. MJ: Your work combines genres . It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country [in 1966]. then turn up again. for the first 15 or 20 years. a Jewish refugee. because no one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity. even if you repress it. and the character of Jacques Austerlitz? WGS: Behind Austerlitz hide two or three. Then from 1965 this became a preoccupation of writers . You've said the big events are true while the detail is invented. MJ: Your books have a documentary feel. real persons. then one can begin to defend writing about these subjects at all. If one can make that credible. and why do you strive for uncertainty in the reader about what's true? WGS: I've always been interested in photographs.not from yesterday but from a long time ago. 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 . art and documentary. collecting them not systematically but randomly. So I knew that writing about the subject. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places. or perhaps three-and-a-half.autobiography. [One character in The Emigrants (1993) was based partly on Sebald's Mancunian landlord. and by intimating to the reader that these subjects are constant company. That is a 2 of 3 8/25/10 6:18 PM . Two years ago in a junk shop in the East End of London.uk/education/2001/dec/21/artsandhumani.the incarceration and systematic extermination of whole peoples and groups in society. The story struck home. What inspired your latest novel. Memory. but their status is unclear. moral and aesthetic. One is a colleague of mine and another is a person about whom I happened to see a Channel 4 documentary by sheer chance.
WG Sebald: The last interview | Education | The Guardian http://www. In The Emigrants there is a group photograph of a large Jewish family.uk/education/2001/dec/21/artsandhumani.guardian. For Years Now. You also have problems. a collection of poems by WG Sebald. That one image tells you more about the history of German-Jewish aspiration than a whole monograph would do. · Austerlitz is published by Hamish Hamilton.. These old photographs always seem to have this appeal written into them. guardian. It is a sore point. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov. because on bad days you don't trust yourself. but reading in English I become self-conscious about having a funny accent. and so you feel like a complete halfwit. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink.. I didn't have circumstances which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. MJ: Why do you continue to write in German? WGS: I have lived in this country far longer than in Bavaria.co. that you should tell a story behind them. is published by Short Books. all wearing Bavarian costume.co. either in your first or your second language. pretty staggering experience. because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010 3 of 3 8/25/10 6:18 PM .
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