Beginning with Vertigo
, what was it that made you actually
start the writing when you did?
W G Sebald:
I was in my mid-forties when I produced my first scribblings which
were non-academic. I went down to London. Completely randomly, I had picked out
a book by an Austrian writer, Konrad Baier, which I had not looked at for some
time. The book had a footnote about a botanist who had been on Bering's Alaskan
expedition. When I got to London, I went to the British Museum on a complete
whim and read about it. I could not see how I could possibly write an essay or
a monograph on this, but it so fascinated me that I just wrote it down in a
longhand prose poem. I had no intentions to publish it. It was very liberating
at the time, because it was so intensely private.
At the beginning of
, you follow the young Stendhal in Napoleon's army and introduce
the central theme of the book: the unknowability of the past and memory's
unreliability. As a writer you must draw on memory--do you feel that all the
stories we tell are fictions, or do some stories have more truth than others?
Seen from the outside, some stories have more truth than others,
but the truth value of the story does not depend on its actual truth content.
The truth value depends on how it is framed and phrased. If a story is
aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right. You cannot really
translate one to one from reality. If you try to do that, in order to get at a
truth value through writing, you have to falsify and lie. And that is one of
the moral quandaries of the whole business.
That's a theme that is evident in your books, what you term in
"the questionable business of writing"--why do people
One doesn't know why one does it. You have no idea. If someone
asks, you have to own up and say that you have no idea what your motives are.
It could be a compulsive habit with neurotic dimensions. Or it could be
Do you think that exhibitionism comes into it?
Oh yes--that is the less savoury side, along with the mercenary
So how do you find that you are viewed, as a writer?
Usually with a mixture of admiration and contempt! But there are
of course some noble motives--trying to say something that is true, and being
analytical about oneself. That's all very laudable, but even these are mixed up
with less savoury motives, and the commodification of literature has just made
the whole thing worse.
Is that a contemporary phenomenon?
was as vain and ambitious in the eighteenth century as anyone today. And there
have always been exceptions, people like
--every line in his diary is so straight and
He's a rarity because he didn't want to be published.
But he couldn't bring himself to burn the stuff.
Staying with Kafka, it struck me that Vertigo
Kafkaesque elements to it--not just because he is one of the characters, but
because of the sense of confusion, being in a labyrinth, shifting realities,
and so on. How much do you feel modern writing owes to Kafka?
A great deal, whether people know it or not. What particularly
interested me about Kafka was this one story, which is one of his most
enigmatic, about Gracchus the huntsman. What drew me in is the way in which
literary and life experience overlap in that story. We are thrown into four or
five cultural relationships of various types, and in turn the narrator is
informed and programmed by this cultural knowledge. If one writes at this point
in time, you cannot pretend that you are not programmed to a large extent by
culture rather than by nature.
Our culture certainly takes itself very seriously today. We live
at a time when many people trumpet our understanding of material forces and
human consciousness. What do you feel about the story we tell of our grasp of
science and consciousness?
I think one can surmise that what is happening at the moment is a
very critical mutation in our collective figurations. Here in the university I
can see how people who were once meant to be critical thinkers are being
de-autonomised and strapped into networks where they slave away at pointless
tasks, while all the time people become less able to use their own language
We are being reduced to curiously gesticulating forms of spoken
language, which mimic what we see on the screens before us. It is crucial that
we have some knowledge of how far we have already been pushed as a species,
beyond our original form of dignity.
So it seems almost as if, while our culture is developing what we
perceive to be objective knowledge, we are losing self-knowledge?
Yes, although by definition we cannot know what is actually
happening to us now, because we have fears about it, we have this pain. My
sense of it is that this faultline between nature and civilisation--whatever
that may be--runs right through our bodies and souls.
The pain comes from the bizarre position we find ourselves in is
that we have to catapult everything that ties us to the natural environment.
Any sentimental notions we might have had about it are flattened, burnt out.
And history is the other part of it--we have to catapult history, because we
cannot bear to think about what, say, the River Rhine might have looked like in
the nineteenth century.
This sense of oblivion is very important throughout your work. Do
you feel that we have to confront our memories in order to achieve some sort of
The curious thing about collective memories of the past is that
one looks back into the eighteenth century, and imagines, say, the Touraine as
it was, and we have images which somehow are wonderful. And at the same time
one knows that the whole thing was almost as frightful as it is now. But what
the past is about, even if you look at it in its most gruesome form, is a kind
of haven of safety. Because it's already happened--the pain is already past.
Because we know how it was resolved?
The actual pain of those who have suffered has subsided, and you
also know-- irrespective of how horrid it was--that you know where you come
from, and this is where you were at home.
If that gets cut off, then yet another prop of our
self-understanding is removed. That is why the historical flatness in which we
live is so frightening. It is increasingly difficult to imagine what one or two
generations mean, or what 1870 might have been like.
This refusal to confront
the past, the sense of oblivion, is very important to your work. In The
Rings of Saturn
you wrote that
incurred guilt just by being in the Congo--do you think that we incur guilt
just by possessing the wealth which historically owes its riches to slave
Yes, it's all inextricably linked. Even the most idealistic poet,
who has never taken a penny from anyone, is in that system--as much or as
little as the most mercenary writer of trash fiction. There's no way out of it.
In reviews of your books, the word "sublime" has been mentioned. I
wonder if that's because the things you write about tend to be evocations of
the past--do you think it's possible to produce a piece of sublime art of this
Yes, I think it is
possible. Sometimes writers pull off that trick--it is a kind of trick--and
they don't know how it works. There are passages in
memoirs which touch you physically when you read them. But whether any of my
stuff falls into that box I wouldn't know. And even when you do produce a
passage which you feel is quite good, you feel like a swindler at that moment,
because you get a sense of gratification, of having pulled something off.
How have other people reacted to your work?
In Britain, in particular, I have had a lot of touching letters,
recounting very personal elements of people's lives. In this sense, at least, I
have the feeling of not having completely wasted my time, and not being someone
who invariably lies through their teeth.
Talking of Britain, you clearly feel some sort of physical link to
the region where you live--why is that?
I have been here for a long time. There are some corners of it
which I like. I'm not remotely at home here, though--all I have to do is get
into the taxi at the station and people ask me where I come from.
Let's talk about wandering, then, because a lot of the writers who
play roles in your work are wanderers. Is that because you identify with them
yourself as an exile, or because there's an intimate relationship between
writing and restlessness?
Both are true. Even sedentary writers tend to be restless in a
different sort of way--they pace up and down their studies! I think there must
be a sense of restlessness to write. If you were content, you would never put
pen to paper--but it's difficult to convince people of this.
You talk of the culture
a big influence on you?
Yes, he was the first
glimmer of light I saw in the horrid atmosphere of German academia in the 60s,
where you were surrounded by dissembling old fascists. The atmosphere was
partly authoritarian and partly disingenuous, you couldn't read anything that
had any intelligence to it because it was all so wooden, dense, founded on
lies. When I came across Walter
, I stared at what he had written in
amazement. Adorno, too, was important, although in his later years he couldn't
avoid producing turgid works, too, like "negative dialectics"--just as boring
Just coming back to
restlessness, I wanted to ask you whether you feel that there is a connection
between this and one of the other main themes of your work,
Yes, in the fear that the ground is being cut from under our feet.
And these days, of course, if you are born in parts of Washington or London,
you only have nature in a very reduced form. I'm sure that I sense this
particularly because I grew up in such a remote part of Germany, and have felt
very much over the last thirty years as if machines have been invading. And
with the proliferation of machines has gone a proliferation of noise.
Right now we can hear the
traffic outside, the noise of the generator, the aeroplanes above--this
proliferation just makes rigorous thought that much more impossible. It is
impossible to imagine
thinking out a problem in front
of an audience today. Impossible.
How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our
Enormously so. I received a
letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn
claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole
Bay--off Lowestoft--had been heard in London.
heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can
barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing
possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever
has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years.
How do you feel about the acceleration of this process?
Everything is becoming generalised. I am the only person in the
University not to have a computer, and that is regarded as quixotic. It is the
only sort of eccentricity that is left. But when I first came here, almost
every other colleague was slightly eccentric. That was the whole point--people
were different, so they could tell you things from their different standpoints.
They have all been eliminated.
Do you feel that computers control people more than any other form
of machine, even the silk looms that you write about in The Rings of
The two are the same phenomenon, equally addictive. The slavery is
more manifest in the loom, but you can see people suffering equally with these
machines today which are supposed to be your helpers. These systems have become
error-driven. Financial management in an institution like a university has
become a comedy of errors-- no one knows where the money is, whether it's real
or unreal, how it leaks out of one box and disappears in another. People just
cannot cope with the error, and the enormous number of pieces of paper.
Talking about the quantity of objects, I'd like to ask you about
your prose. You write in a way which has an obsession with detail--do you feel
that part of the problem we face today is that we are putting too much store in
nebulous, big ideas, which is blinding us to the detail which actually
constitutes our lives?
Yes I think so. If you can imagine being a member of an Indian
tribe, you would have a much more acute sensorium to what is going on around
you. But we have been trained to cut off the detail, in terms of perception and
articulation. So we don't know the names of the trees any more, they are just
trees. Whereas an Indian would know much more than just the name of a
tree--they would know all of its qualities. But all this is just arcane
information to us--problems, actually, to be controlled.
And not just in perception--also in occupation. Jobs have become
much more alike. I don't feel any more that I'm working in a university, I feel
that I might just as well be in Barclays.
So the actual detail of what people do is being lost in a
Specificity is vanishing all the time. The same is true of
language--biodiversity declines very rapidly, both between languages and within
each language. What is spawned instead is a curiously mutant form of language,
characterised by garbledness and inarticulation. These new forms of language on
the machines seem to be very vibrant, but they're very flabby and have no
syntactical form to them at all. It's a sign of something being taken away, and
some substitute being proffered instead.
Finally, coming back to the way you put your books together, I
wanted to ask you what the role of the pictorial element was in them?
:I have always had a thing about old photographs. The older
pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world
where the departed are. A black-and-white photograph is a document of an
absence, and is almost curiously metaphysical. I have always hoarded them. They
represent a sense of otherness. The figures in photographs have been muted, and
they stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something.
They have become part of my working process, part of the way in
which I declare my position. Although I try to stay as anonymous as possible in
the text, at the same time I'm anxious to declare my position. I don't think
one can now attempt to write a book which hasn't got that notion of relativity
And the photographs fulfil this function for you?
Yes, because they are part of the process. They act as a token of
authenticity-- but they can be deduced, forged or purloined. And of course that
in turn throws up one of the central problems of fiction writing, which is that
of legitimacy and the arrival at the truth on a crooked route. This is why
"vertigo" in German has a double meaning--schwindel
in German means
"swindle". What right do you have to write about any of these things? Have you
been there, and felt these things for yourself?