The Questionable Business of Writing

In a rare interview, author, philosopher and academic W G Sebald talks to Toby Green about memory, modern culture and the truth of writing.

Following the publication of The Emigrants in 1996, the German author WG Sebald was hailed by writers as diverse as AS Byatt, Anita Brookner and Susan Sontag. Sebald's blend of personal narrative, investigation, fiction, history and travel writing created a passionate and wholehearted response. The publication of The Rings of Saturn in 1998 confirmed this reputation, and now Harvill has brought out Vertigo, the book in which Sebald first employed his unique narrative style. Toby Green--author of Saddled with Darwin --travelled to Norwich, where Sebald is Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia, and discussed with him his latest book. 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 Vertigo , 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?

Sebald: 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 Emigrants "the questionable business of writing"--why do people write?

Sebald: 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 vanity. Do you think that exhibitionism comes into it?

Sebald: Oh yes--that is the less savoury side, along with the mercenary considerations. So how do you find that you are viewed, as a writer?

Sebald: 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?


Chateaubriand was as vain and ambitious in the eighteenth century as anyone today. And there have always been exceptions, people like Kafka--every line in his diary is so straight and sincere. He's a rarity because he didn't want to be published.

Sebald: But he couldn't bring himself to burn the stuff. Staying with Kafka, it struck me that Vertigo has some 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?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: 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 properly.

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?

Sebald: 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 contentment?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: 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 Conrad 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 economies?

Sebald: 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 age?


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 Nabokov's 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?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: 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 industry--was Theodor Adorno 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 Benjamin, 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 as Hegel.

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, destructiveness?

Sebald: 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 Wittgenstein thinking out a problem in front of an audience today. Impossible. How do you feel that this growth of noise has affected our perceptual abilities?


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. Newton 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?

Sebald: 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 Saturn ?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: 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 generality?

Sebald: 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?

Sebald: :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 in it. And the photographs fulfil this function for you?

Sebald: 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?

Related Items

The Rings Of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage (Panther S.)

16 used & new from £0.17

The Emigrants

11 used & new from £1.12