It was in the autumn of 1992 that I arrived in Norwich at the University of East Anglia, or UEA as it was generally known. Having moved from Munich, where I had studied German and English literature, I hardly knew what to expect of the one-year MA course that lay ahead of me.
At least regarding my supervisor, I had some idea of what to expect: W.G. Sebald was known in academic circles for his two essay collections on twentieth-century Austrian literature. Intriguingly, he was also a literary writer. Or sort of. A somewhat strange collection of prose pieces called Schwindel. Gefühle. (Vertigo) had appeared in Germany in 1990 in the prestigious Andere Bibliothek series. Copies of the first edition, which now fetch prices far in excess of £500, were still readily available in German book shops when I arrived in Norwich. As a writer, Sebald had made little impact in his home country at the time.
When I met Professor Sebald for our first tutorial, I was immediately struck by how different he was from the mostly aloof, self-important professors that I was used to at Munich University – a helpful, kind person, who was often funny and occasionally even slightly shy. My new teaching environment was also quite different: rather than being cramped into classrooms with fifty other students, I enjoyed one-to-one tutorials with Sebald in his small office.
We would meet every week, discussing individual books from a list that we had agreed on at the start of the course. The tutorials usually adhered to the same pattern: I would give a short informal presentation following the model I was trained to adopt in Munich – providing a plot summary, reflecting on the critical texts, then aiming to arrive at an interpretation based on the secondary literature available.
Sebald would sit patiently, listening to me, normally with a wry smile, until I was finished. Then he would embark on an impromptu lecture that ignored all other critics’ opinions. Rather, he would come up with an overall assessment of a writer that hugely differed from the generally approved opinion. Or he would identify a certain flaw or easily overlooked detail in a book and base his disregard or approval of the text on this.
In short, his idiosyncratic approach and heretical methods were miles away from the official ways of literary criticism. And in that one year I learned more about literature than during the previous four years in Munich. For this reason, I decided to hang on and also do my PhD with him. When I told Sebald about my plan, he strongly advised against it. ‘Try your hand at gardening or land surveying,’ he suggested – spending one’s working days out in the open air would be so much more preferable to slaving away at time-wasting paperwork in a stuffy office. That was meant as a joke, of course, albeit a serious one.
The lure of gardening, however, wasn’t strong enough, and when I embarked on my first year of PhD research, Sebald’s fortunes as a writer had already changed: Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) had appeared in Germany in the autumn of 1992 and was discussed on the leading German TV book programme a few months later. It became his breakthrough. While my PhD thesis progressed over the course of the next few years, my unpretentious supervisor not only became a successful writer in our home country but also gained recognition in the anglophone world.
While I worked on my study of the Austrian writer Gerhard Roth, he wrote his masterpiece Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), which was met with unanimous applause in Germany in 1995. The following year saw his immediate success both in this country and the US when The Emigrants appeared in English. Sebald became less inclined to spend time in his office, located in the rather gloomy basement of the School of European History and Modern Languages. Our supervisory meetings were now mostly conducted at his Victorian vicarage on the outskirts of Norwich.
Depending on the time of day, we would be sitting in the kitchen while Sebald was preparing a vegetarian meal or drinking sherry in the study. In the summer we were often sitting in the garden taking tea and once we even undertook a trip in Sebald’s red Peugeot 205 to a nearby hotel bar. Not only were our meetings characterized by their informality, but we chatted mostly about personal affairs or recent literary developments. About the progress of my thesis, we usually talked only little.
Sebald was never the kind of supervisor who would try to steer me towards a certain direction. Rather, he preferred to support me in doing whatever I felt worked best. As his student, I gained in self-confidence and sharpened my independent thinking. But predominantly, I felt encouraged by the fact that he was so evidently different from all senior academics I had met before – and those I have met since. What I learned from him was more than a thing or two about literature. I also learned what it means to be upright and detached in the bonfire of literary as well as academic vanities. And I learned the probably somewhat un-British lesson of speaking one’s mind in situations where it is necessary to do so.
When I dropped in on him at home one late afternoon, he had just finished burning parts from an emerging book he was unhappy with. He told me that he had recently been to Corsica. There, he had made notes about local history and archaic customs that had survived the onslaught of modernity. These ‘scribblings’, as he called them, were no good, in his scrupulous opinion. After his death, I learned that at least some parts of the manuscript had survived; they are now known as the ‘Corsica Project’, the book he had planned to write after The Rings of Saturn.
His auto-da-fé led us to a discussion of Kafka’s rejected instruction to have all his papers burned, and Elias Canetti’s very same habit of destroying his writings in the fireplace. Sebald knew Canetti personally, having originally met him when, by chance, the two were seated next to each other on a flight from Zurich to London. Not that he believed in chance. ‘Meetings like this are fate, not coincidence,’ he assured me.
After all, Sebald believed that there was more to this world than what the sciences were able to explain.
Still, it would be wrong to assume that Sebald was a kind of aloof esoteric. On the contrary. He took great pleasure in telling jokes and relating funny episodes from his recent experiences as a beguiled literary star – about the vanities of leading literary critics or the arrogance of fellow professors, which he liked to expose and ridicule. After all, he was their exact opposite: unassuming, modest, empathetic.
Fame had its consequences, though: journalists from Germany now flocked to his home to interview him. He was also often away from the university. When asked why, he would tell me that he had been to Germany to pick up one of the prizes that were awarded to him with increasing frequency. He saw these trips as a burden. Particularly as he detested the formal ceremonies at which he had to wear a suit and tie and was expected to shake the hands of dignitaries who had no clue about his books.
While I slowly worked my way into academia, Sebald increasingly transformed from literary critic into a literary writer. A crucial factor for this change had to do with what, at the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, he called ‘the increasingly adverse conditions’ prevailing at British universities.
Sebald had spent his entire career as an academic in the UK. First, at Manchester University, where he arrived in the autumn of 1966 and worked as a Lektor (a language teaching assistant). In 1970 he moved to UEA in Norwich. There he spent nearly thirty years, rising from PhD student and lecturer to Professor of European Literature. ‘Conditions in British universities were absolutely ideal in the sixties and seventies,’ Sebald explained in an interview with the Observer in 1996. ‘Then the so-called reforms began and life became extremely unpleasant. I was looking for a way to re-establish myself in a different form simply as a counterweight to the daily bother in the institution.’
The writing of literature for Sebald became more and more a place of escape in the face of bureaucracy and a constantly increasing administrative work load. From the mid 1990s onwards, the number of languages offered at UEA was gradually reduced and the Department of European Languages eventually dissolved. Sebald accepted the changes and retreated to his vicarage whenever he could. It was telling that he was the only academic in the whole university who refused to have a computer in his office. In his entire life, Sebald never wrote an email, preferring to write letters in his elegant handwriting. His books were written on an old typewriter that was so worn out from use that it didn’t even produce a straight line any more.
Establishing himself as an internationally known literary star had its trappings. As his books often dealt with the fate of exiles of Jewish extraction, some critics were quick to pigeonhole him as a ‘Holocaust author’ – a label he resolutely detested. Alongside this one-sided perception, he sometimes also became the object of an irrational reverence. Sebald sanctus. Max the messiah. The apogee of this was expressed in the words of the US critic Richard Eder, who declared in The New York Times Book Review: ‘Sebald stands with Primo Levi as the prime speaker of the Holocaust.’
In his 2010 Sebald Memorial Lecture, Will Self was right to remind the English literary establishment that ‘In England, Sebald’s one-time presence among us […] is registered as further confirmation that we won, and won because of our righteousness, our liberality, our inclusiveness and our tolerance. Where else could the Good German have sprouted so readily?’ The Good German . . . a label Sebald hated. Being co-opted as the shining representative of his native country, towards which he felt a deep ambivalence, was a development that could only cause him further unease.
W.G. Sebald died far too prematurely, in December 2001, at the very height of his literary career. It happened shortly after publication of the novel Austerlitz in German and English, and so this, his last – though by no means best – book came to be seen as his literary legacy. Comparisons to the deaths of writers such as Kleist, Kafka, Celan and Levi were quick at hand by those who saw a kind of literary redeemer in him. In the English-speaking world, those mere five years from 1996 to 2001 – which saw the publication of his books in translation – were enough to provide him with an unassailable standing in the canon of contemporary literature.
In Germany, however, the situation is not as clear-cut. This has mostly to do with Sebald’s contentious critical essays. Some critics are confused by his ambivalent positions. Some opponents tried to discredit his literary writings on the basis of his critical essays. Sebald always had vocal adversaries, particularly among fellow writers, such as the Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Maybe, without admitting it, what these opponents are up against is less the indisputable quality of his writings, but the monument that his many admirers have erected for their Saint Sebald.
These iconoclasts won’t stand a chance though – the hagiographs are far too numerous. At the recent world meeting of Germanists, Sebald was the most popular subject of papers presented. To keep track of all research articles, critical essays and PhD theses on him has become an impossible task. Conferences keep being organized, books on Sebald keep being published, Sebald events draw capacity audiences. He has attained cult status even in popular culture, with musicians such as David Byrne or Patti Smith referencing him.
It is difficult to say what he would have made of all this adoration. Most of it would have appalled him; some praise might have pleased him. It is probably fair to say, however, that he would have preferred the status of a controversial misfit to the unreserved idolization he mostly received in the English-speaking world.
Writing, he once observed, ‘is a strange behavioural disorder that forces one to transfer every emotion into words and that manages to miss reality with astounding precision […] but […] those pitiful writers imprisoned in their world of words sometimes succeed to open up views of such beauty and intensity as life itself rarely delivers’. Opening up views: it’s what W.G. Sebald did as a writer and, for me at least, it’s what he did as a teacher too.
Originally commissioned in 2011 for Radio 3’s The Essay, aired each week night at 22.45. Audio available at: www.bbc.co.uk