In January 2003, just over a year after Max Sebald’s death, I was invited to speak at a University of London symposium in his memory. A little daunted, I enlisted the help of several writers, whose words are included in the piece that follows, alongside my own memories of Max in the last years of his life, when I was his English publisher.
AFTER NATURE · Max’s first literary work, a beautiful, long poem in three parts, was first published in Germany in 1988 and much later, in a translation by Michael Hamburger, in the UK and USA. Max told me that he began writing it on a train journey when especially disillusioned by academia and academic writing. It contains within it many of the themes, ideas and emblematic locations which he would revisit in his later writings: the railway station, the battlefield, the hospital, the altar, the mountain landscape, the night sky, the sea, the buried past, the burdens of grief and history, the repetitive cruelties and stupidities of humankind, madness, dreaming, flight, exile and death.
BAVARIA · Max was born in 1944 in Wertach im Algäu in the Bavarian Alps, which was also where he grew up. His father, who had joined the German army in 1929, fought for Hitler in the Second World War, was interned in a French prisoner-of-war camp, and didn’t return home until 1947. Max recalled that his father’s experiences were never spoken of at home, and it wasn’t until a documentary film of the liberation of Belsen was shown at his school that he began to have an inkling of the enormity and horror of Germany’s recent history – a subject he would return to again and again in his work.
CLIMATE · One of the most distinctive characteristics of Max’s writing, as Robert Macfarlane has noted, is the substitution in part of climate for character:
‘His novels have their own weather systems. In Austerlitz, there are “miasmas”, “imperturbable fogs” and the air is “hatched with grey”. “Drizzle” pinstripes the pages. In The Emigrants there are “veils of rain”, in The Rings of Saturn “veils of ash”. “All forms of colour,” writes Sebald in Austerlitz, “were dissolved in a pearl-grey haze; there were no contrasts, no shading any more, only flowing transitions with the light throbbing through them, a single blur from which only the most fleeting of visions emerged.”’
DIGRESSIVENESS · Max’s ornate, stately sentences appear to wander as widely as his narrators on their travels, following winding paths of digression, disappearing into side-streets, and pausing to examine objects or images of particular interest. When asked by an interviewer from the New Yorker how he came to write The Rings of Saturn, he replied:
‘I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere . . . and in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else.’
Digression is at the heart of Max’s work. As Dave Eggers puts it: ‘The digressiveness follows the path of memory, which is rarely orderly. The uncovering of the story through the thicket of the mind – that’s the plot in a way.’
EMIGRANTS · The first of Max’s major works to appear in English, in 1996, and published in Germany three years earlier, The Emigrants caused something of a sensation. It was as if a canonical writer had sprung fully formed from the apparently dead tradition of twentieth-century modernism. An astonishingly original and captivating work, it documents and interweaves the lives of four Jewish émigrés with overwhelming moral and emotional force. Susan Sontag summed up the response to The Emigrants when she wrote: ‘Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.’
FICTION · Max described his works Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz as ‘prose fictions’ to distinguish them from the tradition of the ‘novel’, which he characterized as a kind of clanking machine emitting dreadful noises as it all-too-obviously changed gear:
‘The business of having to have bits of dialogue to move the plot along, that’s fine for an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century novel, but that becomes in our day a bit trying, where you always see the wheels of the novel grinding and going on.’
In their effect his books might seem close to what we now call ‘creative non-fiction’ but on careful examination they are full of fictional devices: the emptying out of landscapes, the repetition of images, the elision of characters, the defamiliarizing of the real and the invention of details.
GENRE · At heart Max’s writing is uncategorizable and that is one of the things that makes it so special. As Ali Smith puts it:
‘In the meld of fiction, biography, autobiography, travel-writing, history, memoir, poetry, documentary, essay, theory, illustration, natural history, aesthetic analysis and quiet but profoundly urgent story that makes up the text of practically everything he wrote, Sebald found new literary form (and in finding it I think he also suggests new literary possibility, subconsciously suggests all literary forms are themselves in some way multiple). His writing ignored the fake – and, he more than hints, even dangerous – borders and fortifications between people and places in the same way as it does the differentiations between literary genres, in what turns out in the full run of his books to be an act of dual generosity and atonement. Nobody wrote like him, and he has transformed the literary imagination with the few books he had the time to write and we have had the luck to read.’
HUMOUR · Max’s sense of humour is often underestimated, perhaps because it seems at odds with the overwhelming seriousness of his subject matter and the apparently archaic style of his writing. Yet it was a vital weapon in his armoury, and personally one of the sources of his considerable charm.
His visits to our offices would begin, typically, with a mordant account of the trials of his journey from East Anglia to London, made all the more amusing by the comic gap – of which he was well aware – between the details of his travels (leaves on the line, phantom connecting trains) and the mournfulness of his delivery.
Anyone who doubts Max’s humour should reread his narrator’s account of eating armour-plated fish and chips in Lowestoft in The Rings of Saturn (‘the fish . . . had doubtless lain entombed in the deep freeze for years’), or look at the maxims printed in this issue of Five Dials.
The critic James Wood was delighted when he met Max to find him as quietly funny in person as in his writing:
‘“What is German humour like?” I asked him. “It is dreadful,” he said. “Have you seen any German comedy shows on television?” he asked. I had not. “They are simply indescribable,” he said, stretching the word in his lugubrious German accent. “Simply indescribable.”’
IMAGES · One of the most striking features of Max’s work is his use of images. The great prose fictions, from The Emigrants to Austerlitz, were illustrated by Max himself, who was a fanatical collector of old photographs, postcards and newspaper clippings, and the use of these found images, together with photographs taken by Max himself, has been the source of much discussion by readers, critics and, more recently, academics. (The definitive study to date is by artists’ collective the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, whose publication Searching for Sebald runs to 632 large-format pages.)
On Max’s death, while little unpublished writing was found, a very large number of his photographs were discovered. For a time, his great admirer Susan Sontag contemplated making a selection from these photographs and writing a text to accompany them. Sadly, she died before being able to commit to such a project.
In The Emigrants, Max’s narrator wrote of looking at photographs that we feel ‘as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them’. And Max himself remembered that ‘In school I was in the dark room all the time, and I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.’
At the heart of debates over Max’s use of illustrations is the question of whether they actually illustrate. The art critic Brian Dillon has suggested, rightly I think, that ‘they suggest instead a ceaseless shuttle of meaning between word and image’, as in ‘the endless and ruminative contemplation of materials that defy introspection’.
JARAY · In 2001 the painter Tess Jaray exhibited an extraordinary sequence of sixteen prints responding to passages from The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Once a part of the loose grouping of artists who formed the British Pop Art movement of the 1960s, she found inspiration later in life, first in the spiritual patterning of Islamic art and then in the patterning and moods of Max’s work. (‘Morocco and Max’ was how she put it when I met her.)
My favourite of her prints, ‘At Regensburg he crossed . . .’, hangs in the Hamish Hamilton offices and also above my sofa at home, never failing to evoke a memory of Max.
Having befriended one another, Tess and Max collaborated on the beautiful collection of texts and ‘micro-poems’ published in 2001 as For Years Now, which introduced the mysterious haiku-like writing of Max’s last years. The final poem reads:
For years now
I’ve had this
KANT · One of the most fugitive of Max’s works, which I have never managed to track down, is a radio play which he supposedly wrote for the BBC on the life of Kant. Does anyone know where we might find a copy?
LAC DE BIENNE · In perhaps the last interview with Max before his death, with Arthur Lubow for The New York Times, Max was asked if there was any place in which he had ever felt at home:
‘He thought of one spot: the island of St Pierre in the Lac de Bienne in Switzerland, famous as a refuge of Rousseau in 1765: “I felt at home, strangely, because it is a miniature world,” he said. “One manor house, one farmhouse. A vineyard, a field of potatoes, a field of wheat, a cherry tree, an orchard. It has one of everything, so it is in a sense an ark. This notion of something that is small and self-contained is for me an aesthetic and moral ideal.”’
MUSIC · Much might be written about the musicality of Max’s work and it is intriguing to know what he himself enjoyed listening to. At the Evening for Max that was convened by his closest colleagues at the University of East Anglia in June 2002 – the nearest to what might be termed a memorial for Max – the following works were chosen to be played, as music that he knew and loved: Four Sea Interludes: ‘Dawn’ by Benjamin Britten; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen by Gustav Mahler; the second movement of Symphony No. 1, also by Mahler; and finally Schoenberg’s Strauss Transcriptions.
NORWICH · The University of East Anglia in Norwich provided Max with a home following his departure from the University of Manchester, which was where he first studied and taught on leaving Germany. A professor of modern German literature for thirty years, he also set up the first British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, and much later, at the very end of his life, taught on its famous creative writing course. The maxims in this issue of Five Dials date from this period. For many years he lived nearby, at the Old Rectory in Upgate, Poringland – a place he described as, ‘very much out in the sticks. And I do feel that I’m better there than I am in the centre of things. I do like to be in the margins if at all possible.’
Max died in a road accident on the way from the Rectory to the train station, killed in a crash with a lorry while negotiating a left-hand bend.
ON THE HISTORY OF NATURAL DESTRUCTION · Max’s major work of non-fiction centres on a brilliant 107-page examination of ‘Air War and Literature’, delivered as a series of lectures in Zurich in late autumn 1997. Immediately controversial, his thesis that the majority of German writers have remained silent about the mass destruction of German cities during the Second World War – and his explanation as to why – heralded a more widespread examination of Germany in the last few years of the country’s painful recent history. Max argued in the book’s preface that:
‘When we turn to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of these writers in a society that was morally almost discredited.’
Of all Max’s works this is the only one in which anger is allowed to rise to the surface of the writing – and it is also perhaps the closest to an explanation of why he abandoned Germany for England as a young man.
PYSCHOANALYSIS · Commentary on Max’s work has tended to avoid psychoanalytic analysis, although the analyst and writer Adam Phillips recently delivered the plenary address at a conference on Max’s work. Of his own melancholia Max did speak a little, mentioning that both his father and grandfather had spent the last years of their lives morbidly depressed. As Arthur Lubow recalls from his late interview with Max:
‘His father, who in Sebald’s telling resembled a caricature of the pedantic, subservient, frugal German, didn’t like to read books. “The only book I ever saw him read was one my younger sister gave him for Christmas, just at the beginning of the ecological movement, with a name like The End of the Planet,” Sebald said. “And my father was bowled over by it. I saw him underlining every sentence of it – with a ruler, naturally – saying, ‘Ja, Ja.’”’
QUEEN ELIZABETH HALL · The last time I saw Max was at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, for a reading from Austerlitz. Uncomfortable in the formica surroundings of the Green Room, he suggested a short walk along the Thames, in which he talked a little of his recent trips to France and of his plans for a new prose fiction, partially inspired by his research there. Sadly, as we now know, no substantial part of this work-in-progress survives.
RINGS OF SATURN · For many readers this is the most beloved of Max’s works. It begins with the narrator recovering from a bout of illness which is often assumed to be psychological. When I asked Max about this he said that the problem was in fact orthopaedic, and based on his own experience of a damaged back following his months of tramping the East Anglian coast with one foot slightly raised above the other due to the angle of the sloping shore. (Though in writing this, I wonder if I dreamt this conversation.)
SMOKING · Max was one of those smokers whom it suited to smoke. When I asked Max whether, like me, he had plans to stop, he raised his eyebrows as if to say, ‘Why – with so many other ways we might die?’
TRANSLATION · Although he might easily have written his books in English, Max chose to write them in German, then to work extremely closely with his translator on the English version. He was blessed in his choice of translators – latterly Anthea Bell, who has written movingly about their collaboration:
‘We worked on the text mainly by correspondence, Max’s preferred method and indeed mine too. There are not so many people now who really like writing proper letters, but it so happened that both of us did, and I treasure (for he was the most generous of authors) Max’s kind remark in the winter months that one of mine had “helped dispel the cafard in which I tend to get caught up in this dark part of the year.”’
UNRECOUNTED · Several of the texts from For Years Now also appeared in the posthumous collection Unrecounted, which is a collaboration with Max’s oldest friend since school days, the artist Jan Peter Tripp. The translator of this book was another old friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, who spoke for many when he wrote:
‘What sets these reductive epiphanies apart from the earlier works is not so much their extreme brevity, spareness and seeming casualness . . . but their break with the narrative thread in all the preceding works.’
They were, he felt, written ‘at a time of crisis in my friend’s life and work, full of enigmas, conflicts and contradictions he chose not to clarify.’
VERTIGO · While visiting Venice in Vertigo, the first of Max’s mature prose fictions, the Sebaldian narrator is kept awake by the noise of traffic outside his hotel room and has an epiphany which sums up a great deal of Max’s thinking on the nature of extinction:
‘For some time now I have been convinced that it is out of this din that the life is being born which will come after us and spell our gradual destruction, just as we have been gradually destroying what was there long before us.’
While he never wrote explicitly about the environment or climate change, there is an ecological resonance in many such assertions in Max’s work.
W.G. · Although christened Winfried Georg, Max chose to go by his middle name, Maximilian.
X · Coincidence, the point where paths cross, is at the heart of Max’s writing – and the X at the end of his name always seemed emblematic to me. When I asked him once about the role of coincidence he said that whatever path he took in his writing he always, sooner or later, came across another path which led quickly back to some detail from his own life. He also said that the more one was attuned to look out for such things, the more frequently they occurred.
YOUNG AUSTERLITZ · The perfect introduction to Max’s prose fiction, this 60-page excerpt from Austerlitz was published as Pocket Penguin No. 28 in 2005.
ZEMBLA · Perhaps the best short introduction to Max and his writing was written by Robert Macfarlane for the winter 2004 issue of Zembla, named after the distant northern land in Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, one of Max’s favourite writers, who makes a cameo appearance, with his butterfly net, in The Emigrants.
The A to Z above is of course highly subjective and we would welcome any further contributions from Five Dials’ readers which might be added to it.