W.G. Sebald has been lauded as one of Europe’s most important writers. Frequently compared with the likes of Nabokov, Kafka and Proust, his psychogeographic works have been met with wide critical acclaim. This English PEN event welcomed Will Self, novelist and fellow psychogeographer, and Amanda Hopkinson, founder of PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee, to reflect on the life and works of this literary genius who died at the peak of his career in a car accident at the age of 57.
Despite having never met ‘Max’ Sebald, as he preferred to be called, and even accusing him of ‘melancholia, misanthropy and manipulation’, Self explained how he had developed an ‘ineluctably burgeoning affinity’ with the writer. Just as Sebald’s self-imposed exile from Bavaria heightened his awareness of dislocation (a theme that runs through much of his work, particularly The Emigrants), so Self, who is half-Jewish, felt his own relationship with the Holocaust was defined by emigration and displacement. Furthermore, the increasingly misanthropic Self related to Sebald’s fictive alter-ego, who found that the more he revered individual men and women the less he seemed to love mankind. And just as Sebald’s Luddite nature was fuelled by an abhorrence of new technology, so Self confessed to ‘a growing loathing of computers’. Coincidentally, Self had also been living in Suffolk where Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is set – ‘[Sebald’s] alter-ego might have passed me by!’ – and as a walker and ‘true flaneur’ he had been devoting more time to picaresque writing.
Primed with this affinity and inspired by the writer’s picaresque, Self embarked on one of Sebald’s walks, both virtually and literally: ‘I thought somewhere between these two places lay Sebald’s world.’ But after his three-and-a-half day journey from Flamborough on the east coast of Yorkshire to Spurn Head, Self was in a ‘terrible state’ and ‘completely overtaken’ by Sebald. ‘People talk about a writer’s influence. When I did the walk I felt Sebald on my shoulders; I felt so possessed by Sebald, I was talking Sebaldian notes… I’m not that fond of my literary style but I missed it!’ Thankfully, Self has since recovered. However, he was not convinced that there could be a new generation of post-Sebaldians, ‘like post-Wordsworthians walking the Lake District’, as Hopkinson ventured. While Sebald marched with psychogeographic writers like Iain Sinclair, Self contended that the former was ‘more interested in the ambulatory as a way of ridding the man machine matrix – the prescribed mechanised way of living off credit cards to rush to the Maldives and make it sink.’ He concluded: ‘I would say Sebald is unique but I don’t think there can be a school of Sebalds in that way.’
It was not only his unusual methodology that set Sebald apart from other Central European authors but also his self-imposed exile from the English speaking world. As Hopkinson explained, he wrote in German but his language was anachronistic, ‘so even for Germans it sounded a little odd, arcane and not as colloquial as English translations.’ For this, Sebald was pleased: he had succeeded in creating estrangement both in English, through translation, and in German thanks to its atavism.
This notion of estrangement is reflected in the ‘overwhelming sense of dislocation’, as one audience member put it, that pervades much of Sebald’s work. And, as Self noted, on a personal level Sebald was in an incongruous situation as a Bavarian writing almost exclusively about the Holocaust, and without any ‘mea culpa explanations’. However Self quavered slightly at the term ‘moral writer’ that is often attributed to Sebald: ‘His view of the Holocaust was a chasm in history; in Sebald’s world pre-Holocaust is definitive of a kind of morality. As an ordinary moral writer I think his aims are much larger.’
For someone so dislocated, it was quite remarkable that Sebald had such an eye for locality, from mid-Wales, to Vienna, to Manchester. ‘His evocation of place is incredible. He is enormously at home in a world he’s not at home with’, Self enthused. He seemed particularly impressed by Sebald’s ability to create ‘an I at once solipsistic’ that could ‘also achieve the rare feat of becoming a triumphantly synoptic eye’. Impressive as it sounded, it was perhaps unsurprising that audience members asked Self to elaborate. In turn, he offered the metaphor of an early Renaissance painting where varied perspectives defy natural vision to become equally in focus, as a way of illustrating the synoptic eye. ‘Sebald is like that’, he explained. ‘He creates a panoply of ideas which no other writer could hold at once and keep as a sharp focus’. At the same time he had ‘this walled off sense of ego’, Self observed, which often carried with it a ‘kind of fey melancholia… a sensibility that revels in its solipsism’.
And yet for all its achievement, Self found that this sensation of ‘communing with Sebald’s solipsistic I, while peering through his synoptic eyes’ created an inescapable awareness that one was being manipulated – just as Spielberg’s famous shot in Jaws makes the camera track forward while zooming out to drag the actor into the terror of a shark attack.
He also highlighted the uncomfortable difference between a reader and a critique of Sebald’s work. As a reader, Self was said he was able to suspend disbelief and in turn, could easily celebrate Sebald’s literary virtues: ‘I was enthralled…you are with him in his fictive alter-ego… you believe in him – that’s an achievement. If he’s talking about a goat in chapter four, then the goat has wings and becomes a Goat God of East London, then fine!’ However, as a writer and critic he was not able to do that. Moreover, Self rejected an audience member’s case for ‘the joy of being led by the nose’ as a reader and professed that he actively avoids fiction. ‘I’m not able to read and enjoy fiction as someone else would enjoy Dostoevsky or Alex Garland. Deconstructing: that’s me.’
He continued: ‘If you’re a fiction writer and you read other fiction writers, there’s a limited stock of literary tropes and when you see it in another writer’s hand it fills me with almost visceral emotion; I sometimes feel sick.’ It appears that, within this rejection, Self has found yet more common ground with Sebald: an audience member, who was once a student of Sebald’s at UEA, declared that he also used to actively avoid fiction, although he would take it to the extreme by reading trade magazines and even phone books.
So we reached the end of this compelling and complex journey into the life and mind of an extraordinary writer. There was an added poignancy and haunting prescience when Self spoke of Sebald’s preoccupation with traffic and quoted his words: ‘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 will spell our gradual destruction.’
With warm thanks to Will Self and Amanda Hopkinson for sharing their knowledge and insights and to the ever-lively audience for their contributions.
Report by Alexandra Masters.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/iconswillself/