An interview with the writer W. G. Sebald, by Joe Cuomo.

Issue of 2001-09-03
Posted 2001-08-27

In this week's issue, W. G. Sebald's "Austerlitz" appears. His novel of the same name will be published in October by Random House. Born in the Algäu in 1944, Sebald lived in Germany until 1966; since then, he has held academic posts at several British universities, although he continues to write in German. His novels, which include "Vertigo" (published in Germany in 1990, and in the United States last year), "The Emigrants" (1996), and "The Rings of Saturn" (1998), have won the Berlin Literature and the Literatur Nord prizes and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. This past March, Sebald participated in the Queens College Evening Readings series (, which included a question-and-answer session with Joe Cuomo, a writer and lecturer at Queens College and the founder of the noted series, which is now celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. Here is an excerpt from the interview, which was broadcast in New York on MetroTV's "The Unblinking Eye" series.

JOE CUOMO: A friend of mine, a writer, a very good writer, said to me that as soon as he finished reading "The Rings of Saturn" he immediately started from the beginning again, because he couldn't figure out what had just happened to him. I was wondering how you approached this in the writing of it, the idea of narrative form. Was the structure a function largely of your unconscious associations during the writing process? Or was the structure something you plotted out in advance in a very deliberate way?

W. G. SEBALD: I can't quite remember how it worked. 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 which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else, and so it's a form of unsystematic searching, which, of course, for an academic, is far from orthodoxy, because we're meant to do things systematically.

But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I've always had dogs, I've learned from them how to do this. So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they'll connect up. But they'll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn't, in terms of writing something new, very productive. You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn't done before. That's how I thought about it. Then, of course, curiosity gets the better of you.

This discovery process—the dog running in the field—is any of that happening while you're actually writing?

Occasionally. I think when you write or do anything of the sort, there are times when you almost know that you're on the right track. You don't quite believe it, but you feel more positive about what you're doing than at other times, and I think this is confirmed when things come in from the wings. You know, as you sit there, doing your header note, trying to straighten out a page. And, as it comes right, then quotations or figures or things that you hadn't thought of for eighteen years offer themselves all of a sudden. I've always found it to be quite a good measure that things are going in a way that you can trust when, even in the writing process itself, things happen. For instance, the last part of this book is all about silk, and that section, in turn, finishes with a number of pages on the culture of mourning. And on the very day when I finished these pages, I looked in, I think it was the Times, the daily circular, and there were all these events I needed from the list of what had happened on a certain day one hundred and thirty years ago or two hundred and twenty years ago. And they all slotted into the text, as if I had been writing toward that point. It was quite amazing. But it does happen occasionally—it's very gratifying when it does.

That process itself seems to be one that you described in the novel: something inexplicable occurs; we don't really know what to make of it, but the fact that it does occur seems to carry enormous significance.

Yes. I think it's this whole business of coincidence, which is very prominent in my writing. I hope it's not obtrusive. But, you know, it does come up in the first book, in "Vertigo," a good deal. I don't particularly hold with parapsychological explanations of one kind or another, or Jungian theories about the subject. I find those rather tedious. But it seemed to me an instance that illustrates that we somehow need to make sense of our nonsensical existence. You meet somebody who has the same birthday as you—the odds are one in three hundred and sixty-five, not actually all that amazing. But if you like the person then immediately this takes on more . . . and so we build on it, and I think all our philosophical systems, all our systems of our creed, all constructions, even the technological worlds, are built in that way, in order to make some sort of sense, when there isn't, as we all know.

One of the things that's so remarkable about the book is that you never try to use these coincidences toward some end, which is, I think, the point you're making: that we don't feel that we're being manipulated to see the world in a certain way. I mean, in a lot of these pop-psychology novels there's a realization that "Oh, because our birthdays are on the same day it means that we should stay married." Or something like that. There's a tendency to reduce the world to something that this then becomes the proof of. And it's amazing to me that you resist that urge in novel after novel.

Because I would trivialize it.


Nevertheless, it has significance. I mean, the first section of "Vertigo" is about Stendhal, and this rather short piece finishes with Stendhal's death in a certain street in Paris, which is now called the Rue Danielle-Casanova. I didn't know who Danielle Casanova was—Casanova meant something for me in the context of that book, but not Danielle Casanova. The following summer I went to Corsica. I was walking through the mountains, and I came to the coastal village of Piana, and there was a little house with a plaque on it, and it said it was a memorial plaque for Danielle Casanova, who had been murdered by my compatriots in Auschwitz. She'd been a dentist and a Communist and was in the French Resistance. And I went past the house three or four times, and it always seemed closed. On one occasion, I went round the back, and there was her sister. And then I talked to her for a week. [Laughter from the audience.] These things do happen. I have all her papers, and now I don't know what I shall do with them. But it's that sort of connection. And if that sort of thing happens to us then we think, perhaps, that not everything is quite so futile. It gives one a sort of passing sense of consolation, occasionally.

We were talking backstage about your first book in German, "After Nature," which hasn't been published here yet—I think it will be coming out next year—and about how that book came about.

Yes. It may be of interest because you don't know how I got into this strange business of writing books of this kind. I mean, I had never had any ambitions of becoming or being a writer. What I felt toward the middle point of my life was that I was being hemmed in increasingly by the demands of my job at the university, by the demands of various other things that one has in one's life, and that I needed some way out. And that coincided with my just happening to be going down to London and reading a book by someone, a rather obscure German writer called Konrad Bayer, who was one of the young surrealists, as it were—postwar surrealists who'd been kept down by the famous Gruppe 47—and who subsequently took his own life. He'd only written a number of very slender little things, among them was a book called "The Head of Vitus Bering," and that had in it a footnote referring to an eighteenth-century German botanist and zoologist called Georg Wilhelm Steller, who happens to have the same initials that I have, and who happened to have been born in a place that my mother visited when she was pregnant, in 1943, when she was going from Bamberg, which is in the north of Bavaria, down to the Alps, where her parents were, because the bombers were coming in increasingly. She couldn't go through Nürnberg, which is the normal route, because Nürnberg had just been attacked that night and was in flames. So she had to go around it. And she stayed in Windsheim, as that place is called, where a friend of hers had a house.

Which is in the book.

And that's mentioned. You know, this preoccupation with making something out of nothing, which is, after all, what writing is about, took me—what I liked about it is that if you just change, as it were, the nature of your writing from academic monographs to something indefinable, then you have complete liberty, whereas, as you well know, as an academic there are people constantly saying, "Well, it's not correct, what you put there. It's not right." Now I can say, "It doesn't matter."

A theme that's all over your work, it seems to me, is that the part of the world that we know is minuscule. And the part of the world that we don't know is enormous. Yet, within the part that we do know—there's such a great deal of agonizing in your work over getting that part right and getting the voice true. And, yet, it may be that we're trying to do this just so that we can convince ourselves that we do know something about the world after all.

I think that's pretty much how it is. You can't always see, I think, the reality of what we're doing in the pathological variant, because all—most—behavior has a pathological bearing. And writing and creating something is about elaboration. You have a few elements. You build something. You elaborate until you have something that looks like something. And elaboration is, of course, the device of paranoia. If you read texts written by paranoiacs, they're syntactically correct, the orthography is all right, but the content is insane, because they start on a series of axioms that are out of synch. And the elaboration is absolutely fantastic. It goes on and on and on. You can see from that that the degree of elaboration is not a measure of the truth. And that is exactly the same problem, certainly, in prose fiction: you have to elaborate. You have one image, and you have to make something of it—half a page, or three-quarters, or one and a half—and it only works through linguistic or imaginative elaboration. Of course, you might well think during the course of this process that you are directing some form of sham reality.

Two more things I just want to get into before we close. There is a passage from "The Rings of Saturn," when Thomas Browne speaks, that reminds me of a speech by Father Zosima in "The Brothers Karamazov"—that, in both instances, what is suggested is that our own palpable experience is somehow linked to a world that is beyond that which is palpable. This passage also brings to mind the work of poets like Czeslaw Milosz and Adam Zagajewski and Joseph Brodsky. Do you see yourself as writing in a similar vein as any of them?

Well, what I think some of these people have in common is an interest in metaphysics and, certainly, in Dostoyevsky this is evident. I think the best sections in Dostoyevsky's writings are those that are metaphysical rather than religious. And metaphysics is something that's always interested me, in the sense that one wants to speculate about these areas that are beyond one's ken, as it were. I've always thought it very regrettable, and, in a sense, also foolish, that the philosophers decided somewhere in the nineteenth century that metaphysics wasn't a respectable discipline and had to be thrown overboard, and reduced themselves to becoming logisticians and statisticians. It seemed a very poor diet, somehow, to me.

So metaphysics, I think, shows a legitimate concern. And writers like Kafka, for instance, are interested in metaphysics. If you read a story like "Investigations of a Dog," it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn't grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn't know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we. So it's quite legitimate to ask—and, of course, it can become a kind of parlor game—as these philosophers said, "Are we sure that we're really sitting here now?"

I haven't asked you about the photographs in the book. And two things occur to me. One is that in "The Emigrants" you've said, I think, that ninety per cent of the photographs are authentic. But there's a passage in "Vertigo," speaking of Kafka, where the narrator is on a bus and he encounters two twin boys who look exactly like Franz Kafka did at that age. He's travelling to a place where Kafka had spent some time, and he wants to get a photograph of these two boys, and he asks the parents of the boys to send him a photograph, without giving their names, just because he needs to have this photograph. Of course, the parents think that he's a pederast and don't want to have anything to do with it. But then the passage ends, "I remained motionless on that bus seat from then on, embarrassed to the utmost degree and consumed with an infinite rage at the fact that I would now have no evidence whatsoever to document this most improbable coincidence." And I was wondering if this was another form of documentation—that the photographs are sometimes used to document coincidence itself.

Well, that particular episode actually happened, as it is described, and it is from that time onward that I always have one of those small cameras in my pocket. It was a completely unnerving afternoon. But, you know, it does happen. I mean, sometimes one asks oneself later on whether one's made it up or not. And it's not always quite clear.

The last question is, again, about coincidence. It does seem that you were saying that some of the photographs are for that purpose, to document coincidence.


I was wondering, going back to that theme that we discussed earlier on, if you feel sometimes that coincidence and duplication is a way in which nature is breaking through the surface of our civilized lives. That is, we may not know what it means. But we have a sense that something beyond us is taking place.

Certainly, my own life experience is that when I thought I had things sorted and I was in control, something happened that completely undid everything I had wanted to do. And so it goes on. The illusion that I had some control over my life went up to about my thirty-fifth birthday. Then it stopped. Now I'm out of control.