Changing perspectives on W.G. Sebald, 5 minutes with Uwe Schütte
How can we re-think W.G. Sebald? Uwe Schütte discusses the controversial nature of the writer, Austerlitz and his new book W.G. Sebald...
W.G. Sebald has been described as one of the greatest writers in living memory and believed by many to have been a possible winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Could you tell us a bit about W.G. Sebald and what differentiated his work?
Yes. In fact, the former secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, has confirmed that Sebald was on the list for the Nobel Prize, along with Jacques Derrida and Ryszard Kapuściński. His sudden death in December 2001 prevented him from receiving the accolade. More interesting, though, is the German Academy for Language & Literature’s exclusion of Sebald from consideration for the Büchner Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. It is widely-known that Sebald was barred from many German literary honours because award committees always included members who objected loudly to him. He was not a safe choice, deemed too controversial in Germany because of his critical writings.
Throughout his career, Sebald attacked celebrated literary figures such as Alfred Döblin or Alfred Andersch. Particularly controversial were his Zurich lectures on the silence of post-war German literature on the Allied bombing campaign that destroyed huge swaths of the country, released in English as The Natural History of Destruction. Some people falsely accused him of revisionism or selective reading, while others were admonishing him for his failure to discuss certain texts.
Whatever anger his lectures provoked was forgotten two years later upon the publication of his next literary work. Austerlitz was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and a moral triumph—a German writing a serious book about a Jewish life haunted by the Holocaust.
It is this ambivalent, complicated picture about Sebald that I aim to stress in my book. The contradictions and the controversial reception of his writings is what I wanted to stress in particular. Too many casual readers, particularly in the Anglophone world, hold a one-sided image of him.
Sebald died shortly after the publication of Austerlitz, which follows the life of a refugee child from Czechoslovakia. What stands out about this work?
Austerlitz is certainly his most popular and successful book, yet, I think that in comparison to his other books, it is far from the masterpiece that many see in it. As I explain in my book, Sebald seemed to have had problems mastering this long-form type of the writing. This was the first time he strayed from the more essayistic mode of writing he developed in his earlier collection of stories. Also, there is the obviously unresolved question of Sebald’s appropriation of the life story of Susi Bechhöfer, who migrated from Munich to England on a Kindertransport as a child.
Undoubtedly, Sebald was a brilliant writer, but he had his limitations. Austerlitz is the book where these limitations come to the fore. It is so sad that his death made it the end of his oeuvre – I would have loved to read his next book, which he had already started working on.
Personally, I think his magnum opus is The Rings of Saturn, a book like no other I have ever read.
Austerlitz famously features one sentence describing the concentration camp Theresienstadt that runs for an astonishing seven and a half pages. What is the significance of this?
Sebald wrote masterfully in German. His dialect is distinctly Bavarian, rich with slightly outdated expressions and complex syntax, resulting in labyrinthine sentences. As has been repeatedly observed, his German cannot be adequately rendered in English, though his translators, working under his supervision, did an amazing job. In the German original, the sentence you refer to stretches over many pages. Anthea Bell’s award-winning English translation uses semicolons to stitch seemingly countless subclauses together, whereas in the original German there is one long syntactic flow. Sebald was heavily influenced by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who loved beginning books with a pages-long sentence. But in the case of Austerlitz, Sebald’s literary aim is to find a stylistic equivalent to the monstrosity of the Nazi language by composing a monstrous sentence. Monstrous both in terms of form and content, that is to say, in its hyperbolic length and the replication of inhuman Nazi terminology which he had lifted from H.G. Adler’s book on Theresienstadt.
Sebald was a writer and an academic. How did his critical writings feed into his literary work?
Sebald was first and foremost an academic, and the majority of his writings are critical in nature. Over more than three decades, he produced a remarkably broad scope of partisan works that eschewed academic conventions. This includes scathing and sometimes unfair polemics against his most hated nemeses as well as very empathetic and passionate essays in which he clearly identified with the subjects of his research. Since very few of these critical writings are available in English, this dimension of Sebald’s legacy is largely unknown to his Anglophone readership. The unique convergence of critical, autobiographical and literary modes of writing can be seen in A Place in the Country, a collection of essays on Alemannic writers mostly unknown in the English-speaking world (such as Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller or Robert Walser).
The book first appeared in 1998, but it would take more than 15 years for the English edition to become available (superbly translated by Jo Catling). My introduction aims to show Anglophone readers Sebald’s identity as a writer residing somewhere between two countries, two languages, two modes of writing. In addition, I try to show how he tried to reconcile this rift that defined both his life and his works. To that end, I also discuss his literary works in the chronological order in which the German originals appeared.
You knew Sebald personally, as he was your PhD supervisor. How does it feel to write about an author that you knew so well?
You are right, it is an odd situation. I probably couldn’t have written about him while he was still alive. My first book on him, a general introduction in German, appeared in 2011, ten years after his death. Since then, I completed a detailed academic study of his critical writings and a smaller book on his poetry, in addition to an edited volume that rectifies many misconceptions about his works. I was provoked by the many flawed academic and popular distortions that govern the image of Sebald scholarship, to put the record straight, in a way.
How do you think this book paves the way for further research into the works of W.G. Sebald? Is there another perspective from which you would like to see his work observed?
Well, everyone is entitled to their perspective, obviously—however flawed it may be. My book is primarily a general introduction, aimed at students and broad readership, and therefore not so much a contribution to scholarship. But if it stimulates fellow Sebald researchers to at least reconsider their perspectives, I wouldn’t mind.