Under lowering skies in East Anglia, days after the Manhattan apocalypse, Max Sebald is troubled
by Hitler's fantasy of setting New York ablaze, as the blitz did London.
The spectre of the past haunts Sebald, a German born under the Third Reich,
though he was a babe-in-arms on VE Day.
"I was born in May 1944 in a place
the war didn't get to," he says of the Bavarian village of .
Wertach im Algäu
"Then you find out it was the same month when Kafka's sister was deported to Auschwitz.
It's bizarre; you're pushed in a pram through the flowering meadows, and a few hundred
miles to the east these horrendous things are happening. It's the chronological contiguity
that makes you think it is something to do with you."
Sebald has lived in Britain since 1966, forsaking the Alps for the flatlands of Norfolk,
where he is professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
Wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, he sits in a modest office in a squat concrete
Now 57, he began publishing what he terms "prose fiction" only in his mid-40s,
writing as WG Sebald (his third name is Maximilian), and always in German.
His first book to be translated into English, The Emigrants, published in 1996, came
garlanded with awards from the German-speaking world and was one of the most lauded
British debuts of the last decade. Susan Sontag acclaimed him as the "contemporary
master of the literature of lament and mental restlessness". Translations of The Rings
Of Saturn in 1998 and Vertigo in 1999 - also by the poet
Michael Hulse -
reputation as one of the most original literary figures of our age. For Michael Ondaatje,
Sebald is "the most interesting and ambitious writer working in Britain today".
Sebald's fiction is an innovative hybrid of memoir, travelogue and history, its text scattered
with grainy, black-and-white photographs without captions which lend an unsettling feel of
documentary. He often uses real names, in an endless journeying saturated with European
cultural allusions and metaphysical meditations on loss, exile and death. "At a time when
everything is classified and marketed cynically, Sebald defies all genres," says Bryan
Cheyette, professor of 20th-century literature at Southampton University. Cheyette
sees him as a "post-Holocaust writer", obliquely exploring the long aftermath of the
His new book, Austerlitz, out in Germany last spring, is published next month in an English
translation by Anthea Bell. It was bought by Penguin as part of a three-book deal worth more
than £100,000. The story concerns
who is brought up by Welsh Calvinist
foster parents and in his 50s recovers lost memories of having arrived from Prague on the
Kindertransport, the lifeline to Britain of some 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children in 1938-39.
It was spurred by watching a Channel 4 documentary on
mid-life remembered coming to Wales on the Kindertransport. She shared a birthday with
Sebald, May 18, and was from Munich. "That was very close to home," he says.
Yet for the first half of the book the past is skirted, as Sebald explores the "effects political
persecution produces in people 50 years down the line, and the complicated workings of
remembering and forgetting that go with that". He is interested in the long-term effects on
émigrés who "may appear well adapted but, especially as they move towards old age, are still
suffering from having been ostracised, deprived of country, family, language. There are damages
to people's inner lives that can never be rectified."
Austerlitz is also partly based on a real architectural historian, a friend whose boyhood
photograph is on the cover. Austerlitz senses that buildings bear witness to the past,
as unquiet ghosts in our midst demand redress. "Places seem to me to have some kind
of memory, in that they activate memory in those who look at them," says Sebald.
"It's an old notion - this isn't a good house because bad things have happened in it.
Where I grew up, in a remote village at the back of a valley, the old still thought the
dead needed attending to - a notion so universal it's enscribed in all religions. If you
didn't, they might exact revenge upon the living. Such notions were not alien to me as a child."
Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born the only son, with three sisters, of Rosa,
daughter of a "country copper", and Georg, from a family of glassmakers in the Bavarian
forest. At 18 his father joined the army, amid mass unemployment in 1929. When the National
Socialist party took power in 1933, he "stayed and marched with it". Sebald's parents were
from "conventional, Catholic, anti-communist, working-class backgrounds. They experienced
upward mobility in the 1930s, like so many Germans; my father finished the war as a captain.
Fascism did away with the class system - as in France under Napoleon, and in stark contrast
to Britain, where it dominates the army to this day."
Georg was a prisoner of war in France. When he returned to Bavaria in 1947, Max was three.
"I found it odd that this person turned up and claimed to be my father. Then he got a job in a
small town and was only home on Sundays. He was a detached figure for me." Sebald doted
an "exceptionally kind man", who took care of him. "As a boy I felt protected.
His death when I was 12 wasn't something I ever quite got over." It brought an early awareness
of mortality and that the other side of life is something horrendously empty."
Like most of his generation, Sebald grew up in the "seas of silence" over the war. "It was an idyllic
environment, and only at 17 or 18 did you get inklings. All I knew was that there were families
where, out of five sons, none returned." His father's albums had photographs of the Polish campaign
of 1939, first with a "boy-scout atmosphere" and culminating in razed villages. But the images
seemed "normal" to Sebald as a child. At grammar school in the ski resort of Oberstdorf they
were shown a film of the liberation of Belsen. "It was a nice spring afternoon, and there was
no discussion afterwards; you didn't know what to do with it. It was a long drawn-out process
to find out, which I've done persistently ever since."
While Sebald was at Freiburg University in 1965, the Frankfurt trial of Auschwitz personnel began.
"It gave me an understanding of the real dimensions for the first time: the defendants were the kinds
of people I'd known as neighbours - postmasters or railway workers - whereas the witnesses were
people I'd never come across - Jewish people from Brooklyn or Sydney. They were a myth of the
past. You found out they too had lived in Nuremberg and Stuttgart. So it gradually pieced itself
together, along with the horrific details."
While Sebald discounts the notion of inherited guilt, he says: "If you know in the generation before
you that your parents, your uncles and aunts were tacit accom-plices, it's difficult to say
you haven't anything to do with it. I've always felt I had to know what happened in detail,
and to try to understand why it should have been so." He was appalled by a "concerted
attempt in the first years after the war not to remember anything, for the obvious reason
that those in office were implicated". A sea-change in the late-1960s was spurred by an
"uprising of the next generation; there was generational war for half a decade that culminated
in terrorism in Germany, which was brutally eradicated".
Yet Sebald found the resulting "official culture of mourning and remembering" flawed.
"There's always an undercurrent - 'Isn't this being forced upon us? Haven't we suffered also?'"
He disparages literary efforts in the 1970s and 80s to address the Nazi years, by such German
Alfred Andersch and Heinrich Böll
"They felt they had to say something, but it was lacking
in tact or true compassion; the moral presumption is insufferable. Andersch was married to a Jewish
woman from Munich, and he divorced her in about 1936, exposing her to danger. I don't think one
can write from a compromised moral position." As a student, Sebald read works "from the other
side of the divide: people who'd escaped by a hair's breadth, writing usually after a 20-year gap",
German Jewish writers such as
Peter Weiss, and the Belgian Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry
"There was a huge chasm between those voices and the immediate postwar German writers."
After studying German literature in French-speaking Switzerland, Sebald came to Manchester
University as a language assistant in 1966. "I scarcely spoke English, and coming from a
backwoods, I found it difficult to adapt. But I stuck it out; I got to like the place."
He relished the "anti-hierarchical" new universities ("nobody bossed you around"),
and moved to the fledgling University of East Anglia in 1970 to teach modern German
literature. Michael Robinson, now professor of drama at UEA, remembers him as a
"sardonic and challenging" lecturer. Sebald was the founding director in 1989 of the groundbreaking
British Centre for Literary Translation at the university. Peter Bush, the present director,
says "it took someone with Max's vision to say we needed this in Britain".
Sebald published literary criticism on figures such as the Swiss
Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser
But dismay at the Thatcherite "so-called educational reforms" of the early 1980s
drove him to other forms. "The pressure of work got inexorably greater, partly to do with
moving up the ladder [he became professor of German] and partly because we lost staff
right, left and centre. What was once a very congenial workplace became very trying."
He began with a prose poem,
to be published in English next spring.
(For Years Now, poems with images by the artist Tess Jaray, will be published in December.)
His first prose fiction was
which spliced travels in Austria and Italy
with fragments on Stendhal, Kafka, Casanova. Sontag praised it as a self-portrait of a
"restless, chronically dissatisfied, harrowed mind", one "prone to hallucinations".
As in all his fiction, Sebald's narrator is one "WG Sebald", who lives in Norfolk, comes from the
German village of "W", and has a companion, "Clara". Max Sebald lives in an old rectory outside
Norwich with his Austrian wife, Ute. They married "very early", in 1967, and have one daughter,
a school teacher. But Sebald ("I'd prefer to keep them out of it") gives only rare interviews and
is obsessively private. "I don't want to talk about my trials and tribulations. Once you reveal
even part of what your real problems might be in life, they come back in a deformed way."
Robinson, a friend, sees the narrator as a distinct persona. "He has obvious affinities with Max,
but it's playing on our naivety, because the reader is always tempted to identify the narrator with
the writer. He's taunting us."
For Sebald, Vertigo is about the "problem of love, but not in a standard way".
He scorns "standard novels - about relationship problems in Kensington in the late-1990s",
and is irritated by "pages whose purpose is just to move the action along".
Prose fiction "means each line has to be weighed as carefully, and with as much energy, as in a
poem of half a page".
who describes her translations as very much a collaboration
with the author, finds "every word is weighed, nothing is careless in his writing".
As in Stendhal's memoir, The Life Of Henry Brulard, Sebald uses pictures, often photographs taken
with "cheap little cameras". He says: "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."
Pointing out a small boy in an old family photograph on his office wall, he says, "he returned
from the first world war mentally disturbed after electric shock therapy. This is before he knew.
I find that frightful: the incapacity to know what's round the corner."
The images are tantalising relics of a past which can never be known:
"There are always versions of history; the real thing we shall never grasp." AS Byatt,
who sees Sebald's subject as "memory: its tenacity and fallibility", says, "he connects with
immense pain, only to say you can't connect; he tries to make you imagine things that he
then delicately says are unimaginable".
On his approach to factual "material", Sebald says: "There was a vogue of documentary
writing in Germany in the 70s which opened my eyes," he says. "It's an important literary invention,
but it's considered an artless form. I was trying to write something saturated with material but
carefully wrought, where the art manifests itself in a discreet, not too pompous fashion."
The big events are true, he says, while the detail is invented to give the "effect of the real".
"Every novelist combines fact and fiction," he insists. "In my case, there's more reality.
But I don't think it's radically different; you work with the same tools."
For the writer Eva Hoffman, this blurred boundary between artifice and reality, memory and history,
is "embedded in his tone - one doesn't know what's fact or fiction".
That uncertainty, fuelled by forged documents or suspect portraits, is Sebald's aim.
"It's the opposite of suspending disbelief and being swept along by the action, which",
he says drily, "is perhaps not the highest form of mental activity; it's to constantly ask,
'What happened to these people, what might they have felt like?' You can generate a
similar state of mind in the reader by making them uncertain."
The impulse to question, fostered by his work, is a virtue not only of the reader but the citizen.
Passages in Austerlitz on the infamous ghetto of Theresienstadt, north-west of Prague,
which the Nazis passed off as a model town to the Red Cross, draw on the painstaking
record of HG Adler. "When you read the fascist jargon they evolved in 10 years, you can't believe
your ears. You need that tension between documentary evidence and questioning in the reader's
mind: 'Can it really have been so?'" To read with vigilance is to question authority. In contrast
to 19th-century novelists, who were "at pains to tell you this was a true story", Sebald layers
his narration; we learn things indirectly, unreliably: "I try to let people talk for themselves,
so the narrator is only the one who brings the tale but doesn't instal himself in it.
There's still fiction with an anonymous narrator who knows everything , which seems to me
preposterous. I content myself with the role of the messenger."
which gradually links the stories of four displaced Germans to the Holocaust,
emerged when Sebald learned of the suicide of one of his teachers not long after Jean
Améry killed himself in 1978. In the tale of the schoolmaster, who is "one-quarter Jewish,
as they used to say", he sifted memories of the silence and "normality" of his own village,
mindful of the "great time lag between the infliction of injustice and when it finally overwhelms
The writer Linda Grant was struck by "calm prose that packed an extraordinary emotional charge,
but you couldn't see how it was done. There are no fireworks, he's the opposite of showy,
but he does something magical." He is free, she adds, of a "tendency to sentimentalise when
non-Jews write about the Holocaust". Byatt finds the tone "perfectly judged: it's a mournful,
crab-wise, tactful way of getting at history, making tiny steps before he puts the knife in.
The primary emotions are not anger but grief and tragic terror." By contrast, the German
novelist Georg Klein detests what he sees as Sebald's "sweet melancholic masochism towards
the past", which claims a "false intimacy with the dead".
Sebald has his own scruples about the "morally questionable process of falsification. We're brought
up to tell the truth, but as a writer you're an accomplished liar. You persuade yourself it's to achieve
a certain end. But there's a problem in departing from the literal truth to achieve an effect -
in the worst case, melodrama, where you make someone cry. It's a vice."
He is conscious of the danger of usurping others' existences. While all four emigrants are
based on real people, the painter Max Ferber, who obsessively scratches out then redoes his
work, is a composite of
Sebald's Mancunian landlord
("I found out he'd skiied in the same
places as I had") and the London-based artist
Without naming Auerbach,
Sebald says he felt he had the right - "because the information on his manner of work is from
a published source". Auerbach, however, refused to allow his paintings to appear in the English
edition. Sebald modified the character's name from Max Aurach in the German.
"I withdraw if I get any sense of the person's discomfort," he says.
Hoffman admires Sebald's delicacy. "He doesn't feel an entitlement to go at history
frontally; he goes at it from an oblique angle". As Sebald says: "Do I, who carry a German
passport and have two German parents, have the right? I try to do it as well as I can.
If the reactions were different, I would stop - you do take notice." (That tentativeness perhaps
carries to his view of Israel. "The situation is deplorable, there's no question. But it's an issue
I've avoided.") In Byatt's view, "Sebald's generation weren't involved in the war, but they've
had to look at their own parents with horror. They're a wandering, lost generation that felt they
had no right to speak. He's started speaking painfully out of that silence."
One strategy is to avoid the sensational. "The details of Susie Bechhofer's life, with child abuse
in a Calvinist Welsh home, are far more horrific than anything in Austerlitz. But I didn't want to
make use of it because I haven't the right. I try to keep at a distance and never invade,"
Sebald says. "I don't think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It's like the head
of the Medusa: you carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it you'd be petrified.
I was trying to write the lives of some people who'd survived - the 'lucky ones'. If they were
so fraught, you can extrapolate. But I didn't see it; I only know things indirectly."
Sebald loathes the term "Holocaust literature" ("it's a dreadful idea that you can have a sub-genre
and make a speciality out of it; it's grotesque").
While he commends Claude Lanzmann's
documentary Shoah (1985), he is doubtful about recreations. "It can only become an obscenity,
like Schindler's List, where you know the extras who get mown down will be drinking Coca-Cola
after the filming." In the Emigrants, it is the slow accretion of fictional details of an annihilated
that fuels an overwhelming sense of loss. "It's full of an ache for the past," says Grant,
"something destroyed, not just for Jews but for Germans." It may partly be an awareness
of that lingering absence that repels Sebald from Germany. "As a consequence of persecution,
the country is much poorer," he says. "It's more homogeneous than other European nations."
He has turned down job offers at German universities, but says: "The longer I've stayed here,
the less I feel at home. In Germany, they think I'm a native but I feel at least as distant there.
My ideal station", he half smiles, "is possibly a hotel in Switzerland."
He travels almost monthly to the continent, "digging around" in archives, "servicing" his books
with readings and appearances ("I try to keep this to a minimum") or visiting friends and relatives.
His sisters live in French- and German-speaking Switzerland, while his mother is still alive in
Sonthofen, Bavaria. "Going home is not necessarily a wonderful experience," he says.
"It always comes with a sense of loss, and makes you so conscious of the inexorable passage
of time." He adds: "If you're based in two places, on a bad day you see only the disadvantages
everywhere. On a bad day, returning to Germany brings back all kinds of spectres from the past."
subtitled in German "an English pilgrimage",
WG takes a rucksack on a walking trip across East Anglia to "dispel emptiness".
He discerns destruction and the dark undercurrents of European history all around.
His mind travels from Conrad's sojourn in Lowestoft to the Belgian Congo, whose slave
labour foreshadowed the concentration camps. Britain has its own amnesia about an imperial
past, and Sebald has said he finds the English "not so obviously guilty".
The Rings Of Saturn reveals links between beauty and brutality. "Culture is not the antidote to
the mayhem we wreak - expanding the economy or waging wars," says Sebald.
"Art is a way of laundering money. It still goes on." He cites the slave-driven sugar profits
that built the Tate. "It's more obvious with art because it's an expensive commodity.
But literature is also affirmative of society - it oils the wheels."
Austerlitz too explores the link between architecture and fascism. "The Nazis had megalomaniac
fantasies which Speer, the court architect, was going to realise," says Sebald,
who grew up near the
a former college for the Nazi elite.
"There were concerts, and you were dwarfed by the architecture of power-crazed minds.
It was prefigured by the bombast of the 19th-century bourgeois style - it always comes
from somewhere. These vast edifices depended on slave labour.
The SS ran quarries next to concentration camps. It's not an accidental link."
A year after his travels along the coast, the narrator in The Rings Of Saturn is "taken into hospital
in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility". While one reviewer assumed he had been
incarcerated in a mental asylum, Sebald explains: "Walking along the seashore was
not comfortable - one foot was always lower than the other. I had a pain, and the following
summer, I stretched, and something broke in my back." Threatened with paralysis, he had a
four-hour operation for a shattered disc. "They mended me pretty well."
Some found comedy in the morose narrator, an afflicted writer battling foul weather and fouler
hotels, who was parodied in Private Eye as an Eeyore-like figure of gloom. It is an image Sebald
himself laughs at. Evoking a boyhood photograph of his mother looking brightly at the camera
and "me being my usual self", he pulls an absurdly lugubrious face. His sombre reserve is
relieved by a kindliness, deadpan wit and occasional flashes of laughter. Self-deprecation
builds with comic force as he mocks his late starts in life.
While Hoffman says his "mode of ironic melancholia" is in a "vein of English eccentrics,
and entirely consistent with his personality", for Robinson, Sebald is "not so much melancholic
as burdened by history: the wryness, the sardonic humour, is how he engages with experience
he'd otherwise find too painful to contemplate". Byatt, for whom Sebald's narrator "journeys in
great circling spirals in order not to go home, to get away from his origins", sees melancholy
as a "cover for something more savage: he suddenly puts the knife in about the Germans".
Sebald, who relaxes by "walking and taking the dog out", travels alone: "You can't see anything
as a pair; you have to be by yourself." He is clearly burdened by his writing. "You have no conception
when you begin; it seems like an innocent occupation, but it's not easy. You become a boring
person for those around you. It must be extremely uncomfortable to live with a writer -
all that preoccupation and brooding." He revises both his English and French translations,
scans his Italian ones, and has "intervened massively" in the past ("I literally rewrote them").
He is also oppressed by growing fame. "The phone calls and letters could drive you out of writing.
I'm on the brink of saying, no more readings. At the same time, one doesn't want to be too
His celebrity in Germany spread beyond literary circles with the non-fiction
Air War And Literature (1999), which will be published in Britain next year. It attempted to broach what he sees
as a "muteness" in Germany about the Allied firebombing of German cities in the final stages
of the war. "We didn't want to be reminded partly because of the shame," he says.
"The country was reduced to rubble, and people were scavengers in the ruins - the same people
who were 'sanitising' Europe were all of a sudden among the rats." There is still resentment
that it remains a taboo, says Sebald, "but we should know where it came from:
we bombed Warsaw and Stalingrad before the US came to bomb us. When Dresden was
bombed and there were countless corpses, special commanders were brought in from Treblinka
because they knew how to burn bodies."
Amid TV debates spawned by the book, "it was very disagreeable to get 100 letters every day
at breakfast," he recalls. "Nobody had had an outlet for these feelings before.
Some wrote hysterically about their experiences. It took the lid off. Others said the bombing
had been masterminded by Jews abroad. There's a danger of getting applause from the
Sebald prefers his British readers to his German ones: "I get very odd letters from my native
country, horrified that there aren't any paragraphs in Austerlitz, or taking me up on errors of fact.
It's an attitude problem, an inability to put yourself into the place of another person.
There's definitely something like a national character, even though it's frowned upon
to say so." He thinks ambivalence about the "official culture of memory" remains widespread,
and suggests his books make a splash but then sink with little trace. "After that,
there's silence. It's an indication of resentment, that somebody is making you think about
all that again. People are saying, 'it's enough - it's time to think about ourselves'."
Although his claims for the act of writing are so tentative, so doubt-ridden, Sebald feels
writers have an obligation to air what others cannot bear to remember. Writing may
even be a minute step towards expiation. "It would be presumptuous to say writing a
book would be a sufficient gesture," he reflects. "But if people were more preoccupied with
the past, maybe the events that overwhelm us would be fewer."
At least, he adds, "while you're sitting still in your own room, you don't do anyone any harm".
[Pardon: Repetitio des Artikels vom 22. Septemer]
I first interviewed Max Sebald in September, one of his reluctant concessions to publicity that he
discharged with kindliness and deadpan humour. In his cramped, defiantly computerless room
at the University of East Anglia, where he was professor of European literature,
he showed me a sepia photograph of a young boy from his mother's Bavarian clan,
who was destined to return mentally disturbed from the first world war. "This is before he knew,
" Sebald marvelled at the innocent countenance. "I find that frightful - the incapacity to know
what's round the corner."
Those words struck me after I learned of his death last Friday, at the age of 57, in a car accident
in Norwich. In old photographs he had given me, the boy Max (his third name was Maximilian)
stands before the Bavarian Alps, clad in the lederhosen he detested, unaware both of the late
flowering of his literary talent (he began writing "prose fiction" only in his mid-40s), and that
his career would be shockingly cut short at the height of his powers. He had just moved from
the small publisher Harvill to a lucrative deal with the Penguin group. His early prose poem After
Nature and the non-fiction Air War and Literature will be published in English by
Hamish Hamilton next year.
This edited conversation, published here for the first time, was a rare public appearance by
Sebald - his last in Britain - and took place on September 24, in partnership with the South
Bank Centre, before a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. It formed the annual St Jerome
event of UEA's British Centre for Literary Translation, of which Sebald was the founder and a
passionate advocate. Although Sebald came to Britain in the mid-60s, and lived with his wife
Ute in an old rectory outside Norwich, he wrote only in German. Yet he felt at home in neither
country. "My ideal station," he told me with his mock lugubriousness, "is possibly a hotel in
Maya Jaggi: You were born in Wertach im Allgäu, Bavaria, on May 18 1944,
in the waning years of the Third Reich. How would you describe your family background?
WG Sebald: Wertach was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, in a valley covered in snow for
five months a year. It was a silent place. I was brought up largely by my grandfather, because my
father only returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1947, and worked in the nearest small town,
so I hardly ever saw him. I lived in that place until I was about eight. My parents came from
working-class, small-peasant, farm-labourer backgrounds, and had made the grade during
the fascist years; my father came out of the army as a captain. For most of those years,
I didn't know what class we belonged to. Then the German "economic miracle" unfolded,
so the family rose again; my father occupied a "proper" place in lower-middle-class society.
It was that social stratum where the so-called conspiracy of silence was at its most present.
Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945.
Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the
Belsen camp. There it was, and we somehow had to get our minds around it - which of course
we didn't. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out
what had happened. In the mid-60s, I could not conceive that these events had happened only
a few years back.
It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country in 1966, because in Manchester,
I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people. One character
in The Emigrants (1993) was based partly on Sebald's Mancunian landlord, a Jewish refugee.
You could grow up in Germany in the postwar years without ever meeting a Jewish person.
There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin, but in a provincial town in south Germany
Jewish people didn't exist. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places,
as doctors, cinema ushers, owners of garages, but they had disappeared - or had been disappeared.
So it was a process of successive phases of realisation.
MJ: Your work combines genres - autobiography, travel, meditative essay - and blurs boundaries
between fact and fiction, art and documentary. You've said the big events are true while the
detail is invented. What inspired your latest novel, Austerlitz, and the character of Jacques Austerlitz?
WGS: Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, or perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons.
One is a colleague of mine and another is a person about whom I happened to see a Channel
4 documentary by sheer chance. I was captivated by the tale of an apparently English woman Susie
Bechhofer who, as it transpired, had come to this country with her twin sister and been
brought up in a Welsh Calvinist household. One of the twins died and the surviving twin never really
knew that her origins were in a Munich orphanage. The story struck home; it cast my mind
back to Munich, the nearest big city to where I grew up, so I could relate to the horror and distress.
MJ: Jacques Austerlitz recovers memories in his 50s of having arrived in Britain from Prague
on the Kindertransport. Much of your work is about memory: its unreliability, its shattering return
after being repressed. Does literature have a special role to play in remembrance?
WGS: The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind
it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy
lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that
you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at
you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight
an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered -
not from yesterday but from a long time ago.
MJ: Your work is very oblique and tentative in its approach to the Holocaust; you avoid the
sensational. What do you think the dilemmas are of fiction writers tackling the subject.
WGS: In the history of postwar German writing, for the first 15 or 20 years, people avoided
mentioning political persecution - the incarceration and systematic extermination of whole peoples
and groups in society. Then from 1965 this became a preoccupation of writers - not always in an
acceptable form. So I knew that writing about the subject, particularly for people of German origin,
is fraught with dangers and difficulties. Tactless lapses, moral and aesthetic, can easily be committed.
It was also clear you could not write directly about the horror of persecution in its ultimate forms,
because no one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity.
So you would have to approach it from an angle, and by intimating to the reader that these subjects
are constant company; their presence shades every inflection of every sentence one writes. If one
can make that credible, then one can begin to defend writing about these subjects at all.
MJ: Your books have a documentary feel, using captionless black-and-white photographs,
but their status is unclear, or whether portraits correspond to people in the text.
What's your interest in photography, and why do you strive for uncertainty in the reader
about what's true?
WGS: I've always been interested in photographs, collecting them not systematically but randomly.
They get lost, then turn up again. Two years ago in a junk shop in the East End of London,
I found a postcard of the yodelling group from my home town. That is a pretty staggering
experience. These old photographs always seem to have this appeal written into them,
that you should tell a story behind them. In The Emigrants there is a group photograph
of a large Jewish family, all wearing Bavarian costume. That one image tells you more about
the history of German-Jewish aspiration than a whole monograph would do.
MJ: Why do you continue to write in German?
WGS: I have lived in this country far longer than in Bavaria, but reading in English I become
self-conscious about having a funny accent. Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn't have circumstances
which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when
my German resources begin to shrink. It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you
have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don't
trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.
The Guardian 2001