2001 September 26
First seminar. Each of us introduced ourselves. We spoke a little about our writing projects and our hopes for the course.
Some, the more reticent, were prompted by questions from Sebald. He was friendly and curious, as I had expected, but also witty,
which somehow I had not imagined him to be. When my turn came I talked for far too long.
After the last student had finished speaking, Sebald said something like, ‘I suppose I’d better tell you something about myself.’
He went on to say that he was more surprised than anyone to find himself here, in front of a bunch of Creative Writing students,
since the university had until now regarded him as nothing more than an obscure scholar of German-language literature. But his ‘prose works’
had recently become known to UEA, and so here he was. The upshot of these prose works having come to light, he told us, had had
a second fortunate effect, which was that he was now given greater leeway at the university. The staff were happier to indulge
what he called his ‘eccentricities’ (which he didn’t go into). Best of all, he said, he no longer had to deal with the tedious
administrative duties that academics are nowadays everywhere forced to carry out. He then proceeded to tell us that
despite the privileges being an author can convey, at least in the university environment, there is very little else
to say in favour of the profession. You must be already slightly disturbed if your goal is to spend your lifetime staring
at a blank piece of paper, he told us. What is more, the process of writing itself is often quite different from how you might
imagine. Being always on your own, for instance, with your own thoughts, trying to make sense of them, being forced
to constantly invent things – is this not a recipe for mental ruin? Think hard about whether you really want to be a
writer, he told us, and if you decide that you do, make sure you take another job as well. Teaching is not a bad option,
he said. Neither is it a bad idea to become a barrister.
Best of all, he told us, is to get involved in the medical profession, because you will hear many strange stories,
which later at your desk you can make use of.
What a strange introduction to a Creative Writing class! Of course, he’s right.
I’ve heard that less than 10 per cent of published writers in Britain earn more than the minimum wage.
And that instances of depression and alcoholism are much higher among poets and writers. Was he trying to put us
off? If so, his talk had the opposite effect. It only made me more sure I want to be a writer. Did he calculate it this way?
In our first meeting we had been told to bring a passage of writing we admired. The passages were photocopied and distributed
at the end of class. I had not been able to decide between two of my favourite writers: a section from Georges Perec’s Life:
A User’s Manual – a novel set almost entirely at one minute to eight – and a short story by Ingo Schulze. In the end I had
chosen Schulze, a German, probably, stupidly, because I wanted to impress Sebald. We spent the whole of this second seminar
looking at the passages.
Mine was, in fact, the first Sebald picked out. For a moment I was thrilled. I thought that he had chosen it for its merits.
It was not the case. In fact, he seemed to hate it. He tore it apart (and by extension my taste). The story was clumsy, artless,
imprecise. Worse, he said, you just couldn’t see what the author was talking about. He disliked one line in particular that went
something like this (I’m too ashamed to go and look it up): ‘Only when the dimpled sewer covers started to spit ice cubes up on
to the road, like smoothly licked sweets, were we able to walk normally again.’ I can’t see it, Sebald kept on saying.
Perhaps it’s my bad English, he said, but I can’t imagine a spitting sewer cover. What on earth does such a sewer cover look like?
No one, myself least of all, had an answer. And why, he went on, if the road was presumably covered with ice cubes,
had the author highlighted this fact as the moment when ‘we’ (and note that he never, in fact, tells us who this ‘we’ are)
were able to walk normally again? Wouldn’t the pedestrians be slipping about all over the place? I certainly wouldn’t
go out on such a day, he said. I myself made a pathetic attempt to defend the story, but I could hardly speak.
And I stayed mute for the rest of the class. Sebald treated every piece to this scrupulous criticism. He tore into
Don DeLillo’s Underworld for its inconsistencies of perspective. How on earth can the narrator be so sure about all the things
he seems to know? How can he be in so many places at the same time? One minute, Sebald said, he’s describing the Arizona desert
from the ground-level view, from the perspective of an iguana, and the next from high above. In the space of a few lines he has become
a bird of prey spying on the iguana, probably so he can gobble it up. Discussing a Raymond Carver story Sebald got us all to stand up
and try to act out some motion the narrator’s wife carried out. We had to stick strictly to the description in the text.
She was doing something like taking a chicken out of the oven whilst turning to her husband and saying something about the chicken.
Sebald was right. It was impossible, the way Carver described it, for the human body to move in precisely this way.
He went on to say that it’s very difficult, not to say impossible, to get physical movement right when writing.
The important thing is that it should work for the reader, even if it’s not meticulous. You can use ellipses,
he said, abbreviate a sequence of actions, you needn’t laboriously describe each one. Out of all the passages
the only one Sebald liked unreservedly was from Jim Crace’s Being Dead.
I’m still shocked. Sebald’s point, it seems tome, was simple. That precision in writing fiction –
especially in writing fiction – is an absolutely fundamental value. He summed up by saying that if
you look carefully you can find problems in all writers, or almost all (Kafka being an exception; especially,
he told us, if you look at the reports he wrote for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute!). He told us that
even those writers who have talent and scrupulousness must be on their guard against sloppiness and indulgence.
He gave, as an example of sloppiness, Gunter Grass, who, he said, had started off writing quite well,
but had lately let his writing slip. He thought it had happened since Grass had won the Nobel Prize. Probably,
he said, Grass’s publisher has been too scared to edit his latest manuscripts.
I’m going to stop writing now and take a look at my chapters. I won’t go to sleep until I’ve tightened them up.
It was uncomfortable in class today. For the first time we saw Sebald riled; not angry exactly, but agitated, even perplexed.
It was clear that one of the hand-ins, H.’s, had affected him quite strongly. The story was set in an unnamed city under curfew.
Food was becoming harder and harder to come by. Citizens were being shot. There was some kind of confused relationship between
a man and a woman. In the end the two turned to cannibalism. Most of us liked the story. I did, too, although I think
it is heavily indebted to the Peter Carey story ‘Room No. 5 (Escribo)’, which I read last summer. This time Sebald didn’t
make his usual criticisms about superfluous sentences or too many characters being introduced all at once or lack of concrete
detail, but went straight to his point. There is something wrong with the way the story is told, he said. It’s the voice.
You are writing about horrendous things. Horrific events. Are you sure you know what you are writing about? Have you actually
been to such a place? Have you yourself witnessed such horror? H. replied that she had lived in Jerusalem for nine years.
That surprised him. We talked about the story some more. There really wasn’t a lot to say (it is always the case that the better,
tighter hand-ins get shorter crits). But Sebald wasn’t willing to let it go. He said again that he had a problem with the voice,
with the way the narrator approaches the horror she is describing. He told us that horror is everywhere now, there is so much of
it, in all walks of life, everywhere we look. I went into my local video shop, he said. It’s filled with nasty videos.
A generation who have never known war is being raised on horror. Then he asked a few questions. How do you surpass horror
once you’ve reached a certain level? How do you stop it appearing gratuitous? He answered himself.
Let me get this right. You (he was addressing the whole class) might think that because you are writing fiction
you needn’t be overly concerned to get the facts straight. But aesthetics is not a value-free area. And you must
be particularly careful if your subject concerns horrific events. You must stick absolutely to the facts. The most
plausible, perhaps even the only, approach is the documentary one. I would say that writing about an appalling
state of affairs is incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.
I can’t quite understand Sebald’s point, though I’m not willing to dismiss it. I thought at first he was
reiterating Adorno’s dictum that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.
It can’t be, though, because all Sebald’s work picks over the barbarism of the twentieth century, often
focusing on the Holocaust, if obliquely. And he implied that you can write about such things, if only you stick to the
facts. But facts are slippery, especially in times of emergency, as Sebald surely knows. So his problem with H.’s story
cannot be related to her writing fiction about horrid events per se. It must lie with the way she chose to write about them.
And, in fact, thinking about the story now, there is something gratuitous about it. That absolutely flat tone. The horror
never seems to touch the narrator. H.’s point is that those who experience dreadful events on a daily basis become numbed to
them. As a comment on human behaviour this may be true, and on that I don’t think Sebald could argue with her.
But I think Sebald’s problem lay elsewhere.
I think it lay deeper than his argument over aesthetics. He had had an unpleasant reaction to the story; you could hear
it in his voice. For him the story had crossed some kind of line. I’m thinking of Coetzee’s Disgrace, when David Lurie chooses
to cremate dead dogs himself rather than witness workers breaking the dogs’ legs so as to fit the corpses better into the
cremation fire. And he chooses to do this for no clear or logical reason, but because of a private instinct:
‘For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into amore convenient shape for processing.’
I think Sebald’s reaction had something similarly private about it. I think it had something to do with the fact that he has
chosen as his subject unspeakable events, and it’s my guess it took him a lot of thinking and self-searching to decide, in fact,
to voice them. That’s perhaps why he published fiction only relatively late in his life. It had probably taken years for him to
feel confident enough about his form, to trust himself to approach his subject in writing. And it is now hard for him to
countenance another, weaker, more common-sense method. Like all great writers, he’s too involved in his own vision.
It strikes me that Sebald is not your usual UEA-type Creative Writing tutor. I always knew that.
What I didn’t expect was how opposed, even hostile, is his attitude to the kind of writing that usually
comes out of UEA. He rarely states his hostility explicitly. And, in fact, if you were to analyse any one of his
seminars you would not necessarily deduce what I am sure is a deeply felt antipathy to the flat, realist style
(those confident, quirky male protagonists, the breathy girl-child narrators that are always somehow damaged, the
sentiment masked as irony, the smooth metonymy, the easy generalisations) most of the class produce. Taken together,
his comments and digressions, such as the one today on time (‘Physicists now say there is no such thing as time:
everything coexists; the artificial thing is actually chronology’), add up to a fairly sustained attack
on the UEA/realist aesthetic. This afternoon he even took a swipe at
We were looking at S.’s story,
which follows the misadventures of an English family in a campsite in south-west France. It was a pretty good story,
most of us agreed. Sebald was enthusiastic about it, too. He said what he liked best was the detail.
The focus on camping equipment: the different types of tent poles, mattresses, stoves, the names of certain
kinds of knots specific to the camping world, etc. It was for him a whole new vernacular, he said. I could translate
a page of Ian McEwan in half an hour, he said, but a camping manual! That is another matter entirely.
And two Sainsbury’s managers talking to each other are a different species altogether.
Here’s a (necessarily incomplete) list of his polemic comments so far:
I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits,
but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat
the stuff as your own without guilt.
It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest.
In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being said.
So you have to talk about where you got your sources, how it was talking to that woman in Beverly Hills,
the trouble you had at the airport, etc. Writing that does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator
is an imposture, jaded, even dangerous.
In the nineteenth century the omniscient narrator was God. Totalitarian and monolithic. The twentieth century with all its
horrors was more demotic. We have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency and try and write with this always in mind.
I find it hard to countenance writing in the third person.
There is a certain merit in leaving some parts of your writing obscure.
Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.
On time: Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests
layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or coexisting.
I think quite a few class members find his perspective hard to follow or are hostile to it.
For example, P. said he did not worry about these kinds of things (I think he meant first vs. third-person narration) and
disliked ‘experimental’ writing generally (as if his own social-realist style is the right way and any diversion from this ‘experimental’!).
I think what is new in Sebald can be seen in the way he himself dealt with the issue of realism.
His writing mostly eschews realism, not just in its structural radicalism but in that he seeks a kind of verisimilitude
of the nether world. Isaac Babel once said of Tolstoy that if the world could write itself, it would write like him.
It strikes me that if the dead were to write themselves, they would write like Sebald.
By all means be experimental, Sebald said today in class, but let the reader be part of the experiment.
Write about obscure things, but don’t write obscurely. This advice brought me up short.
I think my own writing suffers on this account. I am too ready to pack my writing with obscure facts, oblique references, and I want everything to be tricksy. Plus, I’m always having to mask the essayist in me. This is exactly the trap that Sebald, in his writing, (mostly) circumvents. What marks him out is his ability to blend the essay form with the purely fictional. His books leap (and it is a leap, since so often the fiction takes over in a passage of flight, often in a dream-sequence when the narrator flies above both the landscape and his own rational thoughts) into the fictional. He rarely makes the mistake, as I do (and others in the class whom his writing has influenced), of believing that obscure information or antique objects have charm in themselves. He never transposes raw facts into his texts. If he did they would read as still-born. I must keep this in mind. Information is not appealing merely because it’s authentic. I must remember that in my novel information, however interesting in itself, cannot be regurgitated without having been touched by the alchemy of fiction.
This afternoon in class I had a bizarre momentary vision of Sebald. It was one of those seminars when everyone seemed
tired and distracted. The story we were discussing was poor. It concerned an autistic child and his mother’s attempt
to come to terms with the affliction. It was clunky and depressing. You could hear the ‘grinding noises’ (Sebald’s phrase)
of the plot. And the discussion was rambling, too, going nowhere really. At one point, as he sometimes does, thrillingly,
Sebald started talking at length. He told us about his boyhood hatred for the ‘old Nazi’ who gave him zither lessons.
He told us about his Austrian friend who had graphomania. He told us that
Princess Diana regarded the Windsors as nothing
other than a bunch of German upstarts **). At one point I started looking at my classmates. I thought about how we had been thrust
together in this class.
I thought about how raw the crits could be, how I had read about some very private things,
how some of the criticisms had bordered on personal attacks. I thought about the very different
personalities in the class and how most of us were in some way nutty.
Some with ambition. Some with neuroses. Some with jealousy or past hurt. And some were just odd
looking. Sebald was still talking. He was telling us about a writer called Ödön von Horváth,
who had escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power. I looked over at the window. It was raining outside.
I could hear the drops tapping against the glass. Horváth, Sebald told us, was exiled in Paris, where he consulted a
clairvoyant, who warned him to steer clear of the city of Amsterdam, never to ride on trams, on no account to go in a lift,
and to avoid lightning at all costs. Horváth took this advice very seriously. At one point
I stopped looking at the faces of my classmates and instead watched Sebald. He was leaning back in his chair.
His legs were stretched out in front of him, his body a long diagonal. His eyes looked up at the ceiling and the round
glass of his spectacles reflected the strip light. Both his hands were placed on the back of his head; together
his arms made a coat-hanger shape, a pair of ‘V’s. Horváth, Sebald was saying, despite all his precautions,
was one day walking on the Champs Elysées when a branch fell and killed him. Sebald continued to talk,
perhaps he was telling us more about the writer Horváth, perhaps he had moved on to something else.
But I was no longer following him, because I’d noticed something strange. He was wearing a watch on each wrist.
On his left wrist he wore a cheap digital watch*), face up. On his right an analogue watch, its face turned round
to the underside of his wrist. The rain continued.
Sebald talked on. But I wasn’t following him. I kept looking at the watches on his wrists.
Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know
*) Ein anderer Seminarteilnehmer merkt an, Max habe einen Magneten getragen - im Glauben,
dies sei gesund
**) Seit 1840 heißt das englische Köngishaus Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Georg V. ändert 1917 - wegen des innenpolitischen Drucks
während des Ersten Weltkrieges aufgrund der deutschen Abstammung der königlichen Familie - den deutschen Namen in Windsor.
Am 14. Dezember erleidet Sebald einen Herzinfarkt am Steuer, sein Wagen kollidiert auf der Gegenfahrbahn mit einem Lkw.