W. G. Sebald: Writing from the Periphery

In 2001, German academic and writer W. G. Sebald talked to Christopher Bigsby in a discussion that was recorded and is held as part of an audio-visual collection in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing

Having been born in 1944, Sebald recognised that he “grew up in a peripheral place where you scarcely noticed that there was a war.” But even after emigrating to England, he remained on the periphery, and this stance became a vital characteristic of both his life and writing.

Challenges within post-war Germany

The post-war landscape of Germany was alienating, with the bombed ruins of cities being incomprehensible to Sebald in the face of his otherwise idyllic upbringing in Bavaria. His childhood hometown of Wertach saw no material evidence of the war apart from the absence of six boys who never returned. 

Germany was unable to address this past and the unexplainable horrors and Sebald found that he did not get on with academia in his country, so he decide to “find [his] own way through that maze of the German past and not be guided by those in teaching positions at that time.”

Landscape image of the Bavarian alps with hillsand forest in the distance

Finding a new approach to challenging the past

Sebald became divorced from his German heritage and language, learning French and studying in Switzerland. In order to make sense of that cultural memory that would always be a part of him, he had to approach it from outside, leaving his home country that wrote and published very little about the devastation of the war. He states that “the only way to write about persecution and its consequences is to approach the subject obliquely” and with “a peripheral vision”, something that would be impossible if he remained in Germany.

This attitude remained throughout his life, as Sebald took care to find his own approach and to not become part of the crowd. His holidays were occupied by wanderings around the more mundane and personal areas of a city. Major attractions like the Eiffel Tower are for postcards, he says, so he much preferred discovering the less explored parts of the world.

Moving to England

He moved to Manchester in 1966, then came to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 1970 to teach and complete his PhD. The industrial wastelands of Manchester were a shock to him, having come from the green alpine landscape of Bavaria, and as an immigrant he was naturally an outsider to British culture and its people. Despite living and working in the country for over thirty years he never felt completely integrated, still claiming that English sounded alien to him (although you wouldn’t know it if you heard him speak it).

Sebald’s peripheral writing

As a writer, he also took a peripheral approach. Sebald didn’t conform to any standard style or become part of the mainstream: “That temptation to work with very fragmentary pieces of evidence, to fill in the gaps and blank spaces and create out of this a meaning which is greater than that which you can prove, led me to work in a way which wasn’t determined by any discipline.” To address the past as a writer, he had to form his own style in order to find meaning.

He was also aware of being an old-fashioned writer. His childhood was filled with natural noises, so the mechanical sounds of the city caused panic. This extends to writing. He could not work while listening to music or by using a computer, saying that they “tend to mutter under their breath.” His idiosyncrasies led him to work in his own way and to produce a style of prose that is distinctly his. 

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A lasting legacy

Later in the same year as this conversation with Bigsby, Sebald died in a car crash outside Norwich at the age of fifty-seven, but his poetry and his four published prose fictions still receive much critical attention.

Whether it’s the meditative introspection and observations The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, or the entrancing blend of fiction and biography of Austerlitz, Sebald’s works continue to provide a wealth of interest within academia. His literature, as Mark O’Connell says, “transcends the literary” and will long be a source of inspiration for many writers.

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