W G Sebald

Commuting days until retirement: 477

WGSebaldIt’s a rather sad experience to discover a contemporary writer who immediately engages you, only to learn that he has recently died – so that once you have exhausted his published novels there will be no more. This was my experience in the case of W G Sebald.

Sebald was a German writer, an immensely intelligent and learned man, who had learned early in life of his family’s former involvement in Nazi regime activity. He preferred to become an expatriate, studying in Manchester and taking up an academic post there. He then lived in Switzerland for a short time before returning to England to become a lecturer, and then Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He held this post at the time of his death in a car crash in Norfolk in late 2001. He had evidently suffered a heart attack at the wheel.

austerlitzAs far as I remember I came across him simply by picking up one of his books in a shop. At first sight I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it seemed so different from anything else I had come across that I had to buy it. The book was Austerlitz, his last published novel. Embarking on a Sebald novel takes you into an unfamiliar but compelling experience, where you are never quite sure what is entirely fictional and what is reference to factual reality. This ambiguity is enhanced by the grainy black and white photos, engravings and other visuals which punctuate the text, appearing to depict real things but at the same time conjuring up a dream-like atmosphere. The basic narration is always first person, but it’s never quite clear to what extent the persona is Sebald’s own. This effect is further enhanced in Austerlitz, as most of the story is spoken by the eponymous character, but told to the first person narrator who meets and talks with him in a variety of settings across Europe.

Sebald’s prose style is also unique. Sentences will generally be long, punctuated with commas, and in the course of a single sentence he will often digress from the here-and-now, maybe to refer to some historical fact, or describe the foibles of some character, before returning to the present. A Sebald novel is an other-worldly experience, both real and not-real, and makes reading him (for me, anyway) uniquely pleasurable. I don’t often re-read novels, conscious of everything out there which I have yet to read and probably never will – but Sebald is an exception to this. As is shown by the interview I have included below, the texture of his work is laden with allusions and metaphors, few of which I have been aware of on a first reading. He writes in German, and is translated, but he was generally closely involved in the translations himself, so we can be sure of their authenticity. I would recommend all four of his novels: The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz.

My post was prompted by a piece in this weekend’s Guardian Review, where I was pleased to find that a new book of his essays is being published next month. (There are other books of essays and poetry that I have not yet read – I’m saving them up for myself.) One of the essays is reprinted there: if I had read just the first sentences without knowing who the author was, I would immediately have recognised him as Sebald.

He was, according to all accounts, a shy, modest and delightful man. He was known univerally to those who knew him as ‘Max’. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to meet someone who had been a friend of his – the Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, a fellow member of staff at the Univerity of East Anglia. I learned how well liked he was, and what enormous sadness friends felt when he died.

Looking around the internet, I found a YouTube interview with an American radio station, made just before his death, so I have embedded it here.

Memento Mori

Commuting days until retirement: 477

After my stay in what is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, here’s some beauty of a less conventional kind. I glimpsed it out of the train window, and it stayed in my thoughts, and maybe dreams, for a few days afterwards. Since it’s right by a station I was able to return and photograph it.

broken shed
At this point I wondered whether I should simply leave it there for you to enjoy (or not), but since writing is what this blog is really about, I’m going to go ahead and write about it.

What this perfectly exemplifies for me is all those abandoned and forgotten enclaves of wilderness that are constantly close to us, especially in an urban environment. Many of them seem to be created by the presence of railway lines, which carve out little squares and triangles of unusable, inaccessible land which grow weeds and irresistibly attract plastic bottles, tin cans and all the detritus of the surrounding activity. Activity that’s hard to escape from if you need to earn a living, serving a multiplicity of ephemeral but urgent needs. (I’m sounding like an Church of England sermon.)  I wanted to say that forgotten outposts like this pictured one, by contrast, lie outside the frantic zone, and just are. This example is just by the main line where hundreds of thousands of commuters pass daily with their laptops, iPads, dry cleaned suits and power hair styles. Some of them, like me, must give it their attention as they stare out of the window.

I like the way that it immediately changes the perspective that my mind is locked into much of the time. The effect is like one of those stark portraits of an elderly person on the fringes of life, usually from a third world setting, that you often see in the work of a professional photographer. You are struck by the deep wrinkles, the inscrutable expression and the steady gaze. Here it’s the thoroughly wrecked appearance, as well as the utter unregarded dereliction, that invokes some obscure emotional response. Dirt and decay. How did it come to suffer not only broken windows and a holed roof, but also a total structural dislocation, as if picked up and thrown down by a giant hand? It seems to mock the vertical regularity of the flats visible behind it.

It has itself been regular, designed artefact, originally formed out of the surrounding chaos only to be irresistibly drawn back into it – and I think that’s the morbid attraction of a sight like this. For the purposeful, dressed and coiffured commuters who pass by daily it’s a reminder of the disorder and death on the fringes of their assiduously chased aspirations. I’m reminded of the famously death-averse (and dead) poet Philip Larkin, and his poem titled with a jaunty irony Next Please. He characterises our hopes and ambitions:

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.

But concludes

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence.

Too much to read into a picture of an old shed? If I have made anyone unnecessarily gloomy I apologise. Perhaps blogs should carry warnings, like films or TV programmes: This post contains thoughts that some readers may find depressing. But I like a good wallow.

It’s commuting, but not as we know it

Commuting days until retirement: 487

No commuting this week: we are spending our Easter holiday, as we have for several years now, on Scilly, a group of islands 30 miles off the coast of south west England. And this break in the usual rhythm of my life is a chance to – among other things – think about the differing rhythms of some other lives. I believe the island where we are staying, Bryher, is the smallest inhabited one of the group – it has a permanent population of about 80, added to seasonally by people like us.

Imagine an island about two miles long, with the mildest climate in the British Isles. Its south-eastern end, sheltered, with palm trees and colourful flowers, has an almost tropical feel (Green Bay), while its north-eastern extremity consists of moorland covered in heather and ending in cliffs facing out into the Atlantic storms (Hell Bay). To live here is to be permanently surrounded by exceptionally beautiful, almost deserted, scenery. In order to enjoy this you’d have to accept being cut off from the mainland – in the sense that it requires an expensive boat or plane trip to get there. You have phone, TV/radio and the internet, of course (eagerly adopted by these islands when it arrived), but work here mostly consists of farming or servicing the tourist trade – in other words a lot of tough manual labour.

But there are other blessings: almost no motorised transport, apart from tractors, quad bikes and a few Land Rovers, and a complete absence of crime. Nobody locks their doors, and if you’ve ordered food from the shop it may be delivered while you’re out, neatly put away in your kitchen or fridge. It’s perfect for idle holidaymakers like us: there’s a hotel, two other restaurants, a well-stocked shop and, as of this year we discover, even a pizza takeaway open two evenings a week.

Scilly-commute0Commuting, where it exists, is of course something completely different – maybe by boat, between islands. Young children here commute to school by a short boat trip to the next island, and older ones board weekly at a secondary school on the largest island. But here’s a commute which I rate as the most desirable I have ever come across. There’s an artist who works on the island, and has what seems to be a good living. Paintings in his recognisable style appear in hotels and other settings around the islands as well as the nearby mainland. The island hotel has adopted a detail from one of his paintings as its logo, and he sells prints and merchandise to many of us tourists. In the picture below you can see where he lives and where he works. This is a commute that I could put up with indefinitely.