Haunted by the Artist of Memory

By Tonkin, Boyd | The Independent (London, England), December 2, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Haunted by the Artist of Memory


Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)


books of the week ACROSS THE LAND AND THE WATER: SELECTED POEMS, 1964-2001 by WG Sebald, trans. Iain Galbraith Hamish Hamilton, Pounds 14.99, 213pp Pounds 13.49 from The Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030 SATURN'S MOONS: W G SEBALD - A HANDBOOK Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt (editors) Legenda, Pounds 45, 677pp from The Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

As Jacques Austerlitz remarks towards the end of the book that bears his name, we "have appointments to keep in the past... and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak". Let me, briefly, keep one of those appointments. On a bright February day in 1998, I'm sitting with Max Sebald, professor of European literature, over lunch in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the Norwich campus of the University of East Anglia - where he has taught since 1970.

My tape recorder is running as this conversation will feed a profile (the second British interview, as the heroically complete bibliography in Saturn's Moons tells me) of the expatriate German author Winfried Georg Sebald, born in 1944. He began his literary career in earnest (and in German) with the meditative narrative poem, After Nature, in 1988. First acclaimed in the UK for The Emigrants in 1996, he was soon to publish in translation a fictional- factual account of a walk along the Suffolk coast, The Rings of Saturn.

His talk - droll, deadpan, sharp, sombre, bristling, benign - raises the question defined in a poem called "The Sky At Night": "what relation/ does a heavy heart bear/ to the art of comedy?" An intimate one, for sure. At some point, conversation turns to the gnomic, free-floating and uncaptioned photos that dot his fictions and have become one of the most imitated traits of an inimitable writer. He mentions his habit of scouring junk shops and market stalls for these images. The gazes of the people in them haunt because they no longer live among us - but still have questions to ask. For Sebald, they have "like all the dead, a sense of grievance. They say, 'Please, can you try and do something about it?'"

Can we? On 14 December 2001, on a road near Norwich, Sebald joined their number: a heart attack at the wheel caused the crash that killed him. I had seen him that September after a South Bank event in London, just prior to the publication of Anthea Bell's beautifully shaped and shaded translation of Austerlitz (which he collaborated with, phrase by phrase and page by page). He seemed to be enjoying not so much his late-arriving literary celebrity - the idea would have repelled him - but the rapid expansion of the circles of readers who grasped what his books were trying to do, and loved them for it. Since his death, at 57, those circles have spread across the oceans.

Quite apart from the British authors who follow his paths, acknowledge a debt or simply bow to a master (A S Byatt to Will Self, Geoff Dyer to Robert Macfarlane), the writers overseas who have since 2001 spoken to me of Sebald in awe and gratitude range in their origins from Denmark (Jens-Christian Grondahl) to Colombia (Juan Gabriel Vasquez). Visual artists such as Tess Jaray and Tacita Dean have made works after, in the wake of, his own. Poets from Andrew Motion to George Szirtes and Hans-Magnus Enzensberger have elegised the great elegist. This year, in Aldeburgh, Patti Smith gave a tribute performance for one of her favourite authors. The film-maker Grant Gee - who has directed documentaries with or about U2, Radiohead and Joy Division - has completed Patience (After Sebald). Across continents an academic mill grinds, stocking the shelves of Sebaldiana logged with such passionate diligence in Saturn's Moons.

In Austerlitz, the bewildered Kindertransport migr finds respite from his stifling Welsh Calvinist foster home and dismal boarding school at his friend Gerald's eccentric house.

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