A tribute to W.G. Sebald

Will Stone

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In the summer of 1996, I made a call to UEA enquiring about the MA in Literary Translation. Being the holiday period there were few staff present, but I was finally put through to a professor of European Literature, a man with a German accent, and a rather dry turn of phrase. This professor did not come across in the conventional manner of pre-occupied academics keen to furnish the basic information and retire. Everything he said seemed to be well judged and carefully applied to the conversation, as if anything thrown in carelessly or casually might have the most terrible repercussions. I remember he made a strange case for both following the course and not following it…He displayed a curious blending of ‘not suffering fools gladly’ directness and genial sensitivity to this unknown caller, but with one hand resting lightly on the lever of suspicion towards all he was saying. Two years later and now enrolled on the course, I witnessed this faintly mischievous honesty again, along with that reticence to impose any rhetoric on the listener, an unwillingness to let the wagons of language travel out from the speakers mouth half empty, even in the most conventional day-to-day conversation. From time to time this Professor Sebald would appear in our MA seminars carrying sheaves of his works in translation and instead of teaching us, suggested we look through them and give him our opinions as fledgling translators. At last, a substantial meal, after the thin gruel of literary translation theory.

It was 1998 and The Rings of Saturn had just appeared. This book was not only most relevant to me as a Suffolk coast dweller, by the tenor of its melancholy refinement, its intricate soundings into literature and landscape, but also because these locations had been places which had infected me in turn and which I had felt obliged to respond to in my poems. I was in effect reading a coastal journey I had already made or was making, albeit in reverse or in separate sections. Further to this was the recollection of a visit to the poets Michael Hamburger and Anne Beresford, at their house Marsh Acres in Middleton. The photo images Sebald chose for this section were already framed on my mind’s lens from my own visits to the house and it was if Sebald had suddenly emerged to unconsciously tap into my own poetic visual itinerary. This overlapping, this sense of shadowing occurred again even more fatefully when Austerlitz was published, with the fort Breendonk in Belgium and particularly the ghetto town of Terezin, where Sebald’s experience, even down to the antiquated bus he took back to Prague and the ‘lady of uncertain age’ he encountered in the otherwise empty ghetto museum, were bizarrely, implausibly, yet truthfully replicated in my own experience, as if Sebald, through his meticulous probing of the overlooked space, had made visible a kind of eternal recurrence of ghostly performances, a mutually interdependent dream theatre.

In November 2001 I was back at UEA, not as a student, but as translator in residence. I remember visiting Max on several occasions in his narrow office on the lower floor of the arts building, once with a copy of Austerlitz for him to sign. We sat wreathed in a pall of bluish smoke from a brand of cigarette I could not identify. Computer equipment had just been delivered, ready to sweep the now famous author into the new millennium, but it lay there stillborn, embalmed in bubble wrap, the plugs still bound in plastic. He gestured at it all and dryly remarked on the determination of the powers that be to modernise a recalcitrant dinosaur. From the wall Walter Benjamin looked down with conspiratorial alertness.  Max complained that he was now in constant demand to give talks and attend ceremonies abroad. He was off again tomorrow, he sighed. ‘To tell you the truth, I would rather be in Stowmarket…’ he memorably added. For anyone who knows Stowmarket, this is a most revealing statement. Our final meeting that November took place over a bowl of lacklustre soup in the UEA cafe. Max encouraged me to set aside poetry and to ‘write my own tales’. I remember that he tellingly chose the more antiquated word ‘tales’ rather than ‘short stories’.

Barely a fortnight or so later i received news from Michael Hamburger of Max’s tragic accident. Following his attendance at the funeral in Norfolk, Michael, who had been understandably withdrawn since Max’s death, sought to express the severity of the loss, to articulate the onerous sense of vacancy left by his passing. He said how a light really had been extinguished with Max’s passing and it seemed, as he put it, as if the world had ‘visibly darkened’. These were the words he chose, singled out as it were, and they seemed so apt I remember thinking. This was no rhetoric about the dying of the light or a candle snuffed, but Michael sought to express how in some tangible yet hard to define sense the light really had dimmed, that some unique flowering could never be replaced, that communal extinction flexed with anticipation at the moment Max swerved across the road. I imagine Michael distrusted resorting to words of lofty emotion, which in their race to lower the most ornate wreathes before a catastrophic event, can irreparably damage that incubus of silence, in which some truth may shyly be forming.

[Image of Saturn from Robert Hooke's Philosophical Transactions (1666)]