“In many of [Sebald’s] works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there.”—Carol Jacobs
The following is an interview with Carol Jacobs, author of Sebald’s Vision:
Question: W. G. Sebald is a vastly popular literary figure. Can you say something about the kind of audience he has drawn?
Carol Jacobs: Writing in 2000 Susan Sontag had this to say of the contemporary literary scene: “Is literary greatness still possible? . . . One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” J. M. Coetzee, too, recognized and eloquently celebrated his work. The New York Times, the New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph—all hinted at what had seemed the inevitability of his becoming a Nobel laureate prior to his tragic death. There is no question that he is a writer’s writer. His work has elicited an astonishing critical response from academics on both sides of the Atlantic. But he is no less a writer who appeals to a very wide range of devoted readers. I have seen them in the New York subway, on planes, and (this has its ironies, given a scene in Austerlitz in which the narrator visits an ophthalmologist) also at my eye doctor’s.
Q: Why the title Sebald’s Vision?
CJ: The awe that Sebald’s writing inspires is no doubt linked to his singular ethical stance, his moral vision. This commitment comes to us by way of a pained melancholy concerning the Holocaust, in Austerlitz and The Emigrants and also in After Nature and Rings of Saturn where he turns to a host of other historical and natural disasters.That commitment comes to us as righteous outrage in “Air War and Literature” in which Sebald had challenged not only the German nation for its failure to deal with its past but also post-war German writers for their refusal to document the bombings of German cities. He also had the courage to expose the military uselessness of that violence. So his is a voice that calls us to attention, that stops us in our tracks with its factual materials and yet sweeps us along with a remarkably compelling narrative at the same time, a narrative that Sebald often insisted on calling fiction.
Q: But surely the title also has to do with the unusual visual material in Sebald’s texts?
CJ: Yes, of course. Every reader is struck and intrigued by the photographs, documents and other visual material interspersed throughout his writings. Still, they have no easy place in his works, as, say, illustrations.Their visual quality is often questionable, their applicability to the passages against which they are juxtaposed uncertain. Sebald forces us to think about how we see, imagine, interpret, and how we relate to art. All this is part of a running commentary throughout his writings on truth, representability, and memory. And it is to these last concepts that I devote a great deal of reflection. How, after all, is one to reconcile a writer of fiction who constantly questions our capacity to document and remember with Sebald’s apparent insistence on a moral stance grounded in a historical past?
Q: Still alongside the questions of ethics and imaging, there is much else that is astonishingly innovative in his text. What do you have in mind?
CJ: Sebald’s writing is radically experimental. In many of his works one is drawn along in elaborate sentences that get you to a destination with only the remotest connections to where they began. It’s like traveling on a train whose tracks are constantly encountering a switch, so there is no predicting where one will end up, and almost no remembering how one could have gotten there. It’s a journey of meandering detours, as Sebald crosses borders, shatters one frame to enter another, weaves in citations from the works of others, and somehow makes the wild ride thrilling. Yet along the way there is also a surreptitious meditation on what it means to write his kind of text. In other words there is a theorization about what it means to write and what it means to read a text such as Sebald offers us. There is an ethics bound to language, to coming to terms with its capacities and its inevitable failures which one cannot ignore.
Q: What are some examples of those “capacities” of language you mention?
CJ: What takes place in Sebald is not simply some banal reminder of language’s inability to double or document the world around us. On the contrary. Take for example his long poem “Like the snow on the Alps” which opens the volume After Nature. It is a moving and extraordinary piece of writing, devoted to telling the life of the German Renaissance painter Matthaeus Grünewald. Ever at stake is the identity of the person who signed the artworks with that name. The name itself, as if to underscore that uncertainty, appears with different spellings in the course of the poem; his wife, we are told, fell in love, not with the painter but with his “green-colored name,” and in its closing sections we see pieces of the name scattered across the lines – grün (green), Wald (woods) – as though the poet’s language itself were play acting the painter’s demise. One might think as well of the brilliant and somewhat neglected essay Sebald wrote on the painter Jan Peter Tripp. It poses here and there as a conventional piece of art history, but then shifts to a complex commentary on two of Tripp’s paintings, in which the second painting rigorously doubles, cites, incorporates the first. As the essay closes Sebald switches from a language of dutiful description and tells, rather, an outlandish tale of the antics of one of the figures in the painting, as though it had come to life by way of the narration and turned to judge the observer. It is at such moments in Sebald that we are called upon to rethink our conceptualizations of language and rethink our role as readers as well.