W. G. Sebald on Writing, Memory and Modern Culture

An interview with amazon.co.uk
W. G. Sebald
Toby Green (amazon.co.uk) talks to W. G. Sebald about 'memory, modern culture and the truth of writing':
Beginning with Vertigo, what was it that made you actually start the writing when you did?

I was in my mid-forties when I produced my first scribblings which were non-academic. I went down to London. Completely randomly, I had picked out a book by an Austrian writer, Konrad Baier, which I had not looked at for some time. The book had a footnote about a botanist who had been on Bering's Alaskan expedition. When I got to London, I went to the British Museum on a complete whim and read about it. I could not see how I could possibly write an essay or a monograph on this, but it so fascinated me that I just wrote it down in a longhand prose poem. I had no intentions to publish it. It was very liberating at the time, because it was so intensely private.

At the beginning of Vertigo, you follow the young Stendhal in Napoleon's army and introduce the central theme of the book: the unknowability of the past and memory's unreliability. As a writer you must draw on memory--do you feel that all the stories we tell are fictions, or do some stories have more truth than others?

Seen from the outside, some stories have more truth than others, but the truth value of the story does not depend on its actual truth content. The truth value depends on how it is framed and phrased. If a story is aesthetically right, then it is probably also morally right. You cannot really translate one to one from reality. If you try to do that, in order to get at a truth value through writing, you have to falsify and lie. And that is one of the moral quandaries of the whole business.

That's a theme that is evident in your books, what you term in The Emigrants "the questionable business of writing"--why do people write?

One doesn't know why one does it. You have no idea. If someone asks, you have to own up and say that you have no idea what your motives are. It could be a compulsive habit with neurotic dimensions. Or it could be vanity.

Do you think that exhibitionism comes into it?

Oh yes--that is the less savoury side, along with the mercenary considerations.

So how do you find that you are viewed, as a writer?

Usually with a mixture of admiration and contempt! But there are of course some noble motives--trying to say something that is true, and being analytical about oneself. That's all very laudable, but even these are mixed up with less savoury motives, and the commodification of literature has just made the whole thing worse.

Is that a contemporary phenomenon?

Chateaubriand was as vain and ambitious in the eighteenth century as anyone today. And there have always been exceptions, people like Kafka--every line in his diary is so straight and sincere. [Read More]
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