Twelve Seminars with W. G. Sebald

Luke Williams on Sebald as a teacher and a writer
W. G. Sebald
Luke Williams (New Writing) has written a reflective account of his experiences with W. G. Sebald, first as a writer, and then as a creative writing teacher at the University of East Anglia (link via 3:AM Magazine):
I want to write about the two incarnations in which I knew W. G. Sebald: first through his writing, and then through his being my tutor at UEA. When I first encountered his work, in the winter of 1999, I had recently moved to Paris, a city new to me. I had discovered my French was worse than I thought. Having arrived there with no plan, for no clear reason, I was experiencing a sense of mounting frustration and bewilderment.

What was frustrating was not the fact of my bewilderment – I had become used to the sensation – but that I wished to articulate it, and yet had found no way to do so. I did not want simply to forget or overcome my confusion, but, through writing, to examine its complicated paths. And yet the very confusion about which I wanted to write was preventing me from writing anything much at all. Whenever I tried to set something down, my prose seemed bleak and tedious. Reading Sebald offered me a brilliant example: here was writing which spoke honestly about loss and confusion, about a world on the verge of destruction, in a voice that was itself compelling and precise. What is more, Sebald’s voice seemed to recognise the difficulty, even the impossibility, of expressing that sense of loss and confusion, even as he set out to do so.

At the time I was trying to write my way into a novel. I had come to a standstill. I suspect now this was related to the books I had been reading. In my early twenties I had felt drawn to a cadre of writers who had opposed themselves to what has come to be known as literary realism: Fernando Pessoa, for instance, and Natalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Georges Perec, Salman Rushdie. I had no desire to write the kind of novel which tried to imitate reality, at least the ‘realism’ of clock time and easy human empathy and knowing narrators, the kind that flourished in the nineteenth century and which, despite the insights of literary modernism, remains the predominant form.

What I especially resisted was the characterisation in realist novels: it was true that the heroes of those tales were sometimes confused or destabilised, but, it seemed to me, only superficially; because their confusion was not really confusion, not the kind of bafflement I was experiencing, which tended to unsettle all things, all feelings, and which pointed towards silence. No, these writers created a kind of teasing befuddlement, I felt. They toyed with confusion, tamed character and made internal disorder seem ultimately quite knowable.

Books such as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children were not so articulate. If they wrote about character at all they wrote of an empty vessel into which conflicting elements might be poured. They spoke of the world and its people not as repositories of meaning but as things impossible for the imagination to grasp. It was a notion to which my sense of bewilderment bore witness. So I wanted my own novel to exist in their company. But – and this is where my problem lay – I also felt tired of the empty play of character or absence of story in these books, which were at times too coolly intellectual, concerned only with abstract structural problems. They rarely gave me pleasure, and less often left me feeling emotionally engaged. What is more, I could not understand how the radical insights these novels offered up – the dissolution of character, the breakdown of language and perspective – could lead to such confident, endlessly playful books.

It was with these thoughts in mind, coupled with my feeling of isolation in a foreign city, that I discovered The Rings of Saturn. I read: ‘Lost in the thoughts that went round in my head incessantly, and numbed by this crazed flowering, I stuck to the sandy path until to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before.’ I read: ‘he was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies.’ And this: ‘It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.’ This sentence appears in the end-section of The Rings of Saturn. [Read More]
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