Caught by the River

The World Behind and Ahead Nothing but Emptiness

Charles Rangeley-Wilson | 14th December 2011

Charles Rangeley-Wilson celebrates the writing of W.G.Sebald on the tenth anniversary of his death:

We don’t remember exactly how W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn made it into our house. Vicky thinks she may have bought it for herself after she read his obituary ten years go. I think I may have bought it for her because it was about East Anglia where we live and the cover image – an empty beach – and the few quotes on the back hinted at an unusual book. Two or three chapters in I asked her if it was good and she said that it was: a strange mix of memoir and history she said: I ought to read it after her. Somehow I didn’t. For one reason or another it stayed on the shelf for a long time. Once in a while Vicky would suggest I should pick it up as I hunted for a new book. But I never did. Not until only three or four years ago. I was having trouble writing my own book. It was the history, or at least a history, of a river. And like the river it meandered: it was part natural history, part history, part travel, part memoir. Occasionally it hovered uneasily somewhere between fiction and truth. And even if some passages worked, mostly it hung together like a pissed wardrobe and I was quite sure no-one would ever publish it. I hunted the bookshelf for stuff that might help and along with the unclassifiable In Patagonia and Moby Dick, I picked up The Rings of Saturn, labelled by the publishers Fiction / Memoir / Travel: an encouragingly diverse range. I read it and was slowly, but completely seduced. Now I have read three times. The Emigrants the same. Vertigo and Austerlitz once apiece. I’ve hunted down a few articles about him too. After Nature – his first literary work which he began aged 44 during a long train journey taken at a time when he was particularly unhappy with the academic world in which he worked – I am holding off reading just so that I can ration out his small literary output a short while longer. Sebald wrote those four prose masterpieces and one poem in a little over ten years, before he was killed in a car accident near Norwich in December 2001. Austerlitz, his most novel-like work, had been published only a few months before. He had risen, mercurially it seemed, from the relative obscurity of academia to become one of the most significant writers of his generation, in only a few years. And no sooner had his star burst than it went out, under a water truck. His death was exactly the minor bathos he would have sought out in his own writing, an absurd and unlucky coincidence to underline the calamitous heart of things.

So, how to catch Sebald? John, an angler who likes fishy metaphors and the guest editor of this Fanzine, who will in fact have typed these words out on a vintage Olivetti, asked me exactly that question three pints downwind in my local pub a month or two ago, and being also three pints downwind I agreed to set the answer I incoherently but enthusiastically gave him, to paper. Two things, I slurred: to catch a Sebald you need patience (which strangely enough is the title of Grant Gee’s recent film about him) and an open mind.

Patience because, even if you start with The Emigrants and its first chapter ‘Dr Henry Selwyn’ and thereby read one of the most gently moving passages of writing you are ever likely to encounter, you are unlikely at first to know what to make of such a strange, apparently inconsequential tale of a man Sebald once knew, whose life of repressed longing and quiet, suffocating alienation ended in a suicide with a hunting rifle. You will be unsettled. And you will almost certainly want to read it again. In that sense his prose is more like poetry than most. The sentences are so precise and beautifully constructed. And there is such density of meaning that only by reading his work several times do you get to the heart of both the craft and the freight. This is what Michael Hulse, Sebald’s first English translator wrote in his report to Harvill, who were considering whether to publish Sebald for the first time in English: “From the narrative outlines it is almost certainly impossible to guess at the moving and quietly beautiful impact that very nearly every syllable of this book makes. In its utterly unpretentious, unsentimental, firm, patient, loving way, this is an important, a great book.” The comment was about The Emigrants, but it applies to Sebald’s whole literary output.

An open mind because as Sebald would tell you if he were here, literary greatness does not only arrive in the obvious form of the novel. Sebald worked at the University of East Anglia as a professor of German literature, publishing his unclassifiable books in German in Germany for over ten years before the home of this country’s most prestigious creative writing course realised they had one of the world’s most prestigious creative writers under their roof, so to speak. Somewhat belatedly then, Sebald took a tutorial group on the creative writing MA, but only for one year before he died. One of his students, Luke Williams, made something of a diary of his classes with Sebald, from which we learn: that Sebald could not countenance writing in the third person, that he extolled the idea of writing through other texts, that chronology is artificial, that the omniscient narrator is a totalitarian and monolithic imposition and best of all that he could not stand the grinding gears of conventional novelistic plotting. Sebald’s work, I sometimes think, is closer to the very best fictive documentary – he would have loved a film like Second Sight by Alison McApline – than the books you will find either side of him in a bookshop. His work has the appearance and presentational style of a somewhat obscure, digressive and elliptical academic treatise. Quite often he defies the creative-writing mantra of ‘show don’t tell’. There is rarely dialogue. There is nothing at all of plot, or characterisation. Little in media res. Sebald told his students that there is a certain merit in leaving parts of their writing obscure. Indeed it is not always obvious where Sebald is taking you or why. And he uses photographs too: the very opposite of the idea that rarefied texts are never illustrated. But the photos aren’t just illustrations. They are tokens of witness. Like his writing they unsettle the ground between fiction and non-fiction. And so Sebald is more a sculptor, than a puppeteer. He doesn’t so much conjure a reality as uncover the truth within: he finds the fiction that was already there.

Study to be quiet and go a angling for Sebald then. You’ll find it a rewarding pastime. He wrote about mackerel once, and about the east coast herring fishery too in The Rings of Saturn, a passage which he began by describing sea anglers along the shore near Lowestoft: ‘I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the flounder rise or the cod come in to shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.’

December 14th will be the 10th anniversary of W.G Sebald’s death.