Thursday, 10 November 2011

From a forthcoming broadcast on W G Sebald

Three hours in studios today recording a fifteen minute essay on the poetry of W G Sebald, known informally as Max. Three hours because we recorded it three times and because we - meaning Martin, the producer, and I - had to change studios because the first studio at the BBC's Norwich HQ was not only very like a cupboard, about the width of an old fashioned telephone box and full of packing cases, but was noisy with people outside and feet on the floor above. So we gathered up the recording equipment Martin had brought with him and someone kindly showed us to another studio, where we unpacked, Martin set up, and we began again. In the meantime some conversation, some corrections and an initial delay. But I enjoy recordings. I enjoy reading and catch my left hand conducting the script as though it were a lecture or a concert.

The essay is one of a series to mark the tenth anniversary of Max's death. I know Chris Bigsby and Amanda Hopkinson are two of the other essayists. The broadcasts will go out in early December when I will be away in China so I won't hear them but I hope Martin makes a disc of them for me. What I hadn't had a chance to read was what Jo at university showed me yesterday, Iain Galbraith's new translations of Max's selected poems under the title Across the Land and the Water, which comes out this month. The title rather reminds me of Patrick Leigh Fermor's marvellous Between the Woods and the Water, but that's just by the way.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the talk I recorded today:

...This double nature - the poetic shifting between fact and fiction - seemed to hang about him and about everything he wrote. He was a scholar of German literature, but he was also an author of essayistic fictions based on history and coincidence. In what I had read of him there was always a sense that the floor would fall away and that his complicated, old fashioned, melancholy yet droll voice would fall through with it and we would find ourselves altogether elsewhere in history and geography. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, said Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses. The dreams and nightmares Max was conducting us through were historical, but the history was perceived in terms of accident, coincidence, anecdote and ghosts. History was a way of feeling the world as much as knowing about it.

I sometimes think of Max’s books as haunted magical encyclopedias. It isn’t the story that holds them together, the books are not exactly working towards a climax: it is more that they present us, particularly in his last work, Austerlitz, with intensely seen and felt phenomena that come upon us without warning. Nothing is stable, not even the narrative voice, which is likely to melt into other voices in the course of a sentence. One first becomes conscious of this in The Rings of Saturn where the voices of Michael Hamburger and Sebald wind in and out of each other, with a simple, ‘he said’. Even as I write the words ‘he said’ I note how I have placed the inverted commas around them, rather than, as in normal speech, before or after, around what is actually being said. I think that is appropriate for a voice so insistent yet so evanescent, and one so likely to return to the reader as the reported speech of an encounter behind glass, that intervening glass becoming the very nature of perception...

...Max’s history, the history of the world as he presents it, is the history of suffering. The suffering happens in the real world but is immediately mediated through memory, historical record, art and narrative drift. The suffering is often at second hand but is everywhere, the very air through which we move. Remorseless power and cruelty are the animating factors in his history, leaving behind a trail of vanishings and cries.

The ghost world is, however, lodged in a material one whose physical substance is an object of wonder. The sheer welter of phenomena, the orderings of the natural system as well as the orderings of the museums and palaces of art, are constantly brought before us. The whole place shimmers with it. Reading him made it shimmer.

All summings-up are unsatisfactory. The best you can do is hit a phrase or two that seems to be right and try to knit them together as best you can. Having said that, I do like the radio essay as a voice turning things over. I hope this series goes well.


Aswin Jose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aswin Jose said...

Sebald is an author whom I adore. 'The Emigrants' stays on mind, years after I had read it. I'm so glad to come across this post - excerpts from your talk sounds really good. I'm yet to read his poems though.

Jo said...

Thanks George. I love the "shimmer".
I gather the broadcasts are going out week beginning 5 December, part of the Radio 3 Essay series. My sources tell me the line up is as follows:
Monday: Christopher Bigsby - Not Responsibility: Shame
Tuesday: Uwe Schütte - Teaching by Example
Wednesday: Anthea Bell - WG Sebald: a Translator's View
Thursday: George Szirtes - WG Sebald the Poet
Friday: Amanda Hopkinson - A History of a Memory or a Memory of History?

Looking forward to hearing the essay in full!

Freddie B. said...

All five essays are still available via iPlayer - see

Personally I found yours, and that of his former student Uwe Schutte the most compelling and enriching.

Too much explanation and analysis doesn't convey that Sebald magic. And besides, who wants it explained? So much better to have it narrated by a poet.