More on Sebald

Brad pointed out an excerpt of an interview Joe Cuomo did with W.G. Sebald back in 2001; I checked it out and found it quite interesting. Cuomo’s first question starts off this way:

A friend of mine, a writer, a very good writer, said to me that as soon as he finished reading “The Rings of Saturn” he immediately started from the beginning again, because he couldn’t figure out what had just happened to him. I was wondering how you approached this in the writing of it, the idea of narrative form.

This makes me feel better because it describes my reaction entirely — “this book is great, but … what is Sebald doing exactly? What is it that I just experienced?” That I didn’t start from the beginning again says something about my lack of discipline, not my lack of interest. I do want to read this book again, but not immediately, although I may read other Sebald books soon, and I think reading those will help clarify what I’ve already read.

In the course of answering Cuomo’s question, Sebald says this about the writing of Rings of Saturn:

I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, and which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching, which, of course, for an academic, is far from orthodoxy, because we’re meant to do things systematically.

I love this — this is what is so wonderful about walking, and about reading books about or inspired by walking. Taking a walk can be a way of opening yourself up to the world; if you pay attention, you will find things, things will happen to you. They will happen to you sometimes even if you are not paying attention.

About researching, Sebald has learned much from watching dogs:

But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.

He goes on to say that after you’ve discovered things in this seemingly random, dog-like way, you have to use your imagination to connect all those things you’ve found, and that way you’re more likely to have something new to say, rather than covering the same old ground, so to speak. This is a great explanation of what it’s like to read Sebald — he takes so many disparate stories and weaves them together in unexpected ways and you find yourself seeing the world in a new way.

I can’t resist giving you another quotation about dogs from the interview; speaking about Kafka, he says:

If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we.

This makes me want to read more Sebald (I love the way he is so inspired by dogs) and the Kafka story — has anybody out there read it before?

And one last Sebald quotation:

Certainly, my own life experience is that when I thought I had things sorted and I was in control, something happened that completely undid everything I had wanted to do. And so it goes on. The illusion that I had some control over my life went up to about my thirty-fifth birthday. Then it stopped. Now I’m out of control.


Filed under Books

18 responses to “More on Sebald

  1. Ted

    Boy this is fascinating.

    First, I’m glad to hear you liked Rings of Saturn so much. I read The Emigrants last year and didn’t love it nearly as much as I’d hoped. I did, however, think that I was missing something, that there was a mood or tone that was just eluding me. It was a fascinating reading experience. I’d love to know what you think of The Emigrants once you read it. And I’ll look for The Rings of Saturn.

    The Kafka story sounds awesome. I haven’t read it, but I found it in my old Muir collection and plan on reading it right away. In the meantime, I found this short review on the Penguin site that fully inflamed the fire your post sparked. Once I’ve read it, I’ll post about it and let you know how it went.



  2. Ted

    Oh and Boswell really isn’t coming at all. The Life of Johnson is on my nightstand, and only gets read rarely and in short sections. I must admit I read it more for the humor than anything else. Boswell’s loving adoration never ceases to throw me into hysterics.


  3. Great quotes! I particularly like the image of the dog in the field- it describes thought processes so well. I want to have another go at reading Sebald even more now.


  4. I like the idea of randomness. Training for academics does make you systematic and, sometimes in consequence, too linear and directed. The pleasures of wandering in thought are surely not to be underestimated.


  5. I think the best stuff often comes from very random thoughts and wanderings and figuring out how to connect them (the post I wrote yesterday is a PRIME example of that!). I haven’t read the Kafka, but it sounds terrific, and his final quote about life and being in control is priceless. Unfortunately, I’m well past 35 and still haven’t realized I’m out of control.


  6. What a great interview you found! It makes me want to start reading Austerlitz right now. It also makes me sad that Sebald died and we only have a handful of books.


  7. Huw

    Austerlitz is better. It has a plot (of sorts) which ties everything together much more coherently.


  8. I had no idea that Sebald was not still living, but looking at his bio in the back of a book he passed away in 2001. Those are great quotes. I love the idea of randomness, too. That’s exactly how I feel my reading is–one odd thing leading to another.


  9. Del

    I’ve been interested in reading something by Sebald for some time now and your recent posts have led me to think that the time is Now. The random style you describe sounds interesting. As a person who usually takes a morning walk, I also enjoyed your quote and comment about walking. This is going to be fun. Thank you!


  10. LK

    How do you do it, Dorothy? You are making me want to run out and read a book I am certain I would be frustrated with. Great quote about walking, I agree with Del.


  11. There is an interesting article on Sebald in the Dec/Jan ’07 issue of Bookforum–on the five year anniversary of his death–you might want to see if you can find a copy. Your posts made me go and dig mine out and read it. It is an interesting article about his family and books.


  12. Dorothy – I agree with everyone else. You have an great talent for putting together thoughtful and interesting posts. Fortunately, I’m not too old to learn from you. 🙂


  13. Thanks for pointing out the review, Ted, and I agree — Boswell’s attitude can be quite funny! Jess, I’m glad you liked them — yes, I’m charmed by the dog image too 🙂 Litlove, it was interesting that he described his Ph.D research in that way, as depending on coincidence. My experience is that systems of study are necessary, but often the most exciting moments come completely unexpectedly, and I like how Sebald points out that coindence and randomness are important for the creative process. Emily, I haven’t learned that lesson either. I’m afraid it’s a lesson one must learn the hard way. And you’re right — that’s exactly what your post does so well! I agree Stefanie, about Sebald’s death; I haven’t mentioned it in my posts, but it’s been in the back of my mind, how unfortunate it is that we lost him so early. Huw — then I have something great to look forward to in Austerlitz! Danielle, thanks for pointing out the article — I’ll have to track it down. I’d like to know more about him. Del, I do hope you enjoy your experience of reading Sebald! LK, that IS quite a trick, isn’t it? If you really think you wouldn’t like it, please don’t listen to me … 🙂


  14. Thank you Brad! And thanks for pointing out the interview!


  15. Ted

    Even more on Sebald:

    These two essays on Sebald — the latter by Susan Sontag — are both unavailable on the internet, which is why this praiseworthy blogger posted them on his/her site.



  16. Pingback: myrtias Storylog: “Investigations of a Dog” «

  17. w

    Borges is one of my literary heroes, and Sebald is my other one. When he died, I felt very unmoored for a good hour. I read him when his first book first came out, and just soaked up the “what just happened” feeling, because I knew something did just happen, something I’d never experienced before, something I was sure was new but of course wasn’t, just a gorgeous little window into a type of literature that asked you to read slowly, to savor the sadness, death, and life coming off the blocks of text, and that tied everything together in a way to challenge his memory and to stimulate his reader’s. Ah…


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