Posted on Jul 18, 2013
To those who find W. G. Sebald’s untimely death—a mere two months after the events preserved in this video—strikingly painful to think about, we now have a wonderful new addition to record of the man to behold. The muted, tragicomic, learned hues of Sebald’s prose have often affected posthumous interpretations of Sebald’s life and death, and it’s hard to avoid inductive or reductive re-interpretation upon pausing over this footage. His decision to read the “Marienbad” portion of Austerlitz, for example, is of a piece with his reputation for a certain melancholy—the reading is suffused with reflective sadness about memory and the legacy of Europe’s twentieth-century horrors. And the character Austerlitz’s self-described emotional chilliness in the passage finds an appropriate analogue in Sebald’s plangent speaking voice and his disinclination to make eye contact with the audience except in rare moments of emphasis.
And yet: of the author’s presence at the Unterberg Poetry Center there are some surprising things to be noted as well. It is true—in ways that one suspected from the oeuvre—that Sebald is often very funny, and that his tendency to understate his extremely dry wit, both in reading and in his remarks elsewhere in the evening, is delightful. He has a grave, imposing presence, but often you can see the impishness and self-mockery there, as well as his wish not to take himself too seriously even as he tilts at high ambition in his art. Additionally, for students of Sebald’s work, the author answers two significant questions very directly, and these concern his use of photographs (I’m not going to ruin this answer for those who are interested, but suffice to say that the rumor of him spending long hours in the copy shop may be accurate) and his relationship to bilingualism as it pertains to extant English translations of his work. It seems to me that future scholarly inquiry into Sebald’s method can and should find here, in this footage, a resource as regards the author’s intentions in these matters.
Meanwhile, there is a deeply sad moment toward the close of this video, wherein (in the course of explaining why he never translated himself into English) Sebald remarks that he “can already see the horizon looming,” joking about the ultimate end of his term. The imminent accuracy of this observation only makes the marvel of this recording of W. G. Sebald—with its beautiful prose, its graceful extemporaneities, its traces of four European literary traditions in the course of things—that much more precious.
Rick Moody’s latest book is On Celestial Music and Other Adventures in Listening. For more from him on W. G. Sebald, check out the documentary Patience (After Sebald).