An exhibition of WG Sebald's archives offers an intriguing view of the late UK-based emigré German writer's life and loves
After the emigrant German writer WG Sebald (1944-2001) died prematurely in a road accident in his adopted English city of Norwich, his notes, photographs, postcards, jottings, newspaper cuttings and manuscripts filled 68 slate-grey, spring-clip box files when despatched by his widow to the German Literary Archive (DLA) in Marbach-am-Neckar, the birthplace of Schiller, near Stuttgart. The curators of the exhibition of Sebald’s archive, which runs until the end of January 2009 under the title Wandernde Schatten (Wandering Shadows), especially mentioned the boxes’ colour. Their very greyness appealed to them and somehow seemed to suit what they wished to express about the writer, or what they felt the writer wished to express about himself.
Sebald’s widow also delivered the contents of his library, from which about 100 books feature alongside the notes and photos as exhibits in the two dark subterranean rooms reserved for him at the newly-built Literaturarchiv der Modernen (LiMo), which resembles a square-columned Acropolis on a hill overlooking the Neckar. Opening the exhibition, its director, Dr Ulrich Raulff, called Sebald’s remarkable collection of literary texts, scientific manuals, philosophical treatises, miscellaneous reference works and antique photo albums, many of them picked up in Norfolk junk shops, “an archive within an archive”. Will Self observed in his recent Norwich lecture on Sebald that literary criticism was conspicuous by its absence from the writer’s library.
At the entrance to the exhibition, in cavities in a movable glass wall, lie three of the manuscripts, the handwriting fluent and spaced on alternate lines in expectation of a marker’s comments – the way Sebald required students, including myself from 1976 to 1980, to present essays. He marked in pencil, sharpening down to the last half-inch and keeping the stubs of varying lengths in a case. There is an example of his handwriting in the published texts in his forgery of Ambros Adelwarth’s script on the visiting card illustration in The Emigrants: “Have gone to Ithaca!” The exhibition includes a sheet on which he practised performing the deception. In seminars he reduced Wittgenstein’s philosophy to a single idea: that the problems of the world come down to misunderstandings of language. He wrote in German and spoke it with rolled “Rs”, preferring not to trust his impeccable English that he spoke with a soft Bavarian acccent. He elaborated his Wittgensteinian perception by creating a literary art form that occupies the grey twilight between fact and fiction.
The first room contains personal effects and items of poignant interest like Sebald’s glasses, camera and a diary open at a page where under each date the entry reads simply “Nebel“, or fog. The second room, a larger space, is devoted solely to the novels: Vertigo, an account of travels through Europe including his home village, which upset his former townsfolk; The Emigrants, four tales of emigration, both Jewish and non-Jewish; The Rings of Saturn, wanderings through Suffolk, time and the mind; and Austerlitz, the “true fiction” of a Kindertransportee searching for his parents. The novels are, in a sense, dismembered and placed in four extensive glass display cases standing at angles to the wood-panelled walls, which are partly covered by huge, jutting mirrors so that, on peering into the gloom, one cannot immediately decide what is real and what reflection.
On the top shelves of these crystal repositories, paperback copies lie open at specific pages like pinned butterflies with wings outspread, while on the lower levels, the source materials informing those pages, with the relevant passages indicated by clip-on arrows, give the impression of floating up from the depths of memory or the subconscious. Sebald’s notes on Fred Astaire and a paragraph about a bow-legged man called Austerlitz marked with parallel pencil lines in the margin of Kafka’s diaries, for instance, betray the fiction in his final work, while Stower Grange, the brutal Welsh school described therein turns out to be a restaurant outside Norwich. An illustrated magazine article about St Sebald’s tomb in Nuremberg Cathedral hovers below its exposure in The Rings of Saturn and keeps company with the child’s Look About You book of moths and Peter Handke’s History of the Pencil with the line “ganz Baum ganz ich“- “whole tree, whole me” – highlighted. Sebald was deeply affected by the silent destruction wrought by the 1987 storm. The trees did not come crashing down as one might expect, as he recalls in The Rings of Saturn, but were bent to the ground by the force of the hurricane until their roots were torn out to wave helplessly in the air like the spindly legs of Kafka’s beetle.
The opening of the Sebald exhibition drew people from his past. Juergen Kaeser arrived from Sebald’s Bavarian hometown of Sont-hofen. They were schoolfriends in the class of Paul Bereyter (real name Armin Mueller), described in The Emigrants, and played table tennis, skied, swam and shared literature. “He introduced me to Herzmanovsky-Orlando and said he would ‘shake the marrow from my bones’,” said Kaeser. The Kaesers were a refuge for Sebald who did not get on with his father Georg. He was a prisoner-of-war in France when Sebald was born and remained so until 1947. He therefore spoke of his sister and himself having to “become accustomed to their father”, in a lecture for the opening of the Literaturhaus in Stuttgart in November 2001, his last public appearance. (The Literaturhaus maintains a Sebald exhibition, making a trip to Baden-Württemberg doubly worthwhile.) Kaeser stressed that Sebald senior had never been a Nazi and in the 1950s campaigned for the left-wing Social Democrats. As we wandered among the exhibits, Kaeser became intrigued by an alphabetical list of episodes in The Emigrants’ display. Under L, oddly, was Manchester; under M, Marie.
“This must be the Marie de Verneuil with whom Jacques Austerlitz went to Bad Marienbad,” I said.
“Yes,” Kaeser confirmed.
“Is the episode autobiographical? Did Sebald have an affair?”
“Yes,” said Kaeser. “She was called Marie France and was in our circle of friends when we were 16 or 17. Nothing happened then. Later she was divorced, heard Max [as Sebald was known] was in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and came looking for him.”
“Did Ute know?” I asked, referring to Sebald’s widow.
“Yes,” said Kaeser. “When Max died, Ute rang Marie with the news.”
“So they were friends?”
“No. They were not friends.”
The extent to which genuine autobiography finds its way into invented biography remains a matter of speculation and although the exhibition provides clues, it does not set out to answer specific questions about Sebald’s life. The layout of texts and other exhibits reflects the layers of memory and the often poetic clause-within-clause syntax in the stories which enwraps meaning like the rings of fortifications around Antwerp, described by Sebald in Austerlitz. Meanwhile, researchers are left to strain their necks to try to read items too far back in the display cases. They will have to wait until after the exhibition to fill in a docket and send a man scurrying to the archive store for items they wish to study privately.
As a teacher, Sebald was quietly indulgent. While others harangued me for including quotes, even Goethe’s, in English in my German dissertation, Sebald thought content more important. At his suggestion I spent my year abroad with his friend, Reinbert Tabbert, principal of a teacher training college near Stuttgart, who also turned up at Marbach. Tabbert was with Sebald in Manchester in the 1960s, rescuing him from a bed-sit above a chip shop and sharing a flat with him in Didsbury which “on Sundays had its mouth full of church bells, summer hats and gardening”, as Sebald writes in the just-published poetry collection, Über das Land und das Wasser (Over the Land and the Sea). Tabbert looked after his friend. “We were opposites,” he said, “I was from the north, he from the south. I was Protestant, he Catholic. But we formed a relationship and remained friends. He gave me a copy of the manuscript of a first, unpublished, novel which his widow also has. It’s about his early life in the Alps and his student days in Freiburg. He tried for years to find a publisher without success. His agent has seen it now, but my advice was to publish it only in his collected works as juvenilia as it is not up to the standard, I believe, of the later works.”
Sebald and a colleague came to tea once at my house in Cathedral Close, Norwich. We drank Earl Grey, ate cucumber sandwiches and sat in the overgrown meadow under an acacia tree. I sang in the Cathedral Choir and was pleased to show my lecturers round. Nothing impressed Sebald more, I remember as we wandered among the monuments, than the stone darkened by age on an obscure patch of otherwise whitewashed cathedral wall on which is scratched, not without a certain humour, a sobering text from beyond the grave: “All ye that do this place pass by / Remember this for you must die / As you are now so once was I / And as I am so shall you be.” Sebald’s archive and his books summon memories that make the grey a little clearer.