Features / Fiction / In Their Own Words / Nonfiction / Poetry

In His Own Words: W.G. Sebald

“He’s a playful experimenter,” says Robert Goree of W.G. Sebald, “even if his themes are weighty.” One sees both playfulness and weight in the following quotes from Sebald’s fiction and poetry. Apparent too is Sebald’s keen awareness of the power that memory, history, and the written word have to both frustrate and sustain us.


“It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.” —Austerlitz (2001, trans. Anthea Bell)

Feelings my friend
wrote Schumann
are stars which guide us
only when the sky is clear
but reason is a
magnetic needle
driving our ship on
till it shatters on the rocks

—“Poetry for an Album,” from Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, 1964–2001 (2012, trans. Iain Galbraith)

“[T]he representation of history…requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” —The Rings of Saturn (1995, trans. Michael Hulse)

“The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.” —Vertigo (2001, trans. Michael Hulse)

“[W]hat would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!—so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory.” —The Rings of Saturn


“Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.” —from “Max Sebald’s Writing Advice,” compiled by David Lambert and Robert McGill, students in Sebald’s last creative writing workshop

“‘How happily,’ said Austerlitz, ‘have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander, and how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper.’” —Austerlitz

“It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane.” —Vertigo

“Fiction should have a ghostlike presence in it somewhere, something omniscient. It makes it a different reality.” —“Max Sebald’s Writing Advice”

“From the outset my main concern was with the shape and the self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the molding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass.” —Austerlitz

“That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after then end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” —The Rings of Saturn

“It’s hard to write something original about Napoleon, but one of his minor aides is another matter.” —“Max Sebald’s Writing Advice”

“The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet . . . all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things . . . but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.” —The Rings of Saturn

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Robert Goree’s feature piece on W.G. Sebald.

Homepage photo credit: Jillian Edelstein

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