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in Sebald’s shadow

September 25th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

After Chatwin, a book that in some ways could not be more different – Will Self’s new Walking to Hollywood, which I’m also reviewing.  Compared to Chatwin’s self-consciously lean prose, Self is baroque, fecund and profuse – in fact, rather like that, always using three adjectives when one could do.  But both share a common interest in travel writing as essentially fictive.

Walking to Hollywood is heady stuff and the book has some brilliant flashes of genius as well as of over-indulgence.  One shadow looms large over it – that of WG Sebald, the German writer who lived for many years in England and died in 2001.

Reading it, I was reminded that earlier this year I went to hear Self give an intriguing lecture on Sebald – whom with the intimacy of a familiar he called Max;  he also pronounced his name to rhyme with ‘pay-cult’ (rather than ‘see-bald’), thereby elevating him to the pantheon of those writers like Borges whose name can only be pronounced properly by initiates …

His main thesis was a good one – that we have adopted Sebald as a “good German” whom we, as equally good liberals, gave succour to on these shores.  This ignores both Sebald’s and our far more complicated relationship to the Second World War:  Sebald’s father was a card-carrying Nazi;  while as Sebald pointed out, the British bombing raids over Hamburg and Dresden merit far more self examination than they have received.

Even The Rings Of Saturn – his book walking along the East Anglian shoreline that I nominated as one of my five favourite travel books of all time – is seen by Self to be far more about the Holocaust than one might think.

Self’s own ‘psycho-geographic’ travel has a graciously acknowledged debt towards Sebald, whom he describes in a typically baroque  phrase, as ‘rubbing away at the palimpsest of history’ (the Kindle will be perfect for Self readers, so they can quickly look up all those dictionary definitions…).  At the close of this new book, Self emulates Sebald by walking along the crumbling Yorkshire coast.

For me, Sebald sometimes seems to examine moments of the past as if they were strange bits of flotsam washed up on the shore – and with a commensurate detachment, helped by the excellent way in which his translators have preserved the coolness of his German prose.

Not that Sebald was a saint, as Self points out.  His death may have lead to a certain canonisation, just as with that other great writer of East Anglia, Roger Deakin.  But Sebald was not above some acts of writerly cannibalisation – with his appropriation of the character of Frank Auerbach for a novel, for instance. Or, according to Ronald Blythe, with his unacknowledged plagiarism of local Suffolk historians.

Self was a brilliant lecturer – passionate, informed and with enough range to his gravel back-filled voice to hold his audience for well on an hour.  He saved his greatest scorn for what he saw as the hypocrisy of Tony Blair in signing the UK up to the international Holocaust Day;  if we really wanted a Day of Atonement, he said, we should think of a day’s silence a year for the victims we killed needlessly in Dresden and Hamburg – or for that matter, Iraq.

See the print version of Self’s lecture on Sebald

An audio version of the lecture is also  available

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