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A Watch on Each Wrist

Luke Williams

Twelve Seminars with W. G. Sebald


I want to write about the two incarnations in which I knew W. G. Sebald: first through his writing, and then through his being my tutor at UEA. When I first encountered his work, in the winter of 1999, I had recently moved to Paris, a city new to me. I had discovered my French was worse than I thought. Having arrived there with no plan, for no clear reason, I was experiencing a sense of mounting frustration and bewilderment.

What was frustrating was not the fact of my bewilderment – I had become used to the sensation – but that I wished to articulate it, and yet had found no way to do so. I did not want simply to forget or overcome my confusion, but, through writing, to examine its complicated paths. And yet the very confusion about which I wanted to write was preventing me from writing anything much at all. Whenever I tried to set something down, my prose seemed bleak and tedious. Reading Sebald offered me a brilliant example: here was writing which spoke honestly about loss and confusion, about a world on the verge of destruction, in a voice that was itself compelling and precise. What is more, Sebald’s voice seemed to recognise the difficulty, even the impossibility, of expressing that sense of loss and confusion, even as he set out to do so.

At the time I was trying to write my way into a novel. I had come to a standstill. I suspect now this was related to the books I had been reading. In my early twenties I had felt drawn to a cadre of writers who had opposed themselves to what has come to be known as literary realism: Fernando Pessoa, for instance, and Natalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Georges Perec, Salman Rushdie. I had no desire to write the kind of novel which tried to imitate reality, at least the ‘realism’ of clock time and easy human empathy and knowing narrators, the kind that flourished in the nineteenth century and which, despite the insights of literary modernism, remains the predominant form.

What I especially resisted was the characterisation in realist novels: it was true that the heroes of those tales were sometimes confused or destabilised, but, it seemed to me, only superficially; because their confusion was not really confusion, not the kind of bafflement I was experiencing, which tended to unsettle all things, all feelings, and which pointed towards silence. No, these writers created a kind of teasing befuddlement, I felt. They toyed with confusion, tamed character and made internal disorder seem ultimately quite knowable.

Books such as Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy or Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children were not so articulate. If they wrote about character at all they wrote of an empty vessel into which conflicting elements might be poured. They spoke of the world and its people not as repositories of meaning but as things impossible for the imagination to grasp. It was a notion to which my sense of bewilderment bore witness. So I wanted my own novel to exist in their company. But – and this is where my problem lay – I also felt tired of the empty play of character or absence of story in these books, which were at times too coolly intellectual, concerned only with abstract structural problems. They rarely gave me pleasure, and less often left me feeling emotionally engaged. What is more, I could not understand how the radical insights these novels offered up – the dissolution of character, the breakdown of language and perspective – could lead to such confident, endlessly playful books.

It was with these thoughts in mind, coupled with my feeling of isolation in a foreign city, that I discovered The Rings of Saturn. I read: ‘Lost in the thoughts that went round in my head incessantly, and numbed by this crazed flowering, I stuck to the sandy path until to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before.’ I read: ‘he was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies.’ And this: ‘It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which

those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.’ [1] This sentence appears in the end-section of The Rings of Saturn.

After nearly three hundred pages of speaking about loss and confusion in the most compelling way, Sebald admits the possibility, even the probability, of being mistaken.

James Wood recognises this: ‘Sebald and his characters are haunted by the incomprehensible, the indecipherable, the wrong turn. And Sebald includes his own thread, his own course, in this category.’ [2] The Rings of Saturn, together with Sebald’s other books then published in English, which I read one after another, offered an example of the kind of book I wanted to write, the kind that accommodated the radical insights of literary modernism, were haunted by those insights, and still left the reader emotionally engaged.

Some time later I returned to the UK. I got a job. I rewrote the first chapter of my novel. I was still unhappy with the result, butmy efforts seemed a little less false. Though I still felt confused, writing had given me relief. I sent my first chapter to the UEA Creative Writing MA. I did not know then that Sebald was teaching on it. When I heard I was accepted on to the course, I gave up my job and prepared to move to Norwich. How strange and exciting to learn, some four months later, shortly before arriving at UEA, that I was to be taught by Sebald.

Before the first seminar I had an (as it turned out) illusory encounter with my future tutor. Around that time Austerlitz was being published in the UK and Sebald was to appear in London to read from and talk about his latest work. So I caught the train from Norwich on the evening of his reading, bought the book at the venue (it was not yet out in the shops) and took my place in the audience. I remember little about the event, only that Sebald, who spoke flawless English, read first from the German edition of Austerlitz, then had his translator read the same passage from the UK edition. Later he told the interviewer that he wrote and read in German because he feared he had a ‘funny accent’. Immediately after the talk I left. I was new to London and took the wrong bus to Liverpool Street Station, and I missed my train. The next and final departure was not for another hour. So I sat on one of the station’s moulded plastic chairs and opened Austerlitz. I read: ‘When I entered the great hall of the Centraal Station with its dome arching sixty metres high above it…’ I read: ‘the railway passengers seemed to me somehow miniaturised, whether by the unusual height of the ceiling or because of the gathering dusk, and it was this, I suppose, which prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race.’ I looked at the late passengers in their crumpled suits, many of them eating burgers from colourful boxes. Then I saw Sebald. He was standing by the ticket desk. He, too, was waiting for the Norwich train. I hid Austerlitz in my bag. Sebald was smoking a cigarette, which struck me somehow as odd. I took Austerlitz from my bag, thought about removing the dust jacket. Conscious that its author might spot me reading his book, and in truth half willing him to do so, I continued from where I had left off. ‘One of the people waiting in the Salle des pas perdus was Austerlitz,’ I read. ‘When I finally went over to Austerlitz with a question about his obvious interest in the waiting room, he was not at all surprised by my direct approach but answered me at once.’ [3] I tried to force myself not to look at Sebald, who had moved to the turnstile. My dilemma was this: should I board the train as soon as the turnstile opened, before Sebald, leaving to chance our plainly fated meeting; or should I allow him to go first, stepping afterwards into his carriage, thus nudging fate in the right direction?

It is important to mention at this point that, informed by his books, I had the idea that Sebald could hardly step on to a bus or train without some fortuitous meeting. (I recalled the episode in Vertigo when the narrator, travelling on a bus during his quest to retrace ‘Dr K.’s’ 1913 Italian journey, meets twin boys who bear an uncanny resemblance to Kafka himself.) [4] I had been snared by the strange logic of these books, where coincidence, in the form of a finely patterned series of meetings and discoveries, takes the place of the conventional plot device of cause and effect. So it seemed perfectly natural, even likely, that I was to meet Sebald that evening (just as his other odd notions, notions that if taken to their logical conclusion would put in jeopardy the common understanding of the world – that, for instance, we have ‘appointments to keep in the past’ [5] – can seem plausible, even inevitable, under the spell of his imagination). But I was confused; I had, in fact, succumbed to the very mistake that Sebald’s books, like those others which challenged literary realism, counselled against: I was ascribing to lived experience a clarity or inevitability which existed only in the falsifying narratives of the realists. For if in Sebald’s prose coincidence takes the place of conventional plot, coincidence also works against itself. Events in his books are so artfully arranged that only in the non-place of fiction could such a finely patterned set of coincidences occur.

I did not recognise this at the time, however; standing there in Liverpool Street Station, some two metres behind Sebald, waiting for the signal to proceed on to the platform and board the train, I continued to blend fiction (Sebald’s) with reality (my own).

I didn’t meet him that evening on the train, although we sat in the same carriage. Instead, I intermittently read Austerlitz and watched its author as he talked to a woman in a parallel seat. The two conversed animatedly for almost the entire journey, and if I felt disappointed I was not in her place, I also felt privileged to be witnessing the live process of Sebald’s research (although I later discovered that this woman was one of his colleagues at UEA and had perhaps accompanied him to the talk).

The writing course was soon to begin. I was still unsure how I would react on meeting Sebald. I had spent so much time in the company of his books, had been party, as I thought, to his most intimate thoughts, that I felt nervous at the prospect of his gaze.

How strange it would be to sit in class with his eyes turned on me! It is often the case that long hoped-for encounters disappoint, because they rarely match the intensity of expectation which preceded them. Certainly the experience of being in Sebald’s class was different to how I had imagined it, but it was every bit as exhilarating.



The most economical way, I think, of conveying my experience of Sebald as a Creative Writing teacher is to transcribe an edited version of the diary entries I made during that winter term of 2001. [6]

September 26

First seminar. Each of us introduced ourselves. We spoke a little about our writing projects and our hopes for the course. Some, the more reticent, were prompted by questions from Sebald. He was friendly and curious, as I had expected, but also witty, which somehow I had not imagined him to be. When my turn came I talked for far too long.

After the last student had finished speaking, Sebald said something like, ‘I suppose I’d better tell you something about myself.’ He went on to say that he was more surprised than anyone to find himself here, in front of a bunch of Creative Writing students, since the university had until now regarded him as nothing more than an obscure scholar of German-language literature. But his ‘prose works’ had recently become known to UEA, and so here he was. The upshot of these prose works having come to light, he told us, had had a second fortunate effect, which was that he was now given greater leeway at the university. The staff were happier to indulge what he called his ‘eccentricities’ (which he didn’t go into). Best of all, he said, he no longer had to deal with the tedious administrative duties that academics are nowadays everywhere forced to carry out. He then proceeded to tell us that despite the privileges being an author can convey, at least in the university environment, there is very little else to say in favour of the profession. You must be already slightly disturbed if your goal is to spend your lifetime staring at a blank piece of paper, he told us. What is more, the process of writing itself is often quite different from how you might imagine. Being always on your own, for instance, with your own thoughts, trying to make sense of them, being forced to constantly invent things – is this not a recipe for mental ruin? Think hard about whether you really want to be a writer, he told us, and if you decide that you do, make sure you take another job as well. Teaching is not a bad option, he said. Neither is it a bad idea to become a barrister.

Best of all, he told us, is to get involved in the medical profession, because you will hear many strange stories, which later at your desk you can make use of.

What a strange introduction to a Creative Writing class! Of course, he’s right. I’ve heard that less than 10 per cent of published writers in Britain earn more than the minimum wage. And that instances of depression and alcoholism are much higher among poets and writers. Was he trying to put us off? If so, his talk had the opposite effect. It only made me more sure I want to be a writer. Did he calculate it this way?

October 3

In our first meeting we had been told to bring a passage of writing we admired. The passages were photocopied and distributed at the end of class. I had not been able to decide between two of my favourite writers: a section from Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual – a novel set almost entirely at one minute to eight – and a short story by Ingo Schulze. In the end I had chosen Schulze, a German, probably, stupidly, because I wanted to impress Sebald. We spent the whole of this second seminar looking at the passages.

Mine was, in fact, the first Sebald picked out. For a moment I was thrilled. I thought that he had chosen it for its merits. It was not the case. In fact, he seemed to hate it. He tore it apart (and by extension my taste). The story was clumsy, artless, imprecise. Worse, he said, you just couldn’t see what the author was talking about. He disliked one line in particular that went something like this (I’m too ashamed to go and look it up): ‘Only when the dimpled sewer covers started to spit ice cubes up on to the road, like smoothly licked sweets, were we able to walk normally again.’ [7] I can’t see it, Sebald kept on saying.

Perhaps it’s my bad English, he said, but I can’t imagine a spitting sewer cover. What on earth does such a sewer cover look like? No one, myself least of all, had an answer. And why, he went on, if the road was presumably covered with ice cubes, had the author highlighted this fact as the moment when ‘we’ (and note that he never, in fact, tells us who this ‘we’ are) were able to walk normally again? Wouldn’t the pedestrians be slipping about all over the place? I certainly wouldn’t go out on such a day, he said. I myself made a pathetic attempt to defend the story, but I could hardly speak. And I stayed mute for the rest of the class. Sebald treated every piece to this scrupulous criticism. He tore into Don DeLillo’s Underworld for its inconsistencies of perspective. How on earth can the narrator be so sure about all the things he seems to know? How can he be in so many places at the same time? One minute, Sebald said, he’s describing the Arizona desert from the ground-level view, from the perspective of an iguana, and the next from high above. In the space of a few lines he has become a bird of prey spying on the iguana, probably so he can gobble it up. Discussing a Raymond Carver story Sebald got us all to stand up and try to act out some motion the narrator’s wife carried out. We had to stick strictly to the description in the text. She was doing something like taking a chicken out of the oven whilst turning to her husband and saying something about the chicken.

Sebald was right. It was impossible, the way Carver described it, for the human body to move in precisely this way. He went on to say that it’s very difficult, not to say impossible, to get physical movement right when writing. The important thing is that it should work for the reader, even if it’s not meticulous. You can use ellipses, he said, abbreviate a sequence of actions, you needn’t laboriously describe each one. Out of all the passages the only one Sebald liked unreservedly was from Jim Crace’s Being Dead.

I’m still shocked. Sebald’s point, it seems tome, was simple. That precision in writing fiction – especially in writing fiction – is an absolutely fundamental value. He summed up by saying that if you look carefully you can find problems in all writers, or almost all (Kafka being an exception; especially, he told us, if you look at the reports he wrote for the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute!). He told us that even those writers who have talent and scrupulousness must be on their guard against sloppiness and indulgence.

He gave, as an example of sloppiness, Gunter Grass, who, he said, had started off writing quite well, but had lately let his writing slip. He thought it had happened since Grass had won the Nobel Prize. Probably, he said, Grass’s publisher has been too scared to edit his latest manuscripts.

I’m going to stop writing now and take a look at my chapters. I won’t go to sleep until I’ve tightened them up.

October 17

It was uncomfortable in class today. For the first time we saw Sebald riled; not angry exactly, but agitated, even perplexed. It was clear that one of the hand-ins, H.’s, had affected him quite strongly. The story was set in an unnamed city under curfew. Food was becoming harder and harder to come by. Citizens were being shot. There was some kind of confused relationship between a man and a woman. In the end the two turned to cannibalism. Most of us liked the story. I did, too, although I think it is heavily indebted to the Peter Carey story ‘Room No. 5 (Escribo)’, which I read last summer. This time Sebald didn’t make his usual criticisms about superfluous sentences or too many characters being introduced all at once or lack of concrete detail, but went straight to his point. There is something wrong with the way the story is told, he said. It’s the voice.

You are writing about horrendous things. Horrific events. Are you sure you know what you are writing about? Have you actually been to such a place? Have you yourself witnessed such horror? H. replied that she had lived in Jerusalem for nine years. That surprised him. We talked about the story some more. There really wasn’t a lot to say (it is always the case that the better, tighter hand-ins get shorter crits). But Sebald wasn’t willing to let it go. He said again that he had a problem with the voice, with the way the narrator approaches the horror she is describing. He told us that horror is everywhere now, there is so much of it, in all walks of life, everywhere we look. I went into my local video shop, he said. It’s filled with nasty videos. A generation who have never known war is being raised on horror. Then he asked a few questions. How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level? How do you stop it appearing gratuitous? He answered himself.

Let me get this right. You (he was addressing the whole class) might think that because you are writing fiction you needn’t be overly concerned to get the facts straight. But aesthetics is not a value-free area. And you must be particularly careful if your subject concerns horrific events. You must stick absolutely to the facts. The most plausible, perhaps even the only, approach is the documentary one. I would say that writing about an appalling state of affairs is incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.

I can’t quite understand Sebald’s point, though I’m not willing to dismiss it. I thought at first he was reiterating Adorno’s dictum that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.

It can’t be, though, because all Sebald’s work picks over the barbarism of the twentieth century, often focusing on the Holocaust, if obliquely. And he implied that you can write about such things, if only you stick to the facts. But facts are slippery, especially in times of emergency, as Sebald surely knows. So his problem with H.’s story cannot be related to her writing fiction about horrid events per se. It must lie with the way she chose to write about them. And, in fact, thinking about the story now, there is something gratuitous about it. That absolutely flat tone. The horror never seems to touch the narrator. H.’s point is that those who experience dreadful events on a daily basis become numbed to them. As a comment on human behaviour this may be true, and on that I don’t think Sebald could argue with her. But I think Sebald’s problem lay elsewhere.

I think it lay deeper than his argument over aesthetics. He had had an unpleasant reaction to the story; you could hear it in his voice. For him the story had crossed some kind of line. I’m thinking of Coetzee’s Disgrace, when David Lurie chooses to cremate dead dogs himself rather than witness workers breaking the dogs’ legs so as to fit the corpses better into the cremation fire. And he chooses to do this for no clear or logical reason, but because of a private instinct: ‘For his idea of the world, a world in which men do not use shovels to beat corpses into amore convenient shape for processing.’ [8]

I think Sebald’s reaction had something similarly private about it. I think it had something to do with the fact that he has chosen as his subject unspeakable events, and it’s my guess it took him a lot of thinking and self-searching to decide, in fact, to voice them. That’s perhaps why he published fiction only relatively late in his life. It had probably taken years for him to feel confident enough about his form, to trust himself to approach his subject in writing. And it is now hard for him to countenance another, weaker, more common-sense method. Like all great writers, he’s too involved in his own vision.

October 31

It strikes me that Sebald is not your usual UEA-type Creative Writing tutor. I always knew that. What I didn’t expect was how opposed, even hostile, is his attitude to the kind of writing that usually comes out of UEA. He rarely states his hostility explicitly. And, in fact, if you were to analyse any one of his seminars you would not necessarily deduce what I am sure is a deeply felt antipathy to the flat, realist style (those confident, quirky male protagonists, the breathy girl-child narrators that are always somehow damaged, the sentiment masked as irony, the smooth metonymy, the easy generalisations) most of the class produce. Taken together, his comments and digressions, such as the one today on time (‘Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything coexists; the artificial thing is actually chronology’), add up to a fairly sustained attack on the UEA/realist aesthetic. This afternoon he even took a swipe at Ian McEwan. We were looking at S.’s story, which follows the misadventures of an English family in a campsite in south-west France. It was a pretty good story, most of us agreed. Sebald was enthusiastic about it, too. He said what he liked best was the detail. The focus on camping equipment: the different types of tent poles, mattresses, stoves, the names of certain kinds of knots specific to the camping world, etc. It was for him a whole new vernacular, he said. I could translate a page of Ian McEwan in half an hour, he said, but a camping manual! That is another matter entirely. And two Sainsbury’s managers talking to each other are a different species altogether.

Here’s a (necessarily incomplete) list of his polemic comments so far:

I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.

It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest.

In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being said.

So you have to talk about where you got your sources, how it was talking to that woman in Beverly Hills, the trouble you had at the airport, etc. Writing that does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator is an imposture, jaded, even dangerous.

In the nineteenth century the omniscient narrator was God. Totalitarian and monolithic. The twentieth century with all its horrors was more demotic. We have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency and try and write with this always in mind.

I find it hard to countenance writing in the third person.

There is a certain merit in leaving some parts of your writing obscure.

Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.

On time: Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or coexisting.

I think quite a few class members find his perspective hard to follow or are hostile to it.

For example, P. said he did not worry about these kinds of things (I think he meant first vs. third-person narration) and disliked ‘experimental’ writing generally (as if his own social-realist style is the right way and any diversion from this ‘experimental’!). I think what is new in Sebald can be seen in the way he himself dealt with the issue of realism.

His writing mostly eschews realism, not just in its structural radicalism but in that he seeks a kind of verisimilitude of the nether world. Isaac Babel once said of Tolstoy that if the world could write itself, it would write like him. It strikes me that if the dead were to write themselves, they would write like Sebald.

November 21

By all means be experimental, Sebald said today in class, but let the reader be part of the experiment. Write about obscure things, but don’t write obscurely. This advice brought me up short. I think my own writing suffers on this account. I am too ready to pack my writing with obscure facts, oblique references, and I want everything to be tricksy. Plus, I’m always having to mask the essayist in me. This is exactly the trap that Sebald, in his writing, (mostly) circumvents. What marks him out is his ability to blend the essay form with the purely fictional. His books leap (and it is a leap, since so often the fiction takes over in a passage of flight, often in a dream-sequence when the narrator flies above both the landscape and his own rational thoughts) into the fictional. He rarely makes the mistake, as I do (and others in the class whom his writing has influenced), of believing that obscure information or antique objects have charm in themselves. He never transposes raw facts into his texts. If he did they would read as still-born. I must keep this in mind. Information is not appealing merely because it’s authentic. I must remember that in my novel information, however interesting in itself, cannot be regurgitated without having been touched by the alchemy of fiction.

December 5

This afternoon in class I had a bizarre momentary vision of Sebald. It was one of those seminars when everyone seemed tired and distracted. The story we were discussing was poor. It concerned an autistic child and his mother’s attempt to come to terms with the affliction. It was clunky and depressing. You could hear the ‘grinding noises’ (Sebald’s phrase) of the plot. And the discussion was rambling, too, going nowhere really. At one point, as he sometimes does, thrillingly, Sebald started talking at length. He told us about his boyhood hatred for the ‘old Nazi’ who gave him zither lessons. He told us about his Austrian friend who had graphomania. He told us that Princess Diana regarded the Windsors as nothing other than a bunch of German upstarts. At one point I started looking at my classmates. I thought about how we had been thrust together in this class.

I thought about how raw the crits could be, how I had read about some very private things, how some of the criticisms had bordered on personal attacks. I thought about the very different personalities in the class and how most of us were in some way nutty.

Some with ambition. Some with neuroses. Some with jealousy or past hurt. And some were just odd looking. Sebald was still talking. He was telling us about a writer called Ödön von Horváth, who had escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power. I looked over at the window. It was raining outside. I could hear the drops tapping against the glass. Horváth, Sebald told us, was exiled in Paris, where he consulted a clairvoyant, who warned him to steer clear of the city of Amsterdam, never to ride on trams, on no account to go in a lift, and to avoid lightning at all costs. Horváth took this advice very seriously. At one point I stopped looking at the faces of my classmates and instead watched Sebald. He was leaning back in his chair. His legs were stretched out in front of him, his body a long diagonal. His eyes looked up at the ceiling and the round glass of his spectacles reflected the strip light. Both his hands were placed on the back of his head; together his arms made a coat-hanger shape, a pair of ‘V’s. Horváth, Sebald was saying, despite all his precautions, was one day walking on the Champs Elysées when a branch fell and killed him. Sebald continued to talk, perhaps he was telling us more about the writer Horváth, perhaps he had moved on to something else. But I was no longer following him, because I’d noticed something strange. He was wearing a watch on each wrist. On his left wrist he wore a cheap digital watch, face up. On his right an analogue watch, its face turned round to the underside of his wrist. The rain continued.

Sebald talked on. But I wasn’t following him. I kept looking at the watches on his wrists.

Why two watches? Why one digital and one analogue? Why was the analogue watch turned face down? I didn’t know.



Less than two weeks after this last diary entry Sebald was killed. Someone read about it in the local paper and the news travelled quickly around the class. Shocked, we tried to give his death a meaning. Someone suggested (ridiculously) that it was appropriate that Sebald, who was happiest whilst travelling, had died on the move. We all vowed to keep our essays with his hand-written comments on them. I wanted to find a reason for his early, incomprehensible death. I wanted, hopelessly, to read his next book, which he had mentioned once or twice in class. I thought about the few times I had spoken to him personally. It was tempting to think that he had singled me out among the students, but it wasn’t true.

These last years I have thought about his death quite a bit. I have read, and thought about, his writing even more. I recently found a passage from Kierkegaard. It said something about it being one thing for a life to be over, and quite another for a life to be finished by reaching a conclusion. Though, of course, it is over, there can be no conclusion to Sebald’s life. It is too easy to think in terms of conclusions. To do so is to give his life false meaning. It would be to ascribe to muddled existence a clarity it can never have. Like my mistake that evening at Liverpool Street Station, it would be to confuse fiction (Sebald’s) with reality (his own).



1 W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), pp. 171, 7, 283.
2 James Wood, ‘W. G. Sebald’s Uncertainty’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, (London: Pimlico, 2000), p. 284.
3 W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001), pp. 5, 6, 7.
4 W. G. Sebald, Vertigo, trans.Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1999), p. 88.
5 W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, trans. Anthea Bell (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001), p. 360.
6 I have edited the diary entries to make them clearer and so that the focus is on Sebald. I have also integrated some notes that two fellow students, David Lambert and RobertMcGill, wrote during the seminars and handed to our class after Sebald’s death. I am grateful to them both.
7 The passage is from Ingo Schulze, 33 Moments of Happiness: St Petersburg Stories, trans. JohnE.Woods (London: Picador, 1999). It in fact reads: ‘Not until the dented sewer covers began spitting ice cubes up on to the sidewalks like well-licked pieces of candy was our normal gait restored to us.’ p. 255.
8 J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), p. 146.

Extracted from Body of Work: 40 Years of Creative Writing at UEA (Full Circle, £28).

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  • J Boase-Beier says:

    They were not two watches. One was a magnet, which Max believed was good for the health. You wear those face down.

    • J Catling says:

      We knew that when publishing a version of this piece in Saturn’s Moons: W. G. Sebald – A Handbook (Legenda, 2011), but didn’t want to spoil the story by footnoting it…!
      Jo Catling

  • vertigo08 says:

    This note comes long after your writing. Nevertheless, let me thank you for your invaluable documentation, the readability and authenticity of your voice, your acute observations of your classmates, your avoidance of hagiography, and much more. I’m writing my thesis on a certain aspect of Sebald’s work, and the freshening breeze of your diary entries feels especially valuable to me. I sincerely want to thank you for your work, and I wish you the best in your own writing.