Sebald: the rings of the journey and death.

06 .07 .2015 - Jorge Carrión

To conclude this series of articles, Jorge Carrión, the writer and curator of the exhibition Sebald Variations –to which this blog is a companion piece – retraces the steps of the German author to weave together a canvas of the spaces and worlds that shaped Sebald’s universe. We travel alongside Carrión and Sebald – it could not have been otherwise – through landscapes, cities, bookshops, railway stations, characters, writers and countless literary echoes. ‘Because our obligation is to be witnesses, although we don’t know exactly what to…’

Article published in the magazine Cultura / s of La Vanguardia. Barcelona 07/03/2015.

L'oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [1]

L’oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [1]. Jan Peter Trip (2003).

The ultimate purpose of literature is to transform reading into action or, in other words, into writing or travel. W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) published his first creative text later in life, at the age of 44. It was a narrative poem entitled After Nature (Penguin, 2003), which recounted the lives of some of his masters (his readings) and his own migrations (his childhood in Bavaria and England where he worked, married and became a father). From then on, his travels and readings, or, put another way, his books, had the aim of transferring to spaces and translating into words great writers, from Nabokov to Stendhal, from Conrad to Kafka, as well as minor characters, including relatives, colleagues or neighbours, some of them real, some invented, who experienced first-hand the major traumas of the 20th century. This is how the strange wanderings that make up Vertigo (Vintage Classics, 2002) emerged, as well as the four biographical tales in The Emigrants (Vintage Classics, 2002), the travelogue The Rings of Saturn (Vintage Classics, 2002) and his great novelAusterlitz (Penguin, 2011). A possible trilogy about wandering and mourning, in whose subsoil we hear the heartbeat of the extermination of six million Jews.

In June and July 2003, when I was psyching myself up for a long trip through America, which, deep down, I was afraid of embarking on, I tried to combat my fear by following Sebald’s footsteps through Europe. With this purpose in mind, I spent a few days in London and Paris, the two main metropolises in Austerlitz. The solid, ultra-modern Napoleonic architecture of the Bibliothèque Nationale was in stark contrast to the lightness of the Pont Mirabeau, where Apollinaire and Celan committed suicide. I also retraced the wanderings of the Sebaldesque characters through the Gare d’Austerlitz and Liverpool Street Station, because the future of Jacques Austerlitz – one of the hundreds of children sent to England to save their lives – lies in the atrocious flow of energy that connects both stations. I didn’t see the monument erected in 2006 commemorating the Kindertransport until I returned to London years later. Sebald’s novel, therefore, anticipated politics and carried out its own symbolic reparations.

Because it is our obligation to be witnesses, although we don’t known exactly what to, on another journey I witnessed other works that erased other traces. The builders and painters who were refurbishing the former offices of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, were unaware that Sebald had spent his entire adult life within their walls that no longer existed. Only the trees survived, on the other side of large windows, bathed in a diffused, almost underwater light. While the hammers rained down, the lecturers at the institute founded by the author of Pútrida patria (Anagrama, 2005) – with the purpose of giving students an in-depth knowledge of international literature – prepared their classes in the library or cafeteria. There had been no professor of literature at East Anglia since 2001. In fact, as the years went by, the presence of literature not written in English on the university syllabus began to fade. ‘L’oeil oder die Weisse Zeit’(2003), a multiple portrait by the painter Jan Peter Tripp shows Sebald’s ‘Acceptance Speech to the Collegium of the German Language’ (Campo Santo, Penguin, 2006). During his address, Sebald says that his homeland always seemed “unreal” to him, “like an endless déjà vu” and that in England he always hovered between “feelings of familiarity and dislocation”. His life was a tense translation.

L'oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [2]. Jan Peter Trip (2003).

L’oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [2]. Jan Peter Trip (2003).

I am in the habit of going to the best bookshops in the cities I visit. I was able to browse all the bookshops in Norwich because there are so few, and search for books by Sebald. None of them had more than three of his works. The Waterstone’s on the university campus was no exception. There were more books by Ian McEwan, the most illustrious former post-graduate student of creative writing, than the lecturer whose name was mooted as a candidate for the Nobel prize in the months leading up to his death. The translator Peter Bush, a colleague and friend of Sebald’s when they both taught there, put my mind at rest. “It was much worse before his reputation was firmly cemented with Austerlitz. Normally you wouldn’t have found any books by him here”. He lived in Norwich for 30 years; he wrote all his books in Norwich; he talks about this small city and its region in his books; he would go out onto these staircases for a cigarette; he was a lecturer at the university when Susan Sontag and Coetzee and James Wood wrote about his works which are a hybrid of fiction, travel writing and essays; hundreds of students attended his classes about Joseph Roth or German cinema during the Weimar Republic; he died there. Nevertheless, his books take up less space in these bookshops than McEwan or Alice Sebold. 

Quality, ambition and perseverance are words that are unpredictable in meaning, but they certainly highlight the parameters within which writing that leads to enduring readings moves. Fifteen years after Austerlitz was published, judging by his face in English, American and German bookshops, Sebald has established a reputation as a minority writer, the subject of doctoral theses and academic conferences but also as an author who is read with painstaking attention to detail by demanding readers, who are prepared to spend a small fortune to buy a book abroad, to learn a language to understand a book that hasn’t been translated, to travel in order to tirelessly browse through bookshops, to descend to the catacombs of libraries and dictionaries and search engines in order to better understand a text. Like Robert Walser, Vila-Matas and Roberto Bolaño, who are also extraterritorial writers, Sebald has also left his mark on other types of reader who are neither academics or scholars; the people who make reading not only into a journey but into contemporary art too: film directors such as Grant Gee, multifaceted writers like Iain Sinclair and Teju Cole and artists includingDominique González-Foerster, Tacita Dean, Jan Peter Tripp, Carlos Amorales oand Jeremy Wood. , have followed in his footsteps. This blind faith in tenacious readers and the readings that eventually come, allows us to move forwards, albeit sinking into the liquid darkness, to nowhere.


L’oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [3]. Jan Peter Trip (2003).

Quality is hard to evaluate; ambition can easily lead in the wrong direction; people often persist in their errors. A path runs around the lake on the University of East Anglia campus and leads to a number of tiny jetties which are perfect for fishing. I saw about ten men sitting in their folding chairs, with their nets, buckets, camouflage umbrellas, bicycles with two-wheeled trolleys, their caps, hip flasks and fishing rods, waiting for the big fish to bite. Unaware of the post-graduates in creative writing, media studies and dead writers, they didn’t kill time with radios or books: they waited in silence. I imagined those almost-invisible lines sunk in the water. Links that were biding their time. That natural and human history of waiting, of pleasure and of destruction.

For a long time no one could account for this glowing of the lifeless herring, and indeed I believe that it still remains unexplained, we read in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s book of travels through this region of eastern England and his most influential work among other writers and artists. In the opening pages of the book he mentions the death of two of his colleagues from this faculty that was open to European languages: Michael Parkinson and Janine Rosalind Darkyns; and to one of his neighbours, Frederick Farrar. The book was published in 1995 and six years later its author died in a car accident. Another of the real-life characters in the book, Michael Hamburger, also died shortly afterwards. Like Borges, Thomas Browne, Conrad, Casement, Chateaubriand and the remaining ghosts who wander the pages of these essays and travelogues that could also be entitled The Book of the Dead.

I went to Saint Andrew’s church in Framingham, in search of Farrar’s grave, which I thought would be near Sebald’s. In the middle of fields and woods and isolated houses, the stone basilica had no more than a hundred tombs around it. I read the names of the deceased. One. By. One. There was no trace of Farrar. Or of the person who immortalised him. After walking for a second time around this ring of the dead, I asked one of the gardeners if there wasn’t another Saint Andrew’s church in Framingham apart from this one. “That’s correct”, he replied, reminding me that I was in Framingham Pigeon and just over a mile away there was Framingham Earl with its Saint Andrew’s church. A triangular road sign reminded me that I had to watch out for the ducks crossing the road. 

L'oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [4].

L’oeil oder die Weisse Zeit [4]. Jan Peter Trip (2003).

The other church was by no means identical: its bell tower was circular, like a medieval castle’s. I parked my hire car and as I crossed the threshold, two retired couples of tourists were coming out. It was starting to rain: soon they would be underwater readers. After taking photographs of several graves and finding the writer’s headstone, a heavy shower forced me to run back to the car. One of the retired couples of cultural tourists had vanished; the other was inside their vehicle, making notes in tiny notebooks. “Sebaldian and incorrigible – I thought –, translators of readings into acts”, and I waited for the rain to stop by rereading the passage about Michael Farrar in The Rings of Saturn, despite the fact that I hadn’t found his remains or any similar name. The character is Sebaldian to the very core and in his biography there is an accident, to all intents and purposes fictitious, one of the many fires that run through The Emigrants or Vertigo like caravans in the desert: “When, during his morning walk, he somehow managed to set fire to his dressing gown with the lighter he always carried in the pocket. Frederick Farrar’s fictional funeral in this tiny graveyard foreshadowed Sebald’s actual funeral, the accident, the car that crashed into the tree, his death without fire. I thought about it throughout my walk along the north coast of Suffolk and Norfolk, and years later through Wertach im Allgäu, the writer’s home town, because in all these villages there was an ancient church surround by gravestones, and under each one a life in a thousand, a life that is now only decaying literature.

Jorge Carrión holds a PhD in Humanities from Pompeu Fabra University, where he teaches contemporary literature and creative writing. He has published the essays Teleshakespeare (Errata Naturae, 2011) and Viaje contra espacio. Juan Goytisolo y W.G. Sebald (Iberoamericana, 2009); the travel books Australia. Un viaje (Berenice, 2008), La piel de La Boca (Libros del Zorzal, 2008), GR-83 (Autoedición, 2007) and La brújula (Berenice, 2006); and the novels Los muertos; Los huérfanos and Los turistas  (Galaxia Gutemberg 2014/2015). He curated the exhibition ‘Sebald Variations’ together with Pablo Helguera.