Lynne Sharon Schwartz, ed. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Seven Stories Press, 2007)
To wander into any of W.G. Sebald’s books gives the reader the sensation of rummaging through old cardboard boxes in a dusty, sunlit attic. Every now and then you will come across a tiny trinket that, held up to the window, reveals a glimmer of what it once was. Often you will find several incongruous objects, perhaps an old set of binoculars, a crumpled-up train ticket, and a black-and-white snapshot of a stern little boy, all crammed together in nonsensical storage. These objects that don’t seem to have any definitive link at first are given deeper meaning after closer examination. Sebald’s meandering but startling prose has the same effect.
In The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald, interviews and critical essays expose the tactile reality of a writer who so often dealt with intangible emotions. The German-born writer spent much of his writing career gathering and gleaning bits of information from his own and other people’s experiences, inserting them into books woven together like a tapestry of fictional and fact-based narrative. He wrote often of displaced people obsessed with reconstructing or realizing the past, and he broke up his long, Proust-like sentences with black-and-white photographs matching the narrator’s travels or discoveries.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s compilation of criticism and in-depth interviews by prominent writers and critics reveals Sebald’s curiosity and obligation as a writer. In her introduction, Schwartz talks about Sebald’s birth in Germany in 1944, and how World War II and his father’s post in the Wermacht clearly sparked his obsession with confronting what had happened in his country. In our “collective amnesia, we erase time as we go, forgetting what defines us. He has not forgotten; he pieces together the shards to remind us.”
Those who feel they don’t belong to a certain place are of the most interest to Sebald, and it makes sense, given that he lived in England for most of his life but couldn’t escape writing in his native language and featuring characters in his books who try to find a sense of acceptance in life—not always with good results. In Austerlitz, he pieces together a real-life person he knew and a story he saw on TV to create the character of a man who never knew he was on the Kindertransport until later in life.
In the various essays and interviews, a similar theme emerges. Memory and coincidence are interlinked for the writer. The two go together to spur his creativity and act as a catalyst for exploring, but they don’t necessarily end up in a concise answer. As he tells Eleanor Watchel in an interview:
“So there is of course a degree of self-deception at work when you’re looking at the past, even if you redesign it in terms of tragedy, because tragedy is still a pattern of order and an attempt to give meaning to something, to a life or to a series of lives. It’s still, as it were, a positive way of looking at things. Whereas, in fact, it might have just been one damn thing after another with no sense to it at all.”
Only one writer, Michael Hoffman, serves to question Sebald. He points out there being “something rigid in its peculiarity,” as if the writer could never feel fully comfortable on paper. The prose can wander aimlessly at times, but Sebald does this with a sense of assurance in presenting his ideas. Tim Parks writes “between, or perhaps after, passion and glory lie the uncertain resource of curiosity; the recurring emotions of amazement and alarm. Any act of remembering will offer a feast.” It was Sebald’s endless examination of life already lived that provides a kaleidoscopic way of looking at what we think we already know.