Tag Archives: WG Sebald

International Translation Day 2016

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September. It was established to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. In the UK the British Library is hosting a day of seminars on translation-related topics. Wish I could be there.

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We need events that focus on books in translation because they do not form a very large part of our reading diet. Not much is published, not much is read. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation.

In a post in March, on this blog, called Books in Translation I said

Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

When I checked the last 50 books read, ten were translations: that’s 20% and an improvement. Here are some recommendations to encourage you to read more in translation.

  1. The Man I became by Peter Verhelst published by Peirene Press

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

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A novella, a fable in which the gradual transition from ape to man brings insight into the human situation. Told in the voice of the main character, it explores how humans treat animals and other people whom they consider inferior. And it looks at how humans treat the world as a whole, and especially the belief that we can remake and exploit it and animals.

  1. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila published by Jacaranda

Translated from the French by Roland Glasser

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Winner of the Pen Translates Award from English Pen. Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Set in the DCR, kind of, the novel follows the fortunes of the writer Lucien who comes to the city to stay with his old friend Requiem and make his life and living as a writer. Requiem and Lucien are unlikely friends, indeed their relationship falls apart. Requiem is a crook and a wheeler-dealer; Lucien remains true to his wife and to his calling until the end. As he struggles to make his name, he meets a publisher, who sets up a disastrous first reading of his work in the bar called Tram 83, or simply Tram. Lucien has better success when the Diva organises a performance.

The society is hugely corrupt and poverty-stricken. The city is in the dying days of a gold rush. Violence, sex and greed are everywhere. Women appear to play very little part in the action in the city, until it is revealed that they have power (The Diva) and money (Lucien’s admirer Christelle) and promote good things.

The story is told with long sentences, much dialogue, repetition and lists. I liked its power to evoke jazz. It’s vivid, full of vitality and has what publishers like to call ‘edge’.

  1. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa published by Vintage

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn.

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Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

As a young girl in Portugal, Ludovica was raped and became reclusive, looked after by her sister. When her sister marries Orlando, Ludo and Odete go to live with him in Angola, but almost immediately the war of liberation breaks out. Orlando and Odete disappear. Ludo barricades herself in their 11th floor flat and does not emerge for 28 years, viewing the changes in Luanda from her balcony. She lives off provisions already in the flat and her own ingenuity. For example, she attracts pigeons with diamonds that Orlando had hidden, but when she finds one with a message she lets it go.

We follow a number of characters whose stories come together with the discovery of Ludo by a young boy, the diamonds and the settlement of old scores. It’s a surreal story.

And more …

286-fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun published by Peirene

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

I’m reserving my comments for a themed exploration of post-war novels in November.

Vertigo by WG Sebald published by Vintage

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

Reviewed on this blog: this is the link

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Reviewed on this blog back in April. Here is the link. This novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton, included in a themed review of novels set in hotels.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, featured on a post in August.

The Door by Magda Szabo

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, the 22nd novel featured in my Older Women in Fiction series.

English PEN has been promoting translated writing for some time. You can find out what they do for writers in translation at the English Pen website.

Twitter-types will have enjoyed #WITMonth, women in translation month, in August, which revealed lots more books in translation by women.

Over to you

Tell us which s novels in translation would you recommend from your recent reading?

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Steps to improve your Writing

What if it were true that by going on walks you could improve your creativity? What if someone told you that by walking you would become a better writer? Would you walk more often, for longer, or in different places? Or just put it all down to some new age piffle? Well this idea does have legs. Many great writers are or were practitioners and research confirms it.

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Writers who walked

Among the great writers of the past, who were also walkers, we can name Virginia Woolf, who frequently paced the streets of London as well as walking in the countryside around Monk’s House in Sussex. Several of her characters walk in London: Mrs Dalloway of course, and Helen at the start of The Voyage Out walks with her husband towards the Docks. Virginia Woolf published six articles in Good Housekeeping in 1932 called The London Scene.

273 VW London scene

Dickens was a great walker, again in the streets of London. WG Sebald walked in Europe and East Anglia. The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a walk in Suffolk. Wordsworth was a great walker, yes wandering lonely as he did.

In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson bought a donkey, Modestine, and together they walked in the Cevennes area of South France. He walked without purpose, although he was suffering from a broken heart. He explained his attitude in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Writers and the walking metaphor

To conjure up the process of writing the metaphor of a path, walking, a journey is frequently used. Annie Dillard, in A Writer’s Life is creative with her ideas.

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a wood-carver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow or this time next year.

You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports and dispatch bulletins. (3)

Annie Dillard’s observations of the natural world are breath-taking. If you enjoy that kind of thing read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which the author describes as a non-fiction narrative. You can find her own website here. Her collection of essays, The Abundance (2016), is nearing the top of my tbr pile.

Robert Macfarlane’s in The Old Ways (2012) explores some similarities between writing and walking, likening the creation of a path to writing in the landscape. He follows the paths of animals in the snow, or ancient ways such as the Icknield Way and the footsteps of Edward Thomas and other walkers. The Wild Places (2007) he records other adventures in the British Isles. Another book nearing the top of my tbr pile is Landmarks (2015). I have given away several copies of Holloway (2013), which is a joy of a book.

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Rebecca Solnit has lived the connections between writing and walking. Writer, historian and activist she wrote Wanderlust: a history of walking (2001). Brain Pickings captures the explorations of this book in her beautifully observed blogpost: Wanderlust. And the title of In The Faraway Nearby (2014) describes what can happen with your imagination when you walk.

The Research

Stanford University researchers have published an article called Give your Ideas some Legs: the positive effects of walking on creative thinking. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L Schwartz conducted several experiments from which they made their case, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity. (1142)

And by the way, it’s worth knowing that you get the best effects from walking outside and that it wont help improve your creativity if you walk with your face in your Twitter stream or with earphones linking you to a stream of sound. I can’t imagine why you would want to accompany your walk with other than natural sounds anyway.

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There may be a chemical explanation for the connection, or a psychological one, or simply a common-sense explanation that by walking your mind is freed of other considerations. Or perhaps it helps because walking organises the world around you, including any writing projects.

Walk on

So I walk on, hoping it encourages my writing. Walking certainly encourages my reading as you can see from this post. I am hoping to explore more writing-walking connections in the next few months, beginning with an account of my participation in a community walk/write project next month.

 

Related posts

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes in June on Bookword.

Why Walking Helps Us Think, by Ferris Jabr, in The New Yorker in September 2014.

The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking, by Finlo Rohrer, on the BBC news magazine in May 2014

On the Creative Penn blog, nine lessons learned about writing from walking 100km in a weekend. Makes sense.

Elizabeth Marro writes about walking and writing on Book by Women blog, step by step, word by word.

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Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.

Themes

Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. 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. (212)

30 WG Sebald2

Writing

The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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Lost in fiction in translation

I have heard that publishers calculate a ceiling of about 3000 readers for any translated fiction. Only 3000! Are you one of the 3000? Perhaps you have contributed to the Scandinavian crime wave? Or have a copy of Kafka’s stories on your shelf.

Do you think that 3000 is a small number? I do, and I find it both very surprising and very depressing. It’s surprising because there is so much good fiction in translation. And it’s depressing because that kind of figure makes it harder for publishers to think of fiction in translation as a viable economic prospect. And because readers are missing out on innovative and enjoyable fiction.

Is it a small number because there is just so much good fiction in English that we don’t need to bother? Well that’s a very insular attitude. But the following figures suggest there might be some truth in it.

4.5% of literature published in the UK is translation. Compare with

3% in USA

12% in Germany

15% in France

24% in Spain

46% in Poland (figures from Publishing Perspectives)

It is possible that the figure is low because readers don’t get to hear enough about fiction in translation. So let’s celebrate those who promote it.

First: those imaginative, independent publishers: such as And Other Stories, Peirene Press and Quercus.

Second: The prizes: there are four to keep an eye on.

  1. The Man Booker International Prize, which in 2013 contained only 3 English language contenders (Lydia Davis won).
  2. IMPAC is the Dublin-based International Literary prize, in which public libraries feature strongly in making nominations. This year on the shortlist of ten novels, five were in translation.
  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
  4. The Society of Authors also administers prizes for translation in a whole range of different languages.

Third: A number of other literary organisations support literature in translation in their programmes. One is the Booktrust which has a downloadable pamphlet of recommendations by 20 writers, called Discover a World of Reading. And there’s English PEN, Free Word and the London Review of Books.

Fourth: We should recognise the work of the translators. And I’m thrilled that one of the translators mentioned below taught me languages at school. Nice connection.

36 Translation

Here’s my list of twelve books in translation not to be missed. No particular order.

  • WG Sebald anything by him. Translated by Michael Hulse and others (German)
  • Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast. Translated by Jamie Bullock (German)
  • Tove Jansson The Summer Book. Translated by Thomas Teal. (Swedish/Finland)
  • Per Petterson Out Stealing Horses. Translated by Anne Born. Winner of 2007 IMPAC Award (Norwegian)
  • Gerbrand Bakker The Twin. Translated by David Colman. Winner of 2010 IMPAC Award, and The Detour Winner of 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Dutch)
  • Italo Calvino If on a winter’s Night a Traveller. Translated by William Weaver. (Italian)
  • Andrey Kurkov Death and the Penguin Translated by George Bird (Russian/Ukraine)
  • Diego Marani The New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry (Italian)
  • Orphan Pamuk Various. Winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Translation by Maureen Freely and others. (Turkish)
  • Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise. Translated by Sandra Smith (French)
  • Heinrich Boll The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Translated by Leila Vennewitz (German)
  • Evelio Rosero Armies. Translated by Anne Mclean. Winner of 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. (Spanish/Columbia)

And then of course there are the classics, a list of which might start with these …

  • Cervantes Don Quixote no 1 on The Guardian’s 100 best novels list (Spanish)
  • Tolstoy War and Peace (Russian)
  • Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front (German)
  • Di Lampedusa The Leopard (Italian)
  • Flaubert Madame Bovary (French)
  • Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes (French) and ….

With so much excellent fiction being identified by publishers and prizes, and all that close and creative work being undertaken by translators, that figure of 3000 readers really should be higher.

Ok, that’s 17 books I’ve mentioned – at least. What have I left out? What would you recommend? Has you reading group found a gem not listed here?

36 Ignorance script

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Reading for writers

What must you do to be a writer? There are two things, according to Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing. The first is to ‘read a lot’.

Plenty of writers agree with him. Twenty-two writers provided Dos and Don’ts for the Guardian book Write, and seven of them mention reading. PD James, for example, says,

Read widely and with discrimination.

Hilary Mantel recommends a specific book that has influenced many writers, and I referred to and quoted from it in a recent post about writing routines. She says,

Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible.

Colm Tobin is also specific.

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

And Will Self is typically contrary.

Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer).

These brief points were collected from short pieces in the Guardian Review.

33 Guardbk Write

But what is the purpose of reading for a writer – apart from enjoyment? You might be looking for models, as Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, tells us

Hemingway studied as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; EM Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust.

I’ve read some of these, know the names of others, and had to look up Sherwood Anderson (I am ashamed to admit). I’ve got some reading to do!

Geoff Dyer, in his contribution to the Guardian supplement How to Write Fiction, suggests that reading will ‘inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life’. (Note: not just your writing, but your writing life).

Reading is not just part of your apprenticeship; it continues to inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life – and it is never passive. … One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs.

I especially like Dyer’s advice to look at the lower slopes and even in the troughs, as well as the heights. What works, what doesn’t, what feels authentic, what is hackneyed, clumsy, elegant, elegiac, poignant, daring – we read to find these things. That’s why it is never passive.

Passive reading, then, is not enough. Read with a consciousness of technique, says Ursula K le Guin. Read  the classics in order to learn what a writer can do with the English language. For her book, Steering the Craft, she turned a workshop into a self-guided set of discussion topics and exercises for writers. ‘Reading with a consciousness of technique in mind, would be useful as well as enjoyable,’ she suggests. She goes on to show how in chapters on sound, sentences, point of view, with examples from such classic texts as Jane Eyre, and by Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain.

I particularly like two how-to-write books that feature reading.

First: Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which draws on the expertise of writers of novels, screenplays and short stories to provide material for his masterclass.

Charles Dickens drops in to demonstrate how to create exciting characters, Ernest Hemingway helps you figure out how to write concisely and powerfully, and Jane Austen shows you how to warm to an unsympathetic character…

The chapter on conflict, for example, refers to John le Carre, Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Bowen and Raymond Chandler. A wide choice, and some names recur.

Second: Reading Like a Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them was written by the felicitously named Francine Prose. She argues for close, slow and careful reading in this way.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses note, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted,

And she demonstrates the value of close reading by exploring the opening paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. And so on, through chapters about sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue and gesture, each liberally illustrated with examples. Each one a reason to read more. And she includes three pages on books to be read immediately, including Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and others already mentioned. Nothing by Sherwood Anderson however.

33 F Prose

Have you heard the advice to aspiring writers that they should not read while writing? The argument is that they will be influenced by what they read. I wonder why it is considered a bad thing. My writing would definitely benefit from the influences of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor and, maybe, from Sherwood Anderson. And we are not writing in isolation. The very words we use have been wrought by use, their meanings shifting with use by speakers, readers and writers. We write, so to speak, into the tradition of previous writers: in forms, structures, conventions, techniques, vocabulary all of it. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is sending up the gothic novel, but she is also writing about reading and its influence. Or we are writing to challenge the traditions, or boundaries. Think of the writers who consciously forged new forms like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for example; or who experiment with time lines (Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man); or with our established ideas of what fiction is (WG Sebald) and so on.

I am just finishing the revisions of a co-authored non-fiction book. (More on this in later posts). Our editor asked us to give our draft manuscript ‘more edge’ and I found a great example in Charlie Brooker’s I can make you hate. Reading his columns helped us understand how to engage the reader more directly, to find a hook for the chapter, how juxtaposing apparently unconnected things (eg: Nick Clegg, Maxine Carr and the go compare tenor; Nick Clegg and Pudsey Bear; patriotism and chocolate) can pique interest and make serious points with wit. We didn’t want to imitate his style, but we learned from his approach, and I got to fume about a number of topics (but not to hate).

33 Ch Brooker

Let’s return to Stephen King.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

So the second rule for writers is ‘Write’. There are only two rules.

What books are inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life?

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The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it a collection of biographies? No, it’s The Emigrants by WG Sebald whose writing seems to generate such questions. One of the most frequent is – in what category does his writing fit? Is it fiction or not? I’m not going to get diverted into addressing that question.

30 Emigrants

The Emigrants has four sections of unequal length. Each section carries the name of one emigrant: Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber. There is a fifth story, contained within the final section. Max Ferber’s mother wrote a memoir of her childhood, which makes her the fifth emigrant. The narrator is himself an emigrant (in reality as well as in the fiction). In these accounts the narrator tells us of his connections with the five emigrants and what he has been told about them: his neighbour Dr Selwyn, Paul Bereyter was his primary school teacher in the village of S, Ambros Adelwarth a member of his family who went to the States, and Max Ferber a painter met during a lonely period in Manchester.

The novel explores themes of loss, displacement, memory and especially of what remains of people, of their lives, of their words. With his own premature death in a car accident in 2001, we can ask such questions also about WG Sebald.

His manner of writing generates another set of questions. Why does he write in very long sentences, and make extensive use of reported speech and reported text? My friend Rose, who recommended Sebald’s writing to me a couple of years ago (thank you so much Rose) spoke of the tension this creates as she reads. And it is carefully crafted so that the reader trusts the author to carry them to the end of the paragraph, or the section, or even the book. Somehow Sebald balances this tension with an apparent ‘take it or leave it’ manner, and by very little differentiation of tone or pace. The reader has the sense that every detail has been carefully chosen.

Then there are those fuzzy black and white photographs, usually relating to the topic on the page, but they might not. What are they for? The Emigrants, for example, opens with a photo of a tree in a churchyard, on the same page that he refers to house he (or a man he refers to as himself) was looking for in the village of Hingham. Sebald constantly presents us with information that may or may not be accurate. For example, there is a market town called Hingham in Norfolk, but picture does not quite match the description in the text. I love this playfulness. One sentence jumped out at me

Clara had bought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment.

I was especially piqued by this achievement of Clara’s as I am in the middle of house buying. It became a catch phrase last week when I asked my daughter to buy a house for me one afternoon. (She did). But the aside about Clara is an example that Sebald knows that his reader will experience house buying as a very involving experience, but he is writing about something else.

Another question is why is he so highly regarded? Susan Sontag had an answer even before Austerlitz had been published in 2001.

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of WG Sebald. (A Mind in Mourning, reprinted in Where the Stress Falls, first published in TLS, February 2000).

Not tepid, glib, or the senselessly cruel then. But what are his qualities? Why should you read this author, who in any case was writing in German, even if he was living in England. She points out that his books are all about travel, journeys, provoked by a curiosity about a life, or in the wake of some crisis, and as a quest. She reminds us that a journey is often a revisiting, as in the last of the four stories in The Emigrants.

Sebald described his work as ‘documentary fiction’, according to Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker.

Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading.

Apart from the reference to Clara, I have not yet quoted from The Emigrants. In part, this is because it is hard to pick out a section, so relentlessly do the sentences and paragraphs move along. Here’s the ending of the first section, which refers to a friend of Dr Selwyn, an alpine guide who had disappeared in 1914. Enjoy the flow of the first sentence!

Three quarters of an hour late, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I’d bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. [A clipping of a relevant newspaper illustrates the previous page].

So why do I think Sebald should be read? Here are my five reasons.

  1. He treats the reader as intelligent and as someone who can do some work.
  2. He writes about Europe, the Europe with which I am familiar, its history, beliefs, monuments, and how these things affected people’s lives.
  3. He is innovative, playful and interesting (especially in the details, the objects he presents to the reader).
  4. He says something important about what we used to call the ‘human condition’, about memory, loss, displacement and how we have lived.
  5. He writes beautifully, with rhythm, tension and movement.

30 WG Sebald2

So what’s left for me and Sebald?

I still have Vertigo to read. And he wrote poems that have also been published: Across the Land and the Water, published in 2011.

His essays A Place in the Country were published by Penguin in early May 2013, about influences upon his ideas. At the moment only available in hardback, but no doubt a paperback edition will follow.

I have a ticket for Patience (After Sebald), a film by Grant Lee at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday 9th June 2013.

And when I am stranded on my desert island I will have Austerlitz to re-read.

His influence continues through his students. For example, Richard Skinner’s blog has a post that records Sebald’s writing tips: a great collection. Here’s a selection of three:

There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pocket.

Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.

Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer for a while.

And as always, let’s pay tribute to the translator of The Emigrants, in this case it is Michael Hulse.

 

Reminder: the next readalong, (book group choice) is Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys for the end of July.

 

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Filed under Books, Reviews, Writing

Do we need biographies of writers?

I used to think that a writer’s work should stand by itself, that biographies could not add anything to the reading of their books. But I find that I am changing my mind, especially as I have been reading about the lives of writers to whose work I often return.

I recently reviewed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. As I prepared for the blog piece I found that other reviewers frequently referred to her character, her life and her reputation. It led me to read The Other Elizabeth Taylor, by Nicola Beauman, published by Persephone Books in 2009. Persephone Books have published exquisite ‘reprints of neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers’ since 1999. Fortunately for readers, Virago picked up Elizabeth Taylors books in 1982 and has been publishing and promoting them ever since.

20 other_elizabeth_taylor

And now I know much more about her work within the context of her life, the influences on her writing, something of her writing practices and a better sense of her skills as a writer.

Here she is in a letter to a friend in 1944:

‘Those are the happiest of times – sitting at the table in a warm room … some warm, weak gin & water & the words spilling from my pen. There is no happiness like it, I am ashamed to say.’

She struggled, as so many women do, with the conflicting demands of motherhood and their talents.

‘I feel instinctively that women who have children can’t write. A certain single-mindedness is denied to them. In the end, children and writing suffer. Women writers do not have children – Sappho, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Miss Mitford, Fanny Burney, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein.’ (From another letter in 1946)

But Elizabeth Taylor had two children and she did put them first. But she clearly found it hard:

‘Writers shouldn’t be mothers, for they cannot be ruthless.’

From this biography we learn something of her writing practices – not just the warm gin, but that she was a woman who thrived on her routines, sitting every morning in her armchair writing in her notebook.

We learn about her friendships (with Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Kinsley Amis) and how she suffered acutely from criticism. She might be described as self-effacing and chosing not to mix with the London literary set. In their turn they questioned the quality of her work, and she was hurt by this. But she had her champions, including her literary friends and the New Yorker Magazine which published a large proportion of her short stories.

We find she was not born into the middle class life that she came to represent in people’s minds, indeed was a member of the Communist Party until 1948. The reputation of having a life where nothing ever happened is contradicted by the revelation of an affair and abortions, the murder of a local friend and her son’s near-fatal accident. The experiences of the final months of the lives of her father and of her friend the author Elizabeth Bowen provided material upon which she drew for Mrs Palfrey.

However, she was in no sense an autobiographical writer. Each of her main characters is very different. Rather she is a very close observer of human behaviour, especially when her characters do not behave as society expects. In my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont I suggested that describing the residents of the hotel as eccentric was inaccurate; she observed how older people can behave when they are neglected and fearful.

Elizabeth Taylor’s reticence and concern for privacy extended to posterity. Most of her letters, for example, were destroyed at her request. And her two children have dissociated themselves from the biography, despite Nicola Beauman’s sensitivity.

I was reminded of two other biographies that helped me understand the writers and both have led me to reread their work with richer perspectives and understandings:

  • Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin. I recommend the revised edition of 2000
  • Virginia Woolf, by Hermione Lee, published by Vintage in 1997.

And now I find that as I am thinking about WG Sebald’s life, as we approach the readalong of The Emigrants for late May. His writing appears to blur the distinctions between autobiography, memoir and fiction. He poses so many questions about memory, stories, survival, what the lives of other people mean … I have not heard that a biography is planned.

And so now I have a project to read Elizabeth Taylor’s novels in the order she wrote them, and have already finished the first – At Mrs Lippincote’s, published in 1945. Julia is it’s lively protagonist, more interested in experience than convention and must therefore encounter the double standards of expected behaviour by men and women (as Elizabeth Taylor did). The dilemmas of Julia and her husband are beautifully handled.

Next on my list is Palladian (1946).

So reading writers’ biographies leads me to read more … What other biographies would you recommend?

Now, I’ll just top up the warm gin with a drop of water …

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading