Out of the shadows

W.G. Sebald, stifled by the culture of silence in post-war Germany, by ‘people’s ability to forget what they do not want to know’, settled in 1960s England and wrote groundbreaking literary works to great acclaim. Ten years after Sebald’s untimely death, Uwe Schütte, a former student, reflects on his life

September 22, 2011

“I taught for almost 30 years until I took early retirement in 1991,” explains Austerlitz, the eponymous hero of W.G. Sebald’s last work of prose fiction, “because of the inexorable spread of ignorance even to the universities.” One would not be mistaken to see this criticism as also coming straight from the heart of the writer who created Austerlitz. After all, apart from being considered a strong contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sebald was first and foremost an academic who had spent all his professional life in UK higher education.

Over more than three decades while he taught in this country, Sebald produced a considerable body of critical writings, ranging from reviews to essays, and from journal articles to a number of monographs. While his literary texts often prompt hagiographic praise, Sebald’s critical texts remain largely unknown, not just in this country, but equally in Germany.

Joining the University of East Anglia in 1970 as a lecturer, Sebald remained there until his premature death a decade ago. According to a best-selling history of German post-war literature by the well-known critic Volker Weidermann, Sebald taught as “a professor of modern German literature at the University of Norwich in Suffolk”. Well, Sebald readers in this country will know that UEA is actually in Norfolk but may be ignorant of the fact that his chair was actually in European literature. Knowledge of the academic side of Sebald’s life is crucial, though, for a proper understanding of his literary writings as well as his personality.

After all, it was the growing political pressure on academia that drove him towards literature. “Conditions in British universities were absolutely ideal in the Sixties and Seventies. Then the so-called reforms began and life became extremely unpleasant,” Sebald explained in an interview with The Observer in 1996. “I was looking for a way to re-establish myself in a different form simply as a counterweight to the daily bother in the institution.”

As the quote from Austerlitz (2001) demonstrates, it was not just in interviews that Sebald shared his ill feelings towards what he perceived as the increasing deterioration of academic culture in UK higher education. At the beginning of what is probably his best book, The Rings of Saturn (1995), he leaves a touching literary memorial to his colleague Michael Parkinson - an expert on the works of the Franco-Swiss writer Charles Ramuz - who had died mysteriously aged 49. “Michael was in his late forties, a bachelor, and, I believe, one of the most innocent people I have ever met. Nothing was ever further from his thoughts than self-interest; nothing troubled him quite so much as the dire responsibility of performing his duties under increasingly adverse conditions.”

The suggestion that Parkinson’s death was linked with the worsening work climate in universities was echoed by the obituary in French Studies: “He frequently overworked, sometimes to the point of exhaustion; had he lived, one cannot but be aware of how irksome, intolerable even, he would have found the pressures under which university teachers are increasingly being expected to work.”

Sebald had his fair share of administrative duties - slight as they may seem from today’s perspective. They included his role as an admissions officer for several years in the late 1970s, his service on a planning committee and on a promotions committee, his chairmanship of the university’s working party on teaching rationalisation, and a stint on the Senate, all of whose meetings he attended dutifully. Writing at home, after a day in the office or committee room, was his idea of a better work-life balance.

Sebald was uncompromisingly negative towards the changes that were introduced under the Conservative government from the mid-1980s onwards and repeatedly described them as “Stalinist”. Legend has it that in the early 1990s, when assessors for the Teaching Quality Assessment exercise wanted to undertake a teaching observation, he politely but firmly showed them the classroom door.

Depending on one’s point of view, this was a courageous or foolish act, perhaps both at the same time, but in any case typical of Sebald. Similarly, when information technology was introduced at UEA, he refused to have a PC installed in his office. Sebald never wrote an email and if, to his dismay, he received one, it was printed out and delivered to him by “some clown from the Registry”, as he told me.

I arrived at UEA in September 1992 on a self-organised “year abroad” to undertake an MA with Sebald as my supervisor. My weekly tutorials surprisingly turned out to be one-to-one owing to a lack of other postgraduates. Needless to say, they were a revelation compared with the classes I shared with 50 or more students at the University of Munich.

When I told Sebald about my plan to do a PhD with him as well, he smiled wryly and strongly advised against it. “Try your hand at gardening or land surveying,” he suggested - spending one’s working days out in the open air would be so much more preferable to slaving away at completing endless forms and other time-wasting paperwork in a stuffy office. That was meant as a joke, of course, albeit a serious one.

Sensing my interest in an academic career, he predicted further continuing deterioration of academic culture in UK higher education as a result of increased bureaucracy, the imposition of profit-driven, short-term policies that aimed to turn universities into business operations, the introduction of benchmarks, the redefinition of students as customers, time-consuming quality assurance mechanisms and superfluous staff development training. With hindsight, one has to admit, he was not too far off the mark.

Sebald the philologist particularly detested the penetration of universities by management-speak, whereby the academy was redefined as a part of the “knowledge industry”. The liberal free spirit that had characterised his first decade at UEA had disappeared for good, and his reaction from the mid-1980s onwards was to retreat into an “inner emigration” by becoming an author.

But with his rising fame in the 1990s came new pressures. His literary career developed splendidly but turned into another source of stress, when increasing demands were made on him to appear in public or undergo strenuous tours to read from his celebrated books. All this took its toll in the years leading up to his untimely death in December 2001. His death came as a shock but not as a surprise to those who knew him.

Sebald left his native country in 1965, aged 21, and spent a year studying in medieval Fribourg in Switzerland. Arriving in a grimy Manchester to take up the position of language assistant was a shock when he saw how dilapidated the city was, as he describes in the Max Ferber story in The Emigrants (1992). But the reasons for his decision to drop out of the German university system and emigrate to the UK extended beyond the purely economic: in his view, the German university system was still dominated by a culture of silence and forgetfulness about the all-too-recent Nazi past.

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Moreover, the University of Freiburg in Germany, where Sebald studied German literature, was the very university whose rector in 1933 was none other than Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who became (in)famous for supporting the Nazi regime during its first years in power. Significantly, Sebald’s time as a student at Freiburg coincided with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which publicly exposed the atrocities committed in the Nazi extermination camps.

It is no surprise then that Sebald perceived those of his academic teachers who had got their jobs under Hitler to be colluding in the great silence that dominated in Germany after the war. In his view, Germanistik (German studies) as a discipline was morally tainted and certainly not a club that he would want to join, quite apart from the fact that a student such as himself - from a petty-bourgeois background in the Bavarian hinterland and lacking connections - would find it hard to get a job in the hierarchical, paternalistic German university system.

Hence the decisive influence that meeting Ronald Peacock (1907-93) had on him. Peacock, Henry Simon professor of German language and literature at the University of Manchester, was a visiting professor at Freiburg for six months and he greatly impressed Sebald by his more personal, less academic way of talking about literature. The freedom afforded by the more essayistic style of British literary criticism as opposed to the stiff academic discourse prevalent in Germanistik presented a considerable attraction for Sebald. So the stage was set, and after a year in French-speaking Switzerland, during which he wrote his MA dissertation on the playwright Carl Sternheim, Sebald relocated to England.

During the course of his academic career proper, which started with his appointment at UEA, he developed and refined his very personal style of writing about literature. Having merged techniques of close reading that he gleaned from anglophone literary criticism with the dialectical methodology that he learned from critical theory, and seasoned the mixture with a good measure of polemic, he produced a remarkable body of critical texts that equals, if not surpasses, his imaginative writings in terms of quantity.

His first two books developed out of his MA dissertation on Sternheim and his PhD thesis on Alfred Döblin. They were both deeply marked by his opposition to the way in which literary criticism operated in Germany, namely by severely attacking established authors. Equally, the whole discipline of Germanistik was accused by Sebald of being unable to fully understand the texts due to its own moral “blindness” because “as a discipline it was fatefully wed to the growth of the German ideology…from its early beginnings”.

These two early books shed a meaningful light on the mindset of the young Sebald whose books, fired from the UK like long-range mortar shells, constituted a one-man version of the student rebellion that his fellow students were fighting in Germany.

“I never liked doing things systematically,” Sebald declared in the 1990s. “Not even my PhD research was done systematically. It was always done in a random, haphazard fashion. And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, ie, in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”

His campaign against Germanistik also took the form of close to 20 academic reviews that he contributed in the 1970s to the Journal of European Studies. Despite being written in English, they are, regrettably, almost totally ignored in Sebald scholarship. Consisting mainly of scathing critiques, the PhD candidate criticises books by leading German scholars for all sorts of inexcusable mistakes. “Only a bureaucratic mind will derive any pleasure from reading it,” he says about one study, while another is completely dismissed as it “unfortunately abounds in notorious catchphrases of the professional philologist”. Another damning judgement passed on the book of a well-established academic reads: “It is a sad conclusion but his anthology seems to have been out-of-date on the day it was published.”

From the late 1970s, the “angry young academic” underwent quite a transformation, with Sebald now focusing his critical attention on empathetic discussions of writers who had been marginalised or ignored by mainstream German studies. Sebald never wrote an essay - let alone a book - on any of the “biggies” of German literature: Goethe, Thomas Mann, Brecht just don’t feature, although Kafka, himself an outsider figure, is a major interest. Rather, he concerned himself with “minor poets” such as the autodidact Herbert Achternbusch, the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck, the Austrian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Jean Améry - writers, who in his view wrote “against” the prevalent conception of culture and/or literature.

Sebald strongly favoured individual research, once remarking to me that collaboration inevitably resulted in the production of “bullshit”. He liked to undertake research trips, often two or more per year. These were funded by successful grant applications - although when he started to step up his literary activities, using the money for the purpose it was awarded was not necessarily his habit. What he experienced or found during these trips often formed the basis for his literary texts, in particular Vertigo (1990).

Two collections of essays on Austrian authors appeared during the second half of the 1980s and in 1988 he was finally given a chair. In 1989, he became the founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the UEA, “a visionary enterprise that has done a great deal to counter the insularity that characterises much contemporary English writing”, as Michael Robinson, a former colleague at UEA, wrote in an obituary in The Independent on 17 December 2001. However, Michael Sanderson’s official History of the University of East Anglia, Norwich, a tome in excess of 500 pages that was published in 2002, mentions neither Sebald nor the centre. (One could guess how UEA would have claimed him as an asset if Sebald had received the Nobel prize.)

In the early 1990s he began to write essays that - like his polemic early books - caused considerable controversies although he did not necessarily set out to cause outrage. The first piece, which was not published during his lifetime, denounced the novels of Jurek Becker, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and the author of Jacob the Liar (1969) (adapted for the screen in 1999 and starring Robin Williams), as being insufficient from a literary point of view. Another essay, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (1993), which attacked the widely praised writer Alfred Andersch on moral grounds for divorcing his Jewish wife during the war, is still a matter of critical debate. And finally, he gave his lectures on aerial warfare and literature, which were later published as On the Natural History of Destruction (1999), and castigated German post-war writers for their failure to deal adequately with the Allied bombing attacks on German cities.

My feeling is that this return to his controversial roots may well be connected to the circumstances of Sebald’s meteoric rise to fame. The German-speaking literary establishment had long ignored the outsider and, for example, refused to award him any of the prizes handed out in 1990 at the prestigious Festival of German-Language Literature in Klagenfurt, Austria. Now it made increasing demands on him, while in the Anglo-American world he was being pigeonholed as a “Holocaust author”, a term he hated, and was eventually even co-opted, alongside Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, as the “prime speaker of the Holocaust” in The New York Times Book Review.

While becoming internationally established as a writer, as an academic he acted with a degree of unpredictable stubbornness. Throughout his life, one has to conclude, it was Sebald’s desire to protect his waywardness and individual freedom from those who aimed to curtail it, be they university administrators or literary critics. Together with the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, who has several walk-on parts in Sebald’s books, he is one of the great German-speaking academics to have found a refuge in English academia. Nurtured and formed by the UK university system, W.G. Sebald became what he was as an academic.

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