Sunday, January 25, 2009

W. G. Sebald, The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory.

Maya Jaggi: You were born in Wertach im Allgäu, Bavaria, on May 18 1944, in the waning years of the Third Reich. How would you describe your family background?

WG Sebald: Wertach was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, in a valley covered in snow for five months a year. It was a silent place. I was brought up largely by my grandfather, because my father only returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1947, and worked in the nearest small town, so I hardly ever saw him. I lived in that place until I was about eight. My parents came from working-class, small-peasant, farm-labourer backgrounds, and had made the grade during the fascist years; my father came out of the army as a captain. For most of those years, I didn't know what class we belonged to. Then the German "economic miracle" unfolded, so the family rose again; my father occupied a "proper" place in lower-middle-class society.

It was that social stratum where the so-called conspiracy of silence was at its most present. Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. There it was, and we somehow had to get our minds around it - which of course we didn't. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out what had happened. In the mid-60s, I could not conceive that these events had happened only a few years back.

It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country [in 1966], because in Manchester, I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people. [One character in The Emigrants (1993) was based partly on Sebald's Mancunian landlord, a Jewish refugee.] You could grow up in Germany in the postwar years without ever meeting a Jewish person. There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin, but in a provincial town in south Germany Jewish people didn't exist. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places, as doctors, cinema ushers, owners of garages, but they had disappeared - or had been disappeared. So it was a process of successive phases of realisation.

WG Sebald: "The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago."

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