Friday 30 December 2011

Remembering WG Sebald

Forget pantomimes, Christmas parties, carols etc.  The best thing this year was an evening at Wilton’s Music Hall in East London, on the tenth anniversary of WG Sebald’s untimely death.  Friends and colleagues including Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, Marina Warner and AS Byatt talked about their connection with him, and read from his work.  

Sebald's evening: photo from
People remarked that Sebald, with his interest in unusual buildings and their history, would have approved of the venue - London’s last music hall, a refuge in 1936 for East Enders protesting against Mosley’s Blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street, saved from demolition by Betjeman and co. in the sixties, venue for Fiona Shaw reading The Waste Land.  Still half in ruins today, which gives it a special, fragile charm, but a worrying one.  This time the balcony was in use, the (relatively) recently opened Mahogany Bar was heaving, and I didn’t notice any electrical wires spraying out of sockets.  But should the DLR, over a block away on its viaduct, have made the building shake?  Wilton’s needs help - see here. 

This was three weeks ago.  There was a real sense of loss, and the occasion was saved from any sentimentality by Sebald’s work.  I half-remember a couple of metaphors people used about his writing: an interlining between the imagination and reality, and a robe with deep hidden pockets.  Someone in my party had been a student of Sebald’s, and remembered him as erudite, sometimes grumpy and obscure, proud of his German literary heritage and generous to students who appreciated it.  One highlight was Anthea Bell, reading from her wonderful translation of Austerlitz (a book I’ve written about before).  She chose the passage where the young Austerlitz remembers Evan the cobbler’s tales of the dead. 

Evan told tales of the dead who had been struck down by fate untimely, who knew they had been cheated of what was due to them and tried to return to life. If you had an eye for them they were to be seen quite often, said Evan.  At first glance they seemed to be normal people, but when you looked more closely their faces would blur or flicker slightly at the edges.  And they were usually a little shorter than they had been in life, for the experience of death, said Evan, diminishes us, just as a piece of linen shrinks when you first wash it.  The dead almost always walked alone, but they did sometimes go around in small troops; they had been seen wearing brightly coloured uniforms or wrapped in grey cloaks, marching up the hill above the town to the soft beat of a drum, and only a little taller than the walls round the fields through which they went. … Hanging from a hook on the wall above Evan’s low work-bench, said Austerlitz, was the black veil that his grandfather had taken from the bier when the small figures muffled in their cloaks carried it past him, and it was certainly Evan, said Austerlitz, who once told me that nothing but a piece of silk like that separates us from the next world. 

Another highlight was the poet Stephen Watts, who lives in the East End (and whose poetry I’ve written about).  He read, beautifully, a poem of his about walking through the East End with Sebald.  He said he’d taken Sebald to see the Jewish cemetery in Mile End.. at which point the distinction between Sebald, Austerlitz and Watts became blurred. 

He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house, said Austerlitz, only a few days before he left London, when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street.  Inside, a very small, almost dwarf-like women of perhaps seventy years old - the cemetery caretaker, as it turned out - was walking along the paths between the graves in her slippers.  Beside her, almost as tall as she was, walked a Belgian sheepdog now grey with age who answered to the name of Billie and was very timid.  In the bright spring light shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.  I for my part could not get the story of the cemetery in Alderney Street with which Austerlitz had taken his leave of me out of my head…

A selection of Sebald’s poetry, Across the Land and the Water, translated by Iain Galbraith, was launched.  On scant evidence - a few poems read that evening, and the one printed in the programme - I’m not sure they’ll be as remarkable as his prose.  The one in the programme, ‘Day Return’, almost feels like notes for a prose passage; without the cadences, the shifts in argument and the exceptional syntax.  Here’s an extract:

Who scrawled the warning
Hands off Caroline
across the fire-wall
in Ipswich who knows the names
of our brothers the ducks
under the willow on the island
in Chelmsford Park pond

A third highlight was Ian Bostridge singing part of Schubert’s Winterreise, which became an elegy as his plangent tenor filled the space, and my head for days afterwards.  (I've just found him on YouTube, singing it totally in character as a distracted, velvet-coated German romantic, in a large bluewashed room with Central European windows and as derelict as Wilton’s.  I've been playing it while writing this.)  He started with the first song, which begins, so appropriately for Sebald, ‘I came as a stranger and I leave as a stranger’:

Fremd bin ich eingezogen,
Fremd zieh ich wieder aus.
He ended with Der Lindenbaum (the lime tree), which ends ‘There you’d find peace’:

Du fändest Ruhe dort!

Jewish cemetery in Mile End, from

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