Saturday 6 September 2014

Ariadne's Thread

W. G. Sebald's concerns are with memory and loss, and the loss of memory. His great theme is mutability and all the work has a dying fall. His career was too brief, suddenly cut short when he suffered a heart attack at the wheel of his car while driving on the A47 in December 2001. He died instantly at the age of 57. 

Since then his reputation has grown steadily and he is now regarded as an author of the first importance, a major European writer. When sent new novels for review I'm regularly impressed by how Sebaldian in tone and approach many serious contemporary writers are. His detractors tend to disparage him as a glum, Eeyorish figure. To which I can only say: better Eeyore than Tigger.

In common with many readers my first exposure to Sebald was The Rings of Saturn (1995) and, also in common with many readers, I was spellbound by this melancholy masterpiece. I suppose I've read and re-read all his English-language books by now, overshadowed by the gloomy understanding that there won't be any more. Going online recently to check some publication dates I was surprised and touched to find that his webpage at the University of East Anglia's School of English and American Studies is still available. You can see it here.

Philippa Comber, who has written a fine new memoir of the author, first met Sebald (whom she knew as 'Max') on what appears to have been a blind date at a screening of Roman Polanski's Tess at the Noverre cinema in Norwich in 1981. She had an interest in German language and literature and they began a relationship, at a time when Max was beginning to develop his career as a writer. Fortunately she kept a detailed diary, which forms the basis of the memoir. It's a beautifully written account - very moving and candid and thoughtful in its reflections on love and affection, loss and exile. Very Sebaldian, you might say, and essential reading for admirers of his writing. I was especially pleased to see many examples of Sebald's German poetry (with English translations, in this case by Iain Galbraith):

Schwer zu verstehen                        
ist nämlich die Landschaft             
wenn du im D-Zug von dahin           
nach dorthin vorbeifährst,               
während sie stumm                          
dein Verschwinden betrachtet          

For how hard it is
to unterstand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.

Ariadne’s Thread: In Memory Of W. G. Sebald is the first book to be published by Propolis, a new imprint based in Norwich. The publisher is Henry Layte, co-founder of Galley Begger Press, the man who took a gamble on Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 

You can order Ariadne's Thread from Propolis here.

Poem taken from Über das Land and das Wasser - Ausgewählte Gedichte 1964-2001 (Munich, Carl Hanser Verlag, 2008). English translation by Iain Galbraith Across the Land and the Water (London, Hamish Hamilton, 2011) © The Estate of W. G. Sebald


  1. A wonderful commentary, really looking forward to reading the book - thank you so much, Mr Collard! May I nevertheless offer a small correction regarding the German version of the poem: In the second line, instead of "post nämlich..." it ought to read "ist nämlich..." Couldn't help noticing that, hope you don't mind...

  2. Corrected. Thank you! A junior moment . . .