- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

W. G. Sebald on Memory, History, Truth, Writing, Reading, and More.

 

Happy birthday, W. G. Sebald! Here are some quotes from his writing:

 

“It would be an ambition of mine to produce the kind of prose which has a degree of mutedness about it.”

 

“I think any form of fiction…leaves you always unclear as to how much was invented, how much refers in the text to real people, real incidents in time.”

 

“I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.”

 

“‘It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane.'”

 

“‘How happily…have I sat over a book in the deepening twilight until I could no longer make out the words and my mind began to wander, and how secure have I felt seated at the desk in my house in the dark night, just watching the tip of my pencil in the lamplight following its shadow, as if of its own accord and with perfect fidelity, while that shadow moved regularly from left to right, line by line, over the ruled paper.'”

 

“We learn from history as much as a rabbit learns from an experiment that’s performed upon it.”

 

“[T]he representation of history…requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

 

“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!—so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.”

 

“[W]hat would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!—so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory.”

 

“Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.”

 

“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”

 

“Unfortunately I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never get used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.”

 

“I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”

 

“Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

 

“How I wished during those sleepless hours that I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.”

 

“I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one’s own wretched heart is still aglow.”

 

“How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.”

 

“Memory […] often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.”

 

“It does not seem to me […] that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.”

 

“For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.”

 

“The more images I gathered from the past, […] 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.”

 

“Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.”

 

“On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation.”

 

“The iniquity of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten.”

 

“Like our bodies and our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.”

 

“From the outset, my main concern was with the shape and the self-contained nature of discrete things, the curve of banisters on a staircase, the molding of a stone arch over a gateway, the tangled precision of the blades in a tussock of dried grass.”

 

“Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

 

“[W]e are able to maintain ourselves on this earth only by being harnessed to the machines we have invented.”

 

“You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylization. What I’m striving for is authenticity; none of it is real.”

 

“But what I’m trying…is to precisely point up that sense of uncertainty between fact and fiction, because I do think that we largely delude ourselves with the knowledge that we think we possess, that we make it up as we go along, that we make it fit our desires and anxieties and that we invent a straight line of a trail in order to calm ourselves down. So this whole process of narrating something which has a kind of reassuring quality to it is called into question. That uncertainty which the narrator has about his own trade is then, as I hope, imparted to the reader who will, or ought to, feel a similar sense of irritation about these matters.”

 

“Photographs are the epitome of memory or some form of reified memory. What has always struck me—not so much about the kinds of photographs that people take now in large quantities—about the older photographs, taken at the time when people had their picture taken perhaps two or three times in a lifetime, and they have something spectral about them. It seems as if the people who appear in these pictures are kind of fuzzy on the edges, very much like ghosts which you may encounter in any of those streets out there. It is that enigmatic quality which attracts me to these pictures. It’s less the sense of nostalgia but that there is something utterly mysterious in old photographs, that they are almost designed to be lost, they’re in an album which vanishes in an attic or in a box, and if they come to light they do accidentally, you stumble upon them. The way in which these stray pictures cross your paths, it has something at once totally coincidental and fateful about it. Then of course you begin to puzzle over them, and it’s from that that much of the desire to write about them comes.”

 

“It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.”

 

“You know how it is, when you consider your own life, and you realize fortuitously somehow that your passage through this world crossed somebody else’s path. It seems to give your own life added value or significance, for some curious reason.”

 

“The telling of a tale is an exaggeration in itself. We all know that. When we tell our stories at dinner parties, and your wife can’t bear to listen to that story any more, because every time you tell it it becomes more extreme! It becomes more grotesque and more bizarre and funnier, or more boring as the case may be. But it is inherent, I think, in the business of storytelling—that drive towards the extreme. That invariably begs the question of what actually is the truth, because last time you told the story it wasn’t like that, it was much less extreme, much less funny. If you then get a good audience reception, with a story that is untrue, and there happens to be a witness present who knows it’s untrue, that puts you into a position of extreme discomfort. All of a sudden you are no longer a storyteller but you’re an impostor.

It’s all that sort of thing which is at the heart of fiction writing, quite generally. That is certainly there. You try to atone for that frivolity in other ways, i.e., by trying to be as faithful as you possibly can in all areas where meticulousness is possible. That tends to be very largely about objects rather than people. You never really know what these people felt but you can just possibly imagine what the mulberry tree might have meant to them, or a certain arrangement of another kind or a certain intérieur. It’s at that level that you try to make up for your lapses, as it were, of reliability, that might otherwise be present.”

 

“Fiction should have a ghostlike presence in it somewhere, something omniscient. It makes it a different reality.”

 

“Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no point to the process.”

 

“By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.”

 

“Write about obscure things but don’t write obscurely.”

 

“There is a certain merit in leaving some parts of your writing obscure.”

 

“The present tense lends itself to comedy. The past is foregone and naturally melancholic.”

 

“There is a species of narrator, the chronicler; he’s dispassionate, he’s seen it all.”

 

“You need to set things very thoroughly in time and place unless you have good reasons [not to]. Young authors are often too worried about getting things moving on the rails, and not worried enough about what’s on either side of the tracks.”

 

“A sense of place distinguishes a piece of writing. It may be a distillation of different places. There must be a very good reason for not describing place.”

 

“The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet…all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things…but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the shorthand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are a reflection of eternity.”

 

“Meteorology is not superfluous to the story. Don’t have an aversion to noticing the weather.”

 

“It’s very difficult, not to say impossible, to get physical movement right when writing. The important thing is that it should work for the reader, even if it is not accurate. You can use ellipsis, abbreviate a sequence of actions; you needn’t laboriously describe each one.”

 

“You sometimes need to magnify something, describe it amply in a roundabout way. And in the process you discover something.”

 

“How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level? How do you stop appearing gratuitous? Horror must be absolved by the quality of the prose.”

 

“”Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.”

 

“Oddities are interesting.”

 

“Characters need details that will anchor themselves in your mind.”

 

“It’s always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust ‘facts’ in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.”

 

“Exaggeration is the stuff of comedy.”

 

“It’s good to have undeclared, unrecognized pathologies and mental illnesses in your stories. The countryside is full of undeclared pathologies. Unlike in the urban setting, there, mental affliction goes unrecognized.”

 

“Read books that have nothing to do with literature.”

 

“Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there.”

 

“There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.”

 

“None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.”

 

“I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.”

 

“Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.”

 

“Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.”

 

“It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.”

 

“A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.”

 

“If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.”

 

“Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.”

 

“Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic.'”

 

“It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.”

 

“Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.”

 

“Don’t revise too much or it turns into patchwork.”

 

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

 

“Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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