Will Self delivered a brilliant lecture on W.G. Sebald and the Holocaust in London last night. Self, who has written before about his affinity with the German writer who spent most of his life in East Anglia, suggested – if I understood him correctly – that Sebald was unique among non-Jewish writers in post-war Germany in facing the Nazi past and in particular mourning the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Speaking beneath a screen displaying Gerhard Richter’s haunting, blurry portrait Onkel Rudi (above), he said Sebald’s novels and essays constituted a “literature of atonement” that set him apart from other post-war German writers such as Günter Grass and Martin Walser (I was slightly surprised to hear a British writer who doesn’t read German even refer to Walser, a figure who is not much known here). Perhaps most interestingly, to me at least, he suggested that the reason for this was that Sebald moved to Britain in the sixties instead of remaining in Germany.
Sebald was born in Bavaria in May 1944. His father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht (hence, presumably, the image of Richter’s uncle Rudi in Wehrmacht uniform). However, as a member of the post-war generation that did not personally experience, or bear responsibility, for the war or the Holocaust, Sebald experienced, according to Self, shame but not guilt about the Nazi past. The Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt in 1963-5 was a formative experience for him as it was for many other young West Germans, including Walser. As Ben Hutchinson shows in his recently published study, Die dialektische Imagination, Sebald was also influenced by the Frankfurt School and in particular Adorno and Horkheimer. All of this makes Sebald very similar to the so-called 1968 generation about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. But Sebald left West Germany in 1966 – in other words before the student movement really got going – and came to Manchester to do an MA. With the exception of a short period in Switzerland, he spent the rest of his life in England.
Self suggested that it was this experience that made Sebald different from his West German contemporaries, particularly in his attitude to the Holocaust. Unlike many among his generation who became increasingly radical as the sixties went on (Self did not mention the Achtundsechziger but was clearly talking about them) Sebald did not “de-realize” the Third Reich, as Axel Schildt has put it. Self rightly suggested that many members of the post-war generation were either influenced by Marxist ideology and thus turned their attention away from Nazism itself and focused on the connection between capitalism or fascism, or began to look at the Nazi past in Oedipal terms and thus focused on the perpetrators – their parents – rather than the victims. By contrast, Sebald’s perception of the Holocaust was increasingly influenced by the real, live Jews he met in Manchester, some of whom formed the basis for characters in novels such as The Emigrants.
This seemed like a convincing argument to me and also helps to explain why, although he wrote in German, Sebald has until recently been much more popular in Britain than he was in Germany. However, when Self came to the crux of his argument about Sebald and the Holocaust, he seemed to contradict his thesis about how different Sebald was from other members of his generation. According to Self – and again, I am not entirely sure I fully understood him – Sebald saw the Holocaust not as a single, unique event but as part of a broader destructive tendency in human history. Self even suggested that for Sebald “the Holocaust is still happening”, whether in the form of other genocides elsewhere in the world or in the form of environmental destruction. This tendency to equate the Holocaust with other catastrophes elsewhere in the world, particularly those for which non-Germans or the whole of humanity was responsible, was exactly what the Achtundsechziger did. If Self is right, therefore, perhaps Sebald was not that different from other members of his generation after all.
UPDATE 1/2/10: Will Self’s lecture on Sebald was printed in the TLS.