Begin with The Emigrants

In thrall as ever to Londonist’s recommendations, I saw last week that there was an event considering W. G. Sebald as part of the UCL Festival of the Arts. I had been annoyed to miss the film “Patience (After Sebald)” a while ago and had bought a book in compensation, as yet uncompleted. He was referred to so often, even in the meta-literary circles to which I’m haphazardly exposed, that I’d added him to my List.

As ever, travelling forms a part of my story. I scorned the so-called Journey Planner, thinking I knew better. Rather more important would have been the awareness needed to leave in time. Late equals flustered, which isn’t the correct state of mind for literature. Wet and flustered, all the various commuting optimisations ignored in my haste. The event was in one of the Engineering buildings, oddly. (There is a unique judgement on other institutions’ facilities that comes from people who’ve spent most of their lives in the profoundly infantilising higher education system.) The man at the entrance was helpful, suggesting I follow the signs, which (unusually) were plentiful and unambiguously informative. Someone else was late too; he was receiving his ticket and asking what would have been my question, about the geometry of the room, of the organising lady. He waited a while and seemed relieved that I was going in late as well.

Taking my seat at the back, I noticed the sound bleeding through from the room next door, which was from a showing of the martial arts film The Sword Identity. This audio interruption would wax and wane throughout.  An odd counterpoint. Dr Mererid Puw Davies, the first speaker, was arguing that it is a mistake to regard Sebald as ahistorical. She pointed out his own references in interviews to the overpowering contexts of post-war Germany and that he was strongly affected by the 1968 student protests, even if it took a long time for the manifestation of indirect responses in his fiction. At this point it already felt a little odd to be (probably) the only person in the room not to have read any of his work. A little like the imposterous feeling I had during my inadvertent musical episode a couple of months ago. I did welcome though the opportunity to pick up some guiding thoughts, to be used when I am able to rectify this failure.

The second speaker, Dr Stephanie Bird, looked at two strands of the comic – social satire and social derision, and pleasure in the comic recreation of events. She reinforced her predecessor’s conclusion that a lot of Sebald’s themes and obsessions remain in tension. Her quotations included a hilarious demolition of a Berni Inn-type experience. (Someone pointed out afterwards that loud sounds of laughter had come from the film next door when the comic theme was introduced.) The post-talks discussion covered the visual qualities of Sebald’s writing (particularly bearing in mind his inclusion of photos in the text), the proposition that he tried to avoid hysteria at all costs, in favour of melancholy, and the idea that his political engagement emerged primarily through his choice of subject. One of the audience suggested that Knut Hamsun was quite similar to Sebald and both the speakers admitted they hadn’t read him, but welcomed the recommendation. I’ve only sketched over what was discussed, because I think my notes are best left as just that. I was, however,informed and enthused, which seems to me the perfect result for this sort of event.

There was a gathering in the corridor afterwards, with drinks and “nibbles”. A PhD student was introduced to another member of UCL staff, admitting that he’d had Sebald on his own List, and hadn’t read him either, so maybe I wasn’t such an outlier. After some discussions to which I by definition couldn’t contribute, I confessed to one of the speakers that I hadn’t read any. She seemed impressed that I’d come along anyway.  I asked whether she would recommend a particular order in which to read his output, thinking it was perhaps a gauche question that would be dismissed. In fact, she did strongly suggest starting with The Emigrants, which consists of four stories, and is more approachable than the others. She and her colleague left at the same time and I followed them, reasoning that if there were any difficulties in exiting, at least they would have staff cards. She asked whether I was from UCL.  When I named my workplace she said “Ah, you’re starved of culture at a science-based university”…

After some confusion we made it through the barriers (the green arrow not quite working as a signifier) and outside her colleague took up the question of my reading order. They both agreed on the first one, disagreeing completely on what should follow. A member of the audience joined in with some heterodox ordering of his own. I thanked them for their talks and encouraged them to put on such events again.

A copy of The Emigrants is now reserved for me at my local library.


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