W. G. Sebald

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The Independent Online

To anyone who attended the sell-out talk given by W.G. Sebald on 24 September at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London – his last public event in England – the rarity of this personal appearance by the writer seemed an extension of his vague aura of reclusion from the modern world, writes Philip Hoare. But as Professor Michael Robinson notes in his obituary [17 December], Max Sebald was in fact an empathetic figure of extraordinary generosity.

Having published a somewhat obscure book on a military hospital earlier this year, I received a letter, out of the blue, in Sebald's elegant script (I later learnt that his dislike of computers ensured that all his work was done in longhand). In this, and subsequent letters, he expressed the kind of encouragement and complicity underlined when we met that September evening, as I followed him to his reception – he the last to arrive at his own party, surreptitiously drawing on a cigarette. Tall, precise, neat, he evinced professorial gravitas – yet when I had introduced myself, he greeted me with a tangible warmth, and promptly asked if I minded him stealing bits from my book.

That evening, the capacity audience had listened to Sebald read, in mellifluous German, from his new novel, Austerlitz. He had then spoken movingly of his childhood: of his father, an army officer, returning from a war of which the young Max knew little until he came to England nearly 20 years later; of growing up unsure of his class, reared by his grandparents in a remote Bavarian village, removed from the world he would only later come to face. His work would embody these questions of identity and belonging, of memory and loss. He spoke of the burden of recent German history, and how he found it impossible to write about the Holocaust in any manner other than tangentially. His reticence, and his romanticism, seems to me the key to his highly visual writing, which has more in common with that of artists – Casper David Friedrich via Joseph Beuys – than any contemporary author.

Sebald wrote only in German – despite having spent more than half his life in England, he claimed not to trust himself to translate his own work, concerned that he might be tempted to change the text in the process – and has been mentioned as contender for the Nobel prize for literature. To some it may have seemed that Sebald's was a melancholic, even solipsistic retreat; in fact, it was an autopsy of the most unremitting kind. A phrase from his last letter stays with me: "It is the most hardheaded ones among us who appear to have an inkling of metaphysics."

I just wish he'd had time to take whatever he wanted from my book; we will spend years stealing from his.