Tag Archives: W.G. Sebald

Creative Nonfiction

16 Apr
Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer, Brixton, London, 1988


I find a great Paris Review interview in ‘The Art of Nonfiction’ series from  a couple of years ago with Geoff Dyer, who begins by disagreeing with the parameters of his own interview, interrupting the interviewer as follows:


The first thing I’d like—


Excuse me for interrupting, but—at the risk of sounding like some war criminal in the Hague who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court in which he’s being tried—I have to object to the parameters of this interview.


On what grounds?


It’s titled “The Art of Nonfiction.” Now I could whine, “What about the fiction?” but that would be to accept a distinction that’s not sustainable. Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.


You don’t distinguish between them at all?


I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all of them as, um, what’s the word? Ah, yes, books. I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others, I would expect they’re pretty much the same.

Later in the interview, Dyer makes mention of David Hare’s remark that the two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’, and then goes on to add that ‘creative nonfiction’ might well have taken over as the most odious of collocations. Since I teach a module entitled precisely ‘creative nonfiction’ at the university where I work, I am going to have to think out a pretty clear disclaimer at the start of each semester. Well, the kind of disclaimer I make already, to be fair.

Essentially we are talking about a distinction with which readers of this blog will be familiar, if not, I hope, entirely bored. ‘Creative nonfiction’ is creative by virtue (I guess) of having been written, and ‘nonfiction’, I suppose, by virtue of it not being ’fiction’, or ‘made up’. (I note also that the term itself used to be hyphenated (non-fiction), making it a challenge to, or questioning of, the thing it was not, but now that the hyphen has gone, the beast has been assimilated as a single concept, wearing its non-ness with pride, as it were). So Nonfiction is defined by what it is not. It is not ‘made up stuff’, but stuff that really happened. However, following the criteria established by Borges, and discussed by Blanco here, that ‘everything is fiction’ then how can such a genre as ‘nonfiction’, let alone ‘creative nonfiction’ occur? Why do we need these ridiculous denominations? Why can we not, as Dyer suggests, just have ‘books’?

In his account of acting as W.G. Sebald’s publisher, Christopher MacLehose describes Sebald’s resistance to The Rings of Saturn as being categorised within any literary genre at all: memoir, history, fiction, holocaust studies, travel writing etc: he wanted ‘all of them’, claims MacLehose – and yet, one suspects, at the same time, he wanted none of them. MacLehose says that the craving for categorisation makes booksellers happy, so that they can put the shelving in order, tell staff what to put where: well that seems fair, you have to have some criteria, cookery books for example, gardening etc, but then again . . . are cookery and gardening books not also examples of ‘creative nonfiction’? And what about ‘Poetry’?

To be continued, ad infinitum . . .

Anselm Kiefer at the Pompidou

17 Mar

Kiefer Margarethe 2

A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:

‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’

His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.

I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.

I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’

According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references  . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).

Funeral Hall

Wilhelm Kreis, Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier  (Berlin, 1939)

‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène  . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’

Kiefer Sulemith 2

Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.


Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall

drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the

sky it is

ample to lie there


He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at


drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents


He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany

we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany


your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.


Translated by Christopher Middleton

Dubious categories

19 Jan

In Agota Kristof’s wonderful novel The Third Lie, Claus – or is it Lucas, his anagrammatic twin (the two central characters are indissoluble, or aspects of one and the same person) – spends his nights writing in a notebook. One day, his landlady asks:

“What I want to know is whether you write things that are true or things that are made up.”

I answer that I try to write true stories but at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t – I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

After writing a book of creative nonfiction (I love the way a genre is defined by what it is not – as though ‘fiction’ were somehow the default mode of prose writing), one rather smug person of my acquaintance informed me that he had enjoyed the memoir, but had not been so taken by the fictional parts.

Were there fictional parts? I asked. Oh yes, this keen critic observed, of course there were.

Needless to say, this got me wondering. I could have retorted by quoting Joan Didion, who once wrote:

“Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

Or I might have cited Gabriel García Márquez:

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The point is, there is a fine distinction between the literalism of ‘what really happened’ – which is in any case not provable – and the way in which I happen to remember, conjecture and write. Does it simply boil down to a distinction between ‘true things’ and ‘things that are made up’? That seems horribly reductive. What about all the stuff that happens in between?

In the documentary film Patience, Christopher MacLehose tells an anecdote about the publication of Max Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sebald was required to state what category of work the book should be shelved under – a standard requirement made by booksellers, and he was dismayed that he had to choose a category: did he want the book filed under biography, history, apocalypse studies, memoir, travel or fiction? – All of them, he said, all of them.






Adam Thorpe and WG Sebald on Flaubert, time and sand

10 Feb


To a talk by Adam Thorpe, titled My nights with Emma B, in which the impressive Mr Thorpe, whose manner I found both stimulating and refreshingly self-effacing, reported back on his three years spent in the throes of translator-sickness, that peculiar ailment that has one hooked up, at times almost against one’s will, to some other writer’s creative process. During that time the translator must enter and inhabit the work more thoroughly than any other reader, if they are to produce work that is both reflective of the original, as well as contextually informed and sensitive to the needs of the present. After a stirring introduction by my friend Alexis Nuselovici, who threw down the challenge that “untranslatability was the stuff that Madame Bovary was made of,” Mr Thorpe kept me thoroughly engaged for an hour, something of a miracle considering how difficult it has been to concentrate on anything for more than ten minutes at a time over the past year. He stressed the key aspects of a successful translation: accuracy (i.e. matching the source text), style and music. I particularly liked his emphasis on the notion of rhythm, while at the same time explaining that rhythm is “the most appallingly difficult aspect of translation.” Thorpe is primarily a poet, and he understands better than most that rhythm is the single most essential feature of the creative process, something which Flaubert knew very well.

Thorpe's Madame BovaryAs for the Death of the Author – or his Absence, Thorpe was unforgiving towards the notion that Flaubert, as a novelist, was in any way “absent from the work.” “Nonsense,” he said. “I could smell him in every word. The text is saturated with him. He was a bluff, gruff companion.”

I am reminded of something, dimly, and reach for my copy of WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, where we learn of Flaubert’s “fear of the false which . . . sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or even months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways . . . He was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely  in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable.” He believed that the relentless spread of stupidity in the world had invaded his own head, and the resulting sensation was one of sinking into sand.  According to Sebald’s friend Janine Dakyns (from whom the idea emerges), sand possessed enormous significance in all of Flaubert’s work. “Sand conquered all. Time and again, Janine said, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert’s dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gallery, a suburb of Rouen, or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown . . . Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara.” The Blakean synecdoche of this image sets the heart racing. It gives a glimmer of the kind of inclusive, detailed understanding of the universe that so fascinated and appalled Flaubert.






Never any end to Paris

1 Nov
Enrique Vila-Matas.

Enrique Vila-Matas

If today, at this moment, I had to answer that impossible question as to who is my favourite living novelist, I would plump for Enrique Vila-Matas.

Extraordinary as it might seem to his many readers worldwide, he is practically unknown in the UK, another startling blemish on the blinkered, xenophobic, utterly predictable tastes of the British publishing industry, for which anything that deviates from a well-worn mainstream formula is treated as toxic.  The only two of Vila-Matas’ twenty-eight books to appear in English up till now have been Bartleby & Co (2004) and Montano (2007). In fact the book I wish to discuss here is not yet available in the UK: I have been reading the American New Directions edition, published in September.

Formally, the closest that most British readers will have come to Vila-Matas, might be W.G. Sebald, if only in the sense that Sebald was also the author of fictions presented as documentaries, or documentaries presented as fictions. But Vila-Matas actually makes me laugh, which counts for more than the sardonic smiles evinced by Sebald. And he shares a great deal too with Roberto Bolaño, with whom he became close friends in the last few years before the Chilean’s death in 2003. It is rumoured that Vila-Matas had more than just a hand in the final version of ‘The Part about Archimboldi’, the last (and best) section of 2666, Bolaño’s posthumous masterpiece.

Born in Barcelona in 1948 (and not 1931 as the back cover of this book informs us), Vila-Matas is, like Eduardo Mendoza, a Catalan who has chosen to write in Castilian. He grew up during the Franco dictatorship, and while still at law school, escaped to Paris to try and make his way as a writer, lodging, while he was there, in the garret of the house belonging to Marguerite Duras. And this is the topic of his new book, Never any end to Paris, its awkward title manifestly an acknowledgment of Hemingway’s memoir, A moveable feast. But whereas Hemingway claimed of his Paris years in the 1920s that he was ‘poor but happy’, Vila-Matas’ experience fifty years on was, he claims, both ‘very poor and very unhappy’. But he exaggerates, of course, and at least comes out of it with a wonderful book, first published in Spanish in 2003.

The story begins with Vila-Matas entering the annual Key West Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, and being disqualified outright for an “absolute lack of physical resemblance to Hemingway”. Having set up his initial trope, the author leads us back in time to 1974, when he was living in Paris, intent on following Hemingway’s lead, researching and writing his first novel in his cold chambre, drinking the nights away with other young artists and poets. (Strangely enough, young Blanco stayed in Paris in the summer of 1974, just before his eighteenth birthday, on his first Big Adventure. Who knows, we might have met).

Later (again like Blanco) the young Vila-Matas is seduced by the teachings of situationism, dressing in black from head to foot, “converted” as he puts it “into the prototype of the secretly revolutionary, poetic intellectual. But in fact, being a situationist without having read a single line of Guy Debord, I was on the most radical extreme left, but only through hearsay. And . . . I didn’t practise, I devoted myself to feeling extremely left-wing.”

He is disheartened by how many of his fellow Spanish expatriates and exiles are ground down by heroin or cheap Spanish wine, and struggles to find the right role models for his own literary apprenticeship. Among them, needless to say, is his landlady, Marguerite Duras, who scares the living daylights out of the young Vila-Matas with her ‘superior French’ (he can’t understand a word she says to begin with), delivering him a sheet of notepaper with a list of thirteen points on how to write a novel (which he helpfully includes).

The aspiring writer attends parties, meets Roland Barthes, tries to hit on a young Isabelle Adjani (who spurns him icily), makes a fool of himself as a matter of course, takes acid at the top of the Eiffel Tower and is convinced by his demonic girlfriend, Kiki, that if he jumps he will probably land safely, ‘but it won’t be in Paris’.

At the party for the screening of Duras’ film, India Song, he tells how Alain Robbe-Grillet approached Duras to tell her that, as with all her films, he had enjoyed this one very much, to which she replies, without drawing breath, that “she was very sorry she couldn’t say the same about his films.” Vila-Matas (who was clearly impressed) comments: “I had never in my life heard anyone speak with such frankness, and perhaps for this reason the words etched themselves deep in my memory. What’s more, I have imitated this kind of frankness on a few occasions in my life, always with bad results . . .”

An often hilarious recital of his serial miseries, this gratifyingly unflattering self-portrait leads the reader through the ‘three lectures’ of which the book is composed (although we never learn where one lecture ends and another begins, nor indeed if we or some invisible others constitute the audience, nor where the ‘lectures’ are taking place). Indeed, Vila-Matas (or his narrator) at one point early in the narrative asks of himself (or us) ‘Am I a lecture, or a novel?’ (we do not receive a reply).

Vila-Matas’ narratives often proceed in just such an uncertain way, finding by going, as it were, where they have to go. Later in the story he writes: “When people ask me if I have my texts organized in my head before I write them or if they develop as they go, surprising even me, I always reply that infinite surprises occur in the writing. And that it’s lucky it’s like that, because surprise, the sudden change of direction, the phrase that appears at a precise moment without one knowing where it comes from, are the unexpected dividends, the fantastic little push that keeps the writer on his toes.”

On the same theme, in a recent interview, when asked how much in his texts is fiction, how much autobiography, Vila-Matas replied (with quite a dollop of irony): “The broad passageway that joins fiction and reality is cool and well-ventilated, and the air within blows about with the same natural ease with which I mix biography and invention.”

There is much to commend this book, its leaps and its insights, its portrait of the excruciating self-consciousness of the emerging writer, as well as some profound moments, and a sense of true respect for his landlady, the phenomenal Marguerite Duras. Here is his accolade to her, which, I feel, might, with time, be applied to him:

“I remember she embodied all the monstrous contradictions to be found in human beings, all those doubts, that fragility and helplessness, fierce individuality, and a search for shared grief, in short, all the great anguish we’re capable of when faced with the reality of the world, that desolation the least exemplary writers have in them, the least academic and edifying ones, those who aren’t concerned with projecting a right and proper image of themselves, the only ones from whom we learn nothing, but also those who have the rare courage to literally expose themselves in their writing – where they speak their minds – and whom I admire deeply because only they lay it on the line, only they seem to me to be true writers.”