This conversation was part of a series called The Writer, The Work, hosted by the PEN American Center. It took place in New York City on July 10, 1997, when the only book of W. G. Sebald’s in English was The Emigrants.
Walter Benjamin said that all great works found a new genre or dissolve an old one. The Emigrants is such a book.
It tells the story of four men, all swept by history and internally menaced. The first, Dr. Henry Selwyn, is discovered by Sebald in 1970 in a country house near Norwich, in England. He seems to be an aristocratic hermit. He has abandoned his large house and lives primarily in a stone folly, a turret he has built in his garden. His relations with plants and animals is stronger than his relations with humans. Slowly his story emerges. He left Lithuania in 1899 and his family disembarked in London, thinking it was New York. Selwyn changed his name, married, went to Cambridge, travelled, and became a rural doctor. Dr. Selwyn, sometime after he met and told Sebald his history, shot himself dead.
The second story concerns Paul Bereyter, who taught Sebald when the author was a child. In 1984 Sebald hears that Bereyter committed suicide by lying on the local railroad tracks, and he begins to ask around about the source of his misery. He discovers that Paul Bereyter was one-quarter Jewish, that he was consequently banned from teaching—in the mid-thirties, at a time when he was just beginning—that he served in the German army during the Second World War, and that he resumed teaching. But like all of Sebald’s subjects except his last, Paul Bereyter’s soul began to fall victim to a wasting disease, an inner dwindling. He retired from teaching. His eyesight failed and he killed himself.
The third story is about Sebald’s great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, who came to America in the 1920s, worked as a servant for a family, the Solomons, on Long Island, but ended up in a mental asylum in Ithaca, where he died.
The fourth story is about a painter named Max Ferber, whom Sebald met in Manchester.
Much has been said, rightly, about the extraordinary originality of the book. We may find frail precursors, possibly in Stendhal’s autobiography, The Life of Henry Brulard, an unstable book which is adorned—as The Emigrants is adorned with photographs—with Stendhal’s own unreliable drawings. We may find precursors in the nineteenth-century German tradition of “tales,” of narrators meeting people who then recount their life histories. One thinks particularly of the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, whom Sebald has written about. In a more contemporary vein, Nabokov has clearly influenced Sebald. Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s autobiography, has photographs in it, though they are captioned and reliable. But his first novel written in English, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, is a fictionalized account, made to look real, of the life of a writer. This dilemma, the dilemma of fictionality at its most acute, is one of Sebald’s great themes.
The fastidiousness of this book is remarkable, and yet it is not a dead fastidiousness. All those who read it note the patterning of certain motifs, such as gardens and gardening, or the appearance of Nabokov, direct or indirect, in each tale. The book is a great one because it forces the largest abstract questions on us, while never neglecting our hunger for the ordinary. It is full of this extraordinary, careful detail, which is part of what makes it also funny. Few people have mentioned its comedy, but surely the book does have a lugubrious comedy, and that slight tincture of vulgarity, of the sensational, which great books need if they are not to be ethereal.
One thinks, for instance, of Dr. Selwyn inviting people to dinner and giving them only seasonal vegetables from his own garden, or of Elaine, his servant, bringing food in on a portable hot-plate, which Sebald describes as “some kind of patented design dating from the thirties.” Note the word “patented.” A less careful writer would have omitted that word, but that word, with its ridiculous presumptions, is what makes the sentence funny. Or Mrs. Irlam, in the last story, with her English contraption, The Teas-maid, which makes tea for you in the mornings, and a photograph of which Sebald diligently reproduces as if it were an ethnographical specimen.
The photographs—some of which may not refer to the subjects of Sebald’s tales—tease us as Goethe meant to tease us when he said this to Eckermann, in 1827: “What else is a novel but an unheard-of event which has actually happened?” The book’s constant sense of bringing into permanent visibility something which has happened and which has disappeared, its profound meditation on the fictionality of memory and its deep comedy, all unite in a passage near the beginning of the story about Ambros Adelwarth. Sebald goes to visit his uncle Kasimir, on the Jersey beach, to find out about his great-uncle. His uncle looks at the ocean: “I often come out here,” said Uncle Kasimir, “it makes me feel that I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where.” Then he took a camera out of his large-check jacket, and took this picture, a print of which he sent me two years later, probably when he had finally shot the whole film, together with his gold pocket watch.”
The gentle irony is so subtle. The photo of Sebald by Uncle Kasimir is reproduced, but is too dark to decipher. You look at it and you try to see Sebald in it and you cannot. It may or may not be the author. It hardly matters. The suggestion is ripe enough: the paragraph has the determination of a Renaissance still life. The sense of time slowed and mastered and then lost is given in the mention of the pocket watch. That detail of the film returned two years later, “probably when he had shot the whole film,” tells us about a life, without a strong sense of self-visibility: Uncle Kasimir’s is not a life with much need of photographs. Neither does Sebald have much sense of self-visibility. Yet the mastery of his book is that he palpates so much into visibility, so delicately and so beautifully.
The Emigrants was Sebald’s first book to be published in English; it was swiftly followed by three further works, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz. Tutored by The Emigrants, we began to learn how to read this strange writer, to find amidst the sublimity, melancholy, and abysmal autumn of his writing, more vulgar arts, such as comedy, slyness, even a measure of gothic suspense. Thomas Bernhard was revealed as an influence, along with Beckett. In particular, The Rings of Saturn, which folded a great deal of arcane information and storytelling into a long hike through Norfolk and Suffolk, revealed the “English” side of Sebald (who lived in Norwich for thirty years): a writer alive to the grey frustrations and daily eccentricities of English life. One had a sense of a writer settling—insofar as Sebald could settle anywhere—into his borrowed landscape. It was enormously exciting to ponder his next experiments; no contemporary writer was less predictable.
But like Italo Svevo, who had a few years of international fame before dying after a car accident, Sebald was shortly silenced. He died in a car accident at the end of last year, at the age of fifty-eight. Along with all the more personal and selfish responses to his death, I recall saying to myself, as I looked at the bald headline of The New York Times (“German novelist dies”): “But he had only just got started!” As readers, we were just getting used to his magical presence. And as English readers, we were just getting used to the idea of new books by Sebald, of books as yet unwritten. And I recalled, of course, my only meeting with him: the evening on which I conducted this interview, followed by dinner, in New York. Like his writing, Sebald was calm, surreptitiously funny, erudite, and oddly pure. He was easy to warm to: handsome, fair, high-coloured (his cheeks brushed with a down of tiny blood vessels), and grief-eyed. Above all, one was struck by the eyes, which slanted downwards, and quickly became melancholy. His grey moustache acted, visually, as a kind of bourgeois correction to aesthetic preciousness; it gave him the aspect of a burgher, a solid, dependable witness. Only his heavy smoking suggested the immense nervous energy that shapes his works.
I think he enjoyed playing the melancholic German, and then surprising expectations by being funny and easy. He said that one of the elements of English life he most liked was English humor. “What’s German humor like?” I asked him. “Oh, it is absolutely dreadful,” he said. “Have you seen any German comedy shows on television?” I had not. “They are simply indescribable,” he said, stretching the word in his long, lugubrious accent. “Simply indescribable.” And then our host asked him if, given his new success, he might be lured from his old vicarage in Norwich to come to America. Perhaps he could teach at Columbia for a year, or take one of the generous fellowships at the New York Public Library. America lay at his feet. America, our host seemed to suggest, is success’s real address. England . . . well, England is what everyone knows it to be—what Larkin called fulfillment’s desolate attic. Sebald looked at our host, seemed to consider the idea for a minute, and then said quietly and firmly: “Oh no, I don’t think so.”
Wood: Can I start by asking you about this question of precursors? The book’s originality makes the business of searching for tracks unusually pointless and difficult. But I did want to ask you how the form, particularly with the photographs and this question of the fictional and the factual, came about.
Sebald: The inclusion of pictures in the text had to do with the process of writing, which began to develop quite late in my career. As you may know, I was just an ordinary academic until not all that long ago. I gradually drifted into creative writing—as one generally calls it—in my mid-forties, out of a sense of frustration with my academic profession, I imagine, and simply because I wanted to find an escape route out of it, something I could do in the potting shed, that no one would know about.
The first prose work that I did is a text, also composed of four discrete pieces, called Vertigo, but could also mean legerdemain. It has in it a chapter—I think it’s the first, if I remember correctly—precisely about Stendhal, and includes some of those drawings from La Vie d’Henri Brulard that you have mentioned. The process of writing, as I drifted into it, was in many instances occasioned by pictures that happened to come my way, that I stared at for long periods of time and that seemed to contain some enigmatic elements that I wanted to tease out. So they did form the instigation for trying to write this kind of thing. Because of that, they have kept their place. It eventually became some sort of habit, of including these pictures. I think they do tell their own story within the prose narrative and do establish a second level of discourse that is mute. It would be an ambition of mine to produce the kind of prose which has a degree of mutedness about it. The photographs do, in a sense, help you along this route.
Wood: A banal but unavoidable question is—to get it out of the way—to ask you roughly what proportion of those photographs refer to their subjects.
Sebald: This question is one that I am asked quite frequently. A very large percentage of those photographs are what you would describe as authentic, i.e., they really did come out of the photo albums of the people described in those texts and are a direct testimony of the fact that these people did exist in that particular shape and form. A small number—I imagine it must be in the region of ten percent—are pictures, photographs, postcards, travel documents, that kind of thing, which I had used from other sources. They are, I think, to a very large extent documentary.
Wood: By way of concentrating on one story and giving a sense of how you discovered, manipulated, and crafted the material, perhaps I could ask you very loosely about the first story, Dr. Henry Selwyn—how that came to you, how you elicited information, and then the process of shaping it.
Sebald: The Henry Selwyn story is the first one in the book and it’s the shortest one. That is an indication of the fact that it was very difficult for me, afterwards, after this man had taken his life, to go back to the family and ask probing questions. It was also difficult because Henry Selwyn and his wife lived very largely separate lives. Hence it would have been extremely difficult to go back to her and sound her out about the motives that might have led her estranged husband to do what he did.
The information which is offered in the story is actually very sparse, in this particular case, and is no more than I actually obtained from him during the time when he was still alive. I would probably have been unable to decipher the truth behind his decision to take his life, if he had not, at a very late stage in that life, volunteered, as it were, in a very short conversation that we had after we moved out of his house, to tell me about his childhood in Lithuania and his emigration to England. It was only because I had this fragmentary piece of information that I could reconstruct very large gaps in between what presumably this particular trajectory was all about. But as the story is described, with all its gaps and elisions, it is very much like I experienced it.
Wood: In some senses the fragmentariness of the information is useful to you fictionally. One of the uncanninesses of the book is that, while at one level there are obvious reasons for this kind of despair and inner dwindling that I spoke about, at another there’s something mysterious about what exactly prompts this.
Sebald: The four people whose lives are described in those texts are people who escaped the direct impact of persecution, whom one would count amongst those whom Primo Levi called “I SALVATI” as opposed to “I SOMMERSI.” What particularly interested me, as I began to think about these lives, was the time delay between a vicariously experienced catastrophe and the point at which it overtook these people, very late in life, i.e., the phenomenon of old age, suicide, and the way in which these kinds of drastic decisions are triggered by things that lie way back in time. The mentality of people who are approaching old age—and I think this is something that most people do experience—the fact that the older you get the more the passage of time between your present age and your childhood or youth begins to shrink somehow. You see things that are very distant with extreme clarity, very highly exposed, whereas things that happened two or three months ago somehow vanish. It’s this re-creation of the past, in the minds of those people, that was something that interested me, beyond the immediate cause that led them to take their lives.
Wood: This re-creation, as your book constantly suggests, is the activity of memory but is also like the business of making fiction. It’s imaginative, it’s open to strange appropriations and errors and so on. This particular fictional form, even without the photographs, is likely to raise the question of what is imagined and what is recalled. For instance, when Paul Bereyter’s friend is describing the loss of Paul’s eyesight, you write, “he contemplated the mouse-grey world (his word) before him.” As you’re reading that you think, it seems fifty/fifty whether it is in fact his word or your word. I’m not interested in whose word it is, but something about this fictional form, the form of quasi-documentary, automatically raises the question, I think.
Sebald: I think any form of fiction does that to a certain extent. It leaves you always unclear as to how much was invented, how much refers in the text to real people, real incidents in time. The classic case of this I think are in the novels of Thomas Mann, which outraged all those who thought they had been portrayed in them, unkindly. To a certain extent I think this is always there.
But what I’m trying, fairly consciously beyond that, 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. 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.
Wood: Does this aversion have anything to do with contemporary notions that this sort of omniscience, a Jane Austenesque omniscience, is not possible, for whatever reason, in our secularized world? This is not, I suspect, a theoretical abstraction—it’s a real unpleasantness you feel about this kind of narration?
Sebald: It is an unpleasantness, and I suppose it’s a question of manners. If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows when trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that kind of context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.
What you say is quite correct, that it gives me an unpleasant feeling to read this kind of book and I’d much rather read autobiographical texts of a Chateaubriand or a Stendhal, that sort of thing. I much prefer La Vie d’Henri Brulard to La Chartreuse de Parme, for instance. I find there is a degree of realness in it with which I can calculate. Whereas with the novels, I find we are subjected to the rules and laws of fiction to a degree which I find tedious.
Wood: This is a question which your photographs force and exaggerate, because they ask us to reflect on what’s imagined and recalled. But I think also an extra pathos is that they refer not only to something that has happened and that is past, but that all photographs refer to what is just about to happen, after the frame ends. Therefore, they all gesture ahead in some way. Is there some connection between that and something inherent in nostalgia, which also looks both ways, backwards and forwards? For nostalgia is utopian, an escape as well as a sentence.
Sebald: 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.
Wood: I think also the peculiar poignancy of the photographs, as they are arranged in this book, is that documentation is such a fraught subject, as it relates to the Holocaust. There’s an extra pathos if these photographs are telling us that the German desire to silence and end witness has been beaten. On the one hand the book tells us that, and on the other, more complicatedly, it also tells us not to look in these photographs for the life, because it isn’t fully there; it’s opaque and mysterious.
Sebald: Yes, and there are one or two instances in the text which point to the unreliability precisely of these sources. There is in the final tale a photograph which depicts the burning of books on the residenzeplatz. One of the characters in the story says that this picture was a falsification, that the great pall of smoke that rises from the burning books was copied into the picture, subsequently, because they were unable to take a proper photograph in the evening, when this burning of books did occur. The Fascist newspaper journalists at that time chose a photograph which showed any old assembly on the residenzeplatz and copied that pall of smoke into it. So it seems like a document but in fact it’s a falsification. The character then says, this is how it began, with this kind of thing, and like this particular falsification, so everything was a falsification, from the very start. And that pulls the rug from under the narrator’s business altogether, so that as a reader you might well ask, What is he on about? Why is he trying to make us believe that these pictures are real? It is this kind of strategy, of making things seem uncertain in the mind of the reader, which the narrator pursues fairly deliberately.
Wood: Can I just ask you, as a step down from the more abstract questions, about the third story—great-uncle Adelwarth, and a bit along the lines of my question about Dr. Selwyn—to ask you how much of that story you already knew, how much you had to find out, and how much you had to invent?
Sebald: In one sense, this was the story that concerned me most immediately because it concerned my own family. As the opening of this particular story says, I came across this great-uncle of mine, when I was a small boy, only once, and he seemed to me even then—at any rate, in retrospect—as quite an extraordinary character who didn’t fit the family mode. Then, as one does as a child or as someone who grows up, one forgets about it altogether for years on end. It was about fifteen years ago, when I came to this city, first of all to give a paper at the Goethe Institute, I took the occasion to go out to New Jersey and visit my relatives, who lived there. I looked through—as is my habit!—through the old photograph albums that my aunt had. And there was this picture of this great-uncle of mine, in Arab costume—a photograph taken in Jerusalem in 1913. It was a photograph that I had never seen before and that somehow illuminated instantly, for me, who that man was and how he came to be like he was.
I did not know at that point about the way in which he had ended, but I knew that his psychological dispositions, from looking at that picture and from the predilections that he had, were such that his own family could not acknowledge them. I took it from there. This was the starting point for exploring this particular life further. I asked my aunt to tell me as much as she knew about this particular life, and I asked my uncle, and all that is recorded in this story. Then I also travelled to some of the places which figured in their accounts. So I did go to Deauville, for about a fortnight, and rummaged around there to see what I could find. I did not go to Jerusalem. The great-uncle and Cosmo Solomon, the young man who he looks after, travelled together in 1913 to Jerusalem, via Constantinople. If you go to present-day Jerusalem, I imagine you will find precious few traces of what Jerusalem looked like in 1913. If I had gone there in order to try and find location material, for that part of the story, I would have been led up the garden path. What I worked from in this particular case were old travelogues, going to Chateaubriand’s Itinéraire à Jerusalem, of which there are many quotes in this particular passage, to travelogues written by a German geologist, in the late nineteenth century, to material of that kind.
So the text is constituted from material which comes from diverse, discrepant sources which exist at various levels, i.e., historical material, material collected personally by the narrator, and stories told to the narrator by other people.
Wood: One of the things that must strike readers of this book in English is the exquisite care of the prose and of the translation. There is a tension, almost contradiction, between the elusiveness, mysteriousness, opacity of the material, and the forceful, almost fanatical extremism of the qualifying words, which reminded me of Thomas Bernhard—a kind of extremism of language going alongside this unlocatability. For instance, Paul’s whole manner at that time was “extraordinarily composed,” Uncle Adelwarth had the “greatest difficulty with everyday tasks,” Max Ferber remembers seeing ships in Manchester and remembers it as an “utterly incomprehensible spectacle.” The language is constantly enforcing a kind of extremism, and this goes alongside something unextreme. I wanted to ask you about that. And then a larger question, about how you worked with the translator.
Sebald: These qualifying words, that are introduced in almost every sentence, are certainly a tribute to Thomas Bernhard, who used what I would perhaps try to describe as periscopic writing. Everything that the narrator relates is mediated through sometimes one or two other stages, which makes for quite complicated syntactical labyrinthine structures and in one sense exonerates the narrator, because he never pretends that he knows more than is actually possible.
That extremism that you refer to is, I think, also present in Thomas Bernhard, to a much greater extent. He really indulges in hyperbole, all along. I have tried to preserve some of this, because Thomas Bernhard did mean a great deal to me, in more than one way. What that extremism to me seems to indicate is the things that do stick out in your mind, they’re always superlatives, they’re always exaggerations. This is what you don’t forget. 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.
Do you want me to say something about this translation business? Well, there are many reasons why German texts don’t really get noticed in the Anglo-Saxon world. There is a natural gradient out of English, which is such a dominant language, into all other minor languages. German certainly is rapidly beginning to acquire the status of a minor language, together with Italian and French. We know that the French are acutely worried about the dwindling of the presence of French on the world stage. There’s a natural gradient out of those languages. Whilst the English had a very highly developed translation culture, in the nineteenth century when people like Coleridge and so on were very closely liaised with the German culture, that has largely fallen by the wayside, for historical reasons not least. It was the preposterousness of the second empire, it was German Fascism that reinforced the insularity of the British. In the post-war years, if it hadn’t been for the émigrés, I think nothing would have got translated. All the books that did get translated into English—Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, the early Handke—were almost all translated by one man, by Ralph Mannheim.
Wood: On a different tack, I wanted to ask you—and again, unobtrusively—a little bit about your own relation to emigration and your home country.
Sebald: That is quite a difficult chapter, of course. I came to live in England by some kind of historical accident. I left Germany when I was twenty-one, for the simple reason that I found it was impossible, at Freiburg University, as it then was, in the early sixties, to pursue what I was interested in.
It is something that one doesn’t really understand very well now, but in the early 1960s the German departments in German universities were staffed, at the senior level at any rate, by people who had received their training in the 1930s, who had done their doctorates in the 1930s, who had very frequently not just toed the line but actively contributed, through their writing, to that culture of xenophobia which had developed from the early years of this century in that country. Of course, they had been reconstructed in the post-war years, but this past which was theirs was nevertheless present. To this day there come to light cases which are so bizarre that you can scarcely credit them. It was about a year or two ago—I don’t know whether it appeared in the press here—it became public that one of the more important professors at one of the universities had invented for himself a totally new biography in the immediate post-war years, had gone to the lengths of writing a second doctorate, so that he could prove that he was another person.
That I ended up in Manchester was again rather a fluke. I knew hardly any English at the time, and I had no idea what England was like. I didn’t know it was divided into a green and a black part, and I had absolutely no intimation what sort of a city Manchester might be.
I think my arrival in Manchester cast me into turmoil. It took me not a whole year but about three or four months until I had roughly found my bearings. As a very young man, Wittgenstein came to Manchester as an engineering student. This was something that I didn’t know when I came to Manchester, and that I only gradually found out about.
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. When I first read Elias Canetti’s autobiography, the first volume, which begins with this wonderful description of his transplantation from Bulgaria to Manchester, and I learned that he lived in the Palatine Road, where I had lived as well for some time, it meant something to me. I knew even then that it couldn’t possibly mean something in the real sense, but it still does somehow. And this is the case also with this Wittgenstein pattern, which is a very faint one in the book, with scarcely noticeable resonances. It was initially, I think, the fact that he had been in Manchester, where I was at roughly the same age. That also, when I thought back to that other life, of my primary school teacher, Paul Bereyter, it seemed to me uncannily similar to the time which Wittgenstein, in his misguided idealism, spent as a primary school teacher in this beastly village in upper Austria. There’s a quite extraordinary tale, where he attempted to live the life of a saint, but at the same time constantly lost his temper with these stupid peasant children, and clipped them about the ears and so on. It was coincidences of this kind, so woven into the schoolteacher’s story … there is a faint, second Wittgenstein foil. I think many of us find it difficult to deal with this philosophical thought, because we’re all out of our depth, when we get into it, most of us are. But his private life or his person has something endlessly fascinating about it. It has so many things in it that one wants to know about that one cannot get away from it. I had the intention of doing a film script on Wittgenstein at one point, and did a rough draft for it, so it’s something that may yet happen. Still, in England, I’m not at home. I consider myself as a guest in that country. But what I appreciate very much is the almost total absence in that country of any authoritarian structures.
In England, people respect privacy, scrupulously, i.e., you can leave your house in the morning in your underwear and nobody will bat an eyelid! A friend of mine once broke an ankle on the beach. There was nobody else there except an elderly English couple sitting in a car, having a cup of tea. He was desperately trying to catch their attention so that they could call an ambulance. In order to do so, he tried to make his way towards them, very much like a soldier in the battlefield. They just looked at him quizzically and didn’t say anything. They just thought this is how he goes for his walk and that’s fine, it’s his business! Sometimes it can become a bit extreme, but generally it’s a very pleasant country to live in and I’m quite glad that I’m being tolerated there.
James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of a novel, The Book Against God (2003), and five books of criticism, most recently The Nearest Thing to Life (2015). In 2009, he won the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University.