That first sentence in the title is broken into the last three lines of a W. G. Sebald poem, one written in English, titled “I remember” (Across the Land and the Water, 139-41). “He” is a “lorry driver \ from Wolverhampton.” Sebald’s friends knew him as Max, not as W. G. I see more and more people calling him Max, actually. I always call him Sebald, even though I met him once.
This is not much of a story, but it is better than the story of my encounter with Saul Bellow.
It must have been in the spring of 1997. Sebald’s only book in English was The Emigrants; I owned the paperback, which must have just been published. The Emigrants was Sebald’s second novel of, at the time, three. It was clear enough that Sebald was up to something exciting, clear enough just from the first twenty pages of The Emigrants.
Sebald had been invited to the University of Chicago to do a reading. Probably, more, too – visiting classes or something – I don’t know. This was a reading not at a bookstore, but at the university itself, in a stuffy little neo-Gothic room. Sebald read, in a quiet, careful voice, with a heavy Bavarian accent, a passage from early in the “Paul Bereyter” chapter and then a long piece of “Ambros Adelwarth,” from when the character is in the Ithaca mental hospital:
The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know. He comes round here quite often.
I wonder if Sebald actually read this passage. It is what I remember him reading, what else can I say?
Over at the faculty club, at the reception, I harvested my crackers and cubes of cheese – a lush life we led there at the U. of C. – and studied for a moment the author, who was standing by himself in the middle of the room with his drink. I had not really planned to say anything to Sebald, but here we had a breach in hospitality. My theory is that Sebald’s host had been trapped in a corner by a crank. We had more than our share of cranks. So I went over and said hello.
The odd thing is that Sebald and I chatted for about twenty minutes by ourselves, right in the middle of the room, before anyone else joined us. That crank must have had some powerful Theories. My role was intellectual straight man, meaning I suggested a topic and Sebald spoke about it. The three topics were:
1. The Emigrants. In particular, we talked for a while about Sebald’s use of Vladimir Nabokov in the novel, his five appearances in the book. There he is up above with his butterfly net. The Nabokov intrusions are absolutely central to my understanding of the novel, but at this point I have no idea what I came up with on my own and what Sebald told me.
2. Campus novels. How did we move to this subject? I do not remember. What I do remember was Sebald laughing that he wished he had written a campus novel, because one of his friends had just published a bestseller in the genre. Der Campus by Dietrich Schwanitz, that’s the book, still available at Amazon.de. We (he) must have talked about David Lodge, too, but I have forgotten. I just remember Sebald laughing about his friend’s book, or perhaps just at the concept of having a bestseller.
3. German cinema. Shaky terrain for me. I was doing all right as long as we stuck with Expressionist films, but Sebald suddenly hopped to post-War East German cinema and I was about to be reduced to the role of vigorous nodder. But the subject – this seems strange, but it was not Sebald himself but the subject of German film – attracted a couple of grad students who were able to enthusiastically take up the conversation, so soon enough I thanked Sebald and slipped away. Where in the devil was his host? Who was supposed to take him to Giordano’s for
pizza casserole stuffed pizza? Maybe I should have stuck around a little longer.
Well, that’s the story of my half hour talking to Max Sebald, a treasured if imperfect memory. I do not have any more stories like it.