Jean Mcneil

Ghost writer

The mystique lives on, but two shows of his photographs attempt to take us behind the curtain of his writing process

East Anglia, the rump of the British Isles, has inspired a disproportionate number of writers: Robert Macfarlane, Daisy Johnson, Mark Cocker, Sarah Perry, to name but a few. Towering over them all is the ghost of a soft-spoken man with a shoe-brush moustache and sardonic eyes. Eighteen years after his death, W.G. Sebald’s reputation only grows. Few writers have inspired the commemoration industry Sebald has given life to while still so recently claimed by the past tense.

Before he was killed in a car accident in 2001 at the age of 57, Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald enjoyed several years of fame as a writer of what he called ‘prose fiction’ — books that drew on fiction, memoir, travelogue and essay to create hybrid works unified as much by tone (sepulchral, anxious) as form. For 31 years Sebald taught European literature at the University of East Anglia, where I also teach. His untimely death haunts us still. He is present in the concrete corridors of the building where I write this now: the Teaching Wall (as it is known locally), the monumental concrete structure designed by Denys Lasdun that zigzags through the ex-pasture on which UEA’s campus was plonked in the early 1960s.

I did not know Sebald personally, although for a while I inhabited his former office in the Wall, and the room where the PhD programme I direct holds its classes is the Max Sebald Room. Here, two portraits stare down at us amid the drapery cast by tall Scots pines outside the window: one is a rendition of Max, his intense stare intact against a verdigris background, the other is Gisèle Freund’s famous photograph of Walter Benjamin — an apt duo of patron saints. Like Benjamin, Sebald has become something of a commuting spirit for the mash-up of creative-critical writing that flourishes in universities, as well as a gold standard for analysing the relationship between images and text.

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