I was fortunate enough to see W.G. Sebald in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall not long before he died. I’d recently read Austerlitz and was obsessed with it.
I remember thinking how profoundly weary Sebald seemed, and how fragile. Even when his ideas were robust, his voice was somewhat drained of animation. Perhaps he had an inkling that he was approaching the cusp of earthly life. The evening ended all too soon, but his image has stayed with me as, of course, did his words.
So my own encounter was of the briefest kind. David Lambert and Robert McGill were luckier – they were two of Sebald’s students at his final fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia in 2001. They combined to set down some of the things he told them in an article for Five Dials magazine.
As ‘W.G’ was known as ‘Max,’ Sebald’s aphorisms were labelled the ‘Maxims’. With kind permission, I am offering up a few here that seem particularly apt to the pursuit of historical fiction writing.
I read like a termite, so I usually give books away once I have finished them, Otherwise there would be no way of warehousing my habit. A few books, however, I keep out of sheer wonder. My examples below are taken from the beloved survivors of many culls of my own bookshelves.
‘Fiction should have a ghostlike presence in it somewhere, something omniscient. It makes it a different reality.’
This might be something as tangible as making your narrator Death himself, as Markus Zusak did in The Book Thief. I think it is also manifested in an almost spiritual sense of place in some novels. I also put it down to the great confidence-trick of writing: acting as if you know you have something to say to a reader now and a hundred years from now.
‘Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no point to the process.’
This is something that will console anyone who goes to Bologna or Frankfurt Book Fairs and thinks, ‘Why does anyone ever need to write another book?’
This Maxim applies very well The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book shows a world of thinking that went on before Darwin. The god-fear that stopped that thinking from emerging for years – this is the plot of this novel, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
‘By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.’
I find a lot of experimental fiction fails at this. How many short-listed novels have I closed after the first two chapters when I absolutely failed to care about the characters even when I was fully impressed by the writing? Too many, especially in recent years. I think that characters must be extra engaging to compensate for the cool cleverness of the avant garde. Examples of triumphant experimental fiction, in my opinion, include Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, a kind of once and future historical novel. Or Patrick DeWitt’s brilliant The Sisters Brothers.
'It’s hard to write something original about Napoleon, but one of his minor aides is another matter.'
This has been demonstrated time after time, from Virginia Woolf’s impersonation of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s dog Flush to Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, which literally takes a minor aide of Napoleon as its protagonist.
And you see it at work in all those books about the something’s wife or daughter. (I’d quite like to see this extended to, for example, Casanova’s Plumber, or Byron’s Lady Who Did). In Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller describes the great hero through the eyes of the lesser-known man who serves and adores him, Patroclus. The History Girls are great proponents of this sub-genre too: you can see wonderful renditions in Mary Hoffman’s David, an ‘unauthorised biography’ of Michaelangelo’s model and in Laurie Graham’s Gone with the Windsors or A Humble Companion. Please do comment if one of your novels has pursued this path.
'The present tense lends itself to comedy. The past is foregone and naturally melancholic.'
I think this brilliantly solves the current present tense controversy. Enough said.
‘It’s always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust ‘facts’ in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.’
Norman Mailer said that readers love to learn through historical fiction. It is just that you must not be seen to teach. You are not to indulge in interior decoration tracts, gaudy descriptions of pageantry or relentless detail about a battle. You just have to embed the information in plot and character – easy, right? No. But there are some writers who have managed it beautifully, like James Meek in The People’s Act of Love or Carol Birch in Jamrach’s Menagerie. And how much do we learn about our own noses through reading Patrick’s Susskind’s Perfume?
‘It’s good to have undeclared, unrecognized pathologies and mental illnesses in your stories. The countryside is full of undeclared pathologies. Unlike in the urban setting, there, mental affliction goes unrecognized.’
Fay Weldon’s The Heart of the Country brought this to life (in a vintage rather than historical way). Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, set on a plantation, is all the better for its sense of isolation. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River carries that same atmosphere of both human nature and the natural world out of control. On the other hand, I am not a great fan of madness as a kind of deus ex machina to explain a character who does damage.
‘There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.’
It also makes you a welcome guest at dinner parties. I never understand writers who say that research is tedious. It is the best bit, as it is completely without responsibility. I do research before, during and after writing.
‘Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.’
I used an early Pharmacopoeia for The Remedy and translated bizarre proverbs for Carnevale and made my own translations of Catullus for The Floating Book.
Who else had made use of resources like this?
‘If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.’
I teach academic writing, attend workshops as a student, a poetry masterclass and also do structural edits for The Writer’s Workshop. I learn so much from other people’s mistakes because I am less indulgent of theirs than I used to be of my own. I am shamed into better practice in this way.
‘It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.’
This is something I pick up in other people’s prose works – groups of two or three adjectives: a rolling motion like the gait of an old horse. Some writers do this in the belief that each adjective adds a tiny nuance. If it is that tiny, then it is getting in the way of the plot. It puts the reader to sleep and needs to be avoided. I know that perfectly well, and yet I still find myself doing it up until the third draft …
The full ‘Maxims’ article first appeared in Five Dials magazine
Robert McGill’s website
Michelle Lovric’s website