Talking about Walking & Sebald’s Austerlitz on Resonance FM

It was a great pleasure to go on Bob and Roberta Smith’s Make Your Own Damn Music Show on the brilliant Resonance FM last night where we talked about the recent walk we did following the footsteps of W.G Sebald in his celebrated book Austerlitz.

The Sebald chat starts at about 35 minutes in and includes some contentious opinions on echoes in the book with Patrick Keiller’s early photographic work. The show also features a fascinating interview with Curator and Art Writer William Corwin.

The video of this walk will be on my YouTube channel soon.

I would also love to hear from anyone interested in participating in my Kensal Rise project for Brent 2020 – please email me via the contact form on this blog or leave a comment. Thanks.


  1. Mari Ana Swart   •  

    A very interesting piece – I really enjoyed listening! And fascinating to find that link between Patrick Keiller and Sebald, John. I must definitely now read The View from the Train.

    However, I do not agree with your interviewer’s characterisation of Sebald’s (possible, but unproven, notwithstanding the timeline!) ‘lifting’ from Keiller’s work as untoward or even unusual. Artists (and writers) have through the ages been influenced by one another’s work, have borrowed and reinterpreted, and have been inspired to extend or expand aspects of other’s works.

    Another comment from your interviewer that I find interesting (but do not agree with) is that an author can ‘own’ the artist in his writing, but that the artist cannot do the same, and then using Paul Auster and Sophie Calle as an example. Paul Auster did ask Calle’s permission to use her in the Leviathan novel. I suppose one can argue that he did it only after the novel was written (but not yet published). But she did agree to be ‘owned’! And I would think that Calle herself enjoyed being a character in a book as she likes that type of game playing. (They collaborated afterwards on her Double Game ‘response’). Also, Calle has liberally used other people’s lives in her own work – notably ‘Henri B’ and the owner of The Address Book. The fact that these people were ‘strangers’ or not well-known makes no difference (in my opinion). If one criticizes the author for making use of the artist, one must criticize the artist for making use of the ‘stranger’.

    I am very much looking forward to seeing your ‘Austerlitz’ walk.

    • JohnR   •     Author

      Yes lots to consider and writers use people as the basis for characters all the time. Bob is friends with an artist who became quite an exaggerated character in an Iain Sinclair novel. Here’s the video where you see these ideas emerging in relation to Austerlitz as we walked – Bob’s comments at the end are quite powerful

  2. Mari Ana Swart   •  

    Thank you, John – I have just watched it – an excellent walk and yes, with interesting points made! Once again, though, I find myself not agreeing with Bob – this time on the question of ‘appropriation’. If Sebald was completely removed from the Holocaust, if for argument’s sake he was a non-Jewish American or Australian, I might have agreed. But Sebald was German; and his father in the German army. An event such as the Holocaust has both victims and perpetrators. Sebald was part of the perpetrator group, not by choice, but by birth/roots.culture. In my opinion, he critiqued the role of ‘his group’ (and more directly, his father) by creating the Austerlitz character. I suppose he could have remained silent, or simply have written a book about how non-Jewish Germans experienced WWII, but that would have had implications of its own, none of them good, I think.

    I guess in fiction there is always the question of ‘who is allowed to tell the story’. (Can a female author create a male character, and vice versa? can someone who has not been raped create a rape victim character?) I am reminded that when Cynthia Ozick (the Jewish American author) wrote her famous short story, The Shawl, she was severely criticized by some survivors of the Holocaust, because they felt that she had not actually lived through the Holocaust (she was a teenager in America during WWII) and therefore could not possibly know what it felt like.

  3. Mari Ana Swart   •  

    … the end of my comment got lost and follows here …
    Yet, it is the most powerful depiction of the Holocaust and its effect that I have ever come across. So, I feel that if we only allow people who directly experience a situation, event or condition to write or depict ‘a story’, literature and art will be much poorer.

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