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Literary Maps: Sebald and Burgess in Manchester

In his early 20s, the author W.G. Sebald worked at the University of Manchester, from 1966 to 1969. In my early 20s, I was at the same university. Where Sebald ended up writing profound and moving passages about the Manchester which he knew, I found myself reading Sebald’s passages about the Manchester which he knew and thinking, ‘Wow, these are profound and moving’. Some of these sections of part fiction, part creative non-fiction and part memoir are to be found in his novel The Emigrants, published in its translation from German in 1996.

Sebald’s texts are typically made up of rhizomatic prose. Interconnected networks of fragmented ideas and elongated reflections seem to interrupt each other. Yet the ruptures don’t end the process of signification and slowly, almost uncannily, a map of meaning is built.

You can imagine that walking around Manchester after having read The Emigrants feels as though one wanders amongst this hazy literary map, that one has become part of the map. This was the case for me. Or rather, I wanted it to be the case and as such I attempted to shape my own lived experience into that which I had read.

In post-war Manchester, along a gloomy Cambridge Street, the narrator of The Emigrants passes empty “warehouses where the ventilators were still revolving in broken windows”. This is a passage which I have read and re-read, and a path which I have repeatedly walked. But as I passed those buildings, now repurposed and with windows intact, the sun seemed to be permanently shining, groups walked by cheerfully and I felt as though I was – despite walking in the exact location described – far away from that moment in Sebald’s text.

I was caught in the trap. Everyone who has read the passages of travelogue in Sebald’s four novels whilst living near the locations described has likely considered imitating the books’ narrators by piecing together a contrived picaresque replica of the scenes which freshly reverberate in the imagination. It’s a trait of humans, the childish impulse to repeat the actions of others. It has been life’s purpose for many. Imitatio Christi. And of course it is not so much childish in the sense that one grows out of it, but rather that it constitutes that very growth, as the child learns how to become an ‘independent’ adult.

In any case, I kept on returning to that part of Manchester so coldly described by W.G. Sebald, not knowingly due to the fact that I wanted to perfect my own version of his scene, but merely because the route described is on the way to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, whose reading room I would use from time to time during this spring and summer.

Unlikely bedfellows; Burgess and Sebald.

Burgess blasts out Joycean fireworks of verbiage. Sebald looks on – mildly disdainful, mildly despairing – and proceeds to comment on the exodus of the North Western chaffinch population due to changes in climate. One suspects he’s making a wider point about 20th century European history. Burgess doesn’t have time for this. He’s off. And before Sebald has completed the seventh subordinate clause of the first sentence of his measured meditation on the migratory habits of birds, Burgess has already completed an epic poem based upon the premise that Stravinsky metamorphoses into a songbird named Chaffinchsky. Needless to say, but impossible to say why, Burgess made the decision to write the poem from the perspective of a 10th century BC Iranian nomad speaking in his own tongue, then translated it back into English himself. “My Persian alas was somewhat rusty,” he will later say, promoting the book on Wogan.

Sebald meanwhile finishes his sentence, slowly. In an elliptical somnambulating movement, he has returned from chaffinches into the discussion of British Imperialism, only then to interrupt his own train of thought with a comment on the scarcity of people in Manchester as he wanders around.

If you have read any Sebald, you will know that wherever his narrators pass through, there’s not a soul to be seen. His prose is densely populated with reminders of that fact. Sebald’s narrators go to the beach: not a soul to be seen; to a football match: no one there; a presidential inauguration: maybe five or six people, but a soulless environment it appears to be nonetheless.

Each time I returned to that spot in The Emigrants, on my way to the Burgess Foundation – via Sebald to Burgess, from Burgess back to Sebald, never quite getting it right – I could see too many people for it to ring true. Again, it was sunny. Once more, it was not as it should have been.

Repeating what has been written, trying to imitate that which has been marked in words, is a recognisable act. I repeat this with Bloomsday in mind, the day on which many a Dubliner or Dubliner-for-a-day commemorates, 16 June 1904, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set, by following the tracks of its hero Leopold Bloom. This is perhaps one of the most famous days of literary imitation.

It was in 1954 that the inauguration of Bloomsday took place. A small group of Dublin’s literary set made the journey, consisting of Messrs Ryan, Cronin, O’Nolan, Kavanagh and Joyce (Tom Joyce, that is). This was the very first time the route of Ulysses was officially retraced, and this first retracing has since been repeated each year. It is reported that on 16 June 1954 they did not reach the end of the path marked in the novel. They couldn’t quite complete it and, a fair few pubs deep, at a writers’ haunt named the Bailey in the city centre, they called it a day. The repetition wasn’t then carried out fully.

Anyway, determined to live through at least part of The Emigrants, I went back on myself, all the way back to the Didsbury suburbs, armed only with the quote from the book describing this location as “not unhandsome”. I thought this would be a malleable enough phrase to be able to merge with my own reality. But no, alas, it was still a beautiful sunny day in a lovely setting and I couldn’t therefore in good conscience align Sebald’s muted praise with surroundings that I considered deserved a brighter description. Strolling along absentmindedly, I bumped into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen for a while. They said I was looking well. I told them they were looking not unhandsome. “I never get your jokes,” they said.

Disheartened, I headed back up through Withington and into Fallowfield. Burgess, keen to console me, bubbled back up into mind with a line from the first volume of his autobiography, describing 1930s Fallowfield as “terribly suburban, horribly clean and quiet”, going so far as to say “you could eat your dinner off the road”.

The cleanliness and quietness of Anthony Burgess’ Fallowfield didn’t seem to have been retained. But at least the boxes of fried chicken, pre and post-digestion, on the pavement floor attested to the fact that some of his words could be plotted to the path on which I walked.

The Anthony Burgess Centenary Conference ‘Life, Work, Reputation’ takes place at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation Monday 3 to Wednesday 5 July.

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