Dispatches | March 21, 2014
So You’re Picking up W. G. Sebald From the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
This week your passenger is internationally lauded German author W.G. Sebald. Gone much too soon at the age of 57 in 2001, he’s the 1st posthumous selection for this series and it’s a genuine shame that we’ll never get to use these selections. Nonetheless here it is, compiled in his honor.
I have a hard time with how exactly to classify Sebald as a writer. I tend to go with “prose master” because it’s the least exclusive term that comes to mind, and the last thing I’d want to do is ignore any of the many facets of his writing. He wrote masterful essays, scholarly pieces, and yes, poetry too. But he’s most known for his “novels” such as The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz which, while they’re works of fiction, are also crammed with historical reflections, travel writing, and elements of autobiography. I feel the need to put novels in quotes because to my mind saying that Sebald wrote novels is like saying that Batman works in law enforcement…it’s a much bigger picture than that.
To read his work is to know that he was driven to continually explore memory, loss, decay, history, nature, & Germany during WWII (both its crimes and the suffering of its civilian population). Heavy stuff no doubt, but he also possessed strong (if bone-dry) sense of humor and a genuine wonder & appreciation for the countless coincidences and chance connections linking the people and events that he took on as his subjects.
When you pick him up it will likely be night. You probably won’t talk very much, but silence won’t feel awkward, and when you do speak you’ll exchange words that might come back to you 20 years later, note for note from out of the depths, for no other reason than that you’re once again in a car on a highway with a new temporary companion. Here we go.
1. Casiokids – Elefantenes Hemmelige Gravplass
My Norwegian is pretty rusty, and the only part of this song I bothered to Google translate is the title. That’s however more than enough since if its laid-back synth production & sincere vocals don’t make it a perfect fit for this playlist, its title about a secret elephant graveyard (memory & decay alert!) certainly does. Also, Sebald was an internationally recognized translation scholar; we need at least one non-English language track here.
2. Groove Armada (ft. Bryan Ferry) – Shameless
Bryan Ferry has sounded like a centuries-old world-weary continental vampire mournfully pulling his coffin door shut at dawn since he was like 26. Drop that kind of vocal seasoning on top of a low key yet insistent Groove Armada track and you have the perfect song for cruising down a lightly trafficked highway late at night while pondering the past (both what was and what could have been).
3. Latryx – Balcony Beach
Getting older. We’re all doing it, so we might as well have a slick-flowing and reflective bay-area classic to be comforted by as we wonder in awe about how quick time has passed since we were too young to believe in our own mortality. Might be a good time to ask Sebald what kind of food he’s down for that night.
4. Gorillaz (Ft. bobby Womack) – Cloud of Unknowing
All the days are forgetting/ They’ve gone out with the tide/Lost at sea somewhere… Memory, loss, the inevitable reclamation by nature of all we’d dare to preserve– It’s like Sebald’s major literary concerns got condensed into 3 short verses of weary resignation, sung by the guy who recorded the stellar title track for the blaxploitation classic Across 110th Street. Bonus points for being titled after a medieval work of Christian mysticism (if you guys talk at all and the conversation then starts to lag, boom, there’s a nice light topic to get into).
5. Johann Sebastian Bach – Partita for Violin Solo no.1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 4. Double (Presto)[Arthur Grumiaux]
Straight up, full-tilt, everything on the table, whatchu gonna do about it?! melody for two and a half minutes. Opening up the engine to 90 mph for a few brief moments never felt so classy. (Drive Responsibly)
6. Kraftwerk – Abzug
If this song doesn’t force at least one part of your body to move to the beat then your heart is as cold and robotic as its vocals. And as far as playlists for travel & movement are concerned you really can’t go wrong with a song named after an international rail network. Sebald had a damn complicated relationship with his homeland, so I can’t say if Kraftwerk’s German origins are a strike or a bonus here, but should the issue come up amid all the head bobbing and booming volume it will at least be the seed for some solid conversation.
7. Dirty Beaches – Mirage Hall
Let’s say, hypothetically, that during the drive between the airport and the restaurant you and Sebald decide to rob a bank. You do it at random, on a lark, not at all for the money but for the story, no one gets hurt. Let’s just imagine that happens. All I’m saying is that when you haul ass out of there (preferably while wearing a bandit mask and holding 2 bags with huge dollar signs on the sides) and jump into your running car with W.G. (your getaway wheelman) sitting calmly in the driver’s seat…it’s for sure going to be the second half of this songplaying on the stereo. Guaranteed.
8. Steve Reich – Different Trains, Movement III [After The War]
Sebald was only one when it ended, but World War II and the infinite horrors committed by his homeland’s regime during it (plus those endured by its civilian population at home) bear profoundly on his work. This is the 3rd track from Steve Reich’s minimalist masterpiece Different Trains, built on strings and vocal samples/train sounds from Americans in a rising superpower just before the war, European Jews brutally transported to camps during it, and the joy and bewilderment of both after the conflict was over. Not a conventional driving tune, but it belongs here
9. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – The Boy [From The Road, Original Film Score]
If you read Sebald’s description of how the town of Dunwich was swallowed up by the sea in Rings of Saturn you might just hear this track seep from the pages. On one hand it’s sorrow & loss on a stick. On the other the plaintive recorder wails at least remind you that gentleness and love were things that once existed, even if all but a pinhole of sky has been eaten by impenetrable grayness. Not a hyperactive track, but at the very least you could talk to each other about your opinions on Cormac McCarthy.
10. Phantom/Ghost – Perfect Lovers (Unperfect Love Mix by Tobias Thomas & Superpitcher)
A 9+ minute slow-burner that will get under your skin. I can’t assume anything, but to be honest I don’t peg Sebald as a huge EDM fan, but that’s irrelevant with a mix this well crafted. Thing is damn near a sermon. I think he’d appreciate it, but if not you can always fall back on the fact that it heavily samples the adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which was the musical theme for the 1970s movie version of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, whom he loved, so yeah, there’s that.
11. Terry Reid – Seed of Memory
Sebald, to say the least, was burdened by memory. It might even be more accurate to say that he felt, at nearly every moment, crushed by it. Reading him it often seems that he was unable to regard any object, stretch of land, historic figure, or personal acquaintance without reflecting on its past, its various associations (historical, coincidental, autobiographical), and yes – its decay. This quality is inseparable from his writing, but it could also turn a pleasant Sunday walk through the countryside into a mournful meditation on the unforgiving impermanence of everything humanity is foolish enough to regard as an “accomplishment”. This is a chill-as-hell song that recognizes that reality, says “eh”, and still dares to hope for otherwise. The fact that it was featured in one of the best gore films of the last decade is an incongruity that I’ll cherish always (or at least until I and everything I’ll ever hold dear have turned into dust…)
12. The Smashing Pumpkins – Set The Ray To Jerry
Lonely highways in the wee hours: there’s really not a better time to think about your exes and the mistakes you made, this is the song for it. I imagine you and W.G each forgetting that the other is in the car for 4 minutes while you let the white lines on the road melt into each other and he stares out the passenger side window, allowing his next expert meditation on loss write itself in his head.
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