A Place in the Country, by WG Sebald, translated by Jo Catling, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 224 pages
Admirers of the late WG Sebald’s inimitable blend of essay, memoir, novel and found images, deployed in books such as Vertigo (1990) and The Rings of Saturn (1999), will be grateful for A Place in the Country. The first of Sebald’s prose works to be translated into English since 2005 (he died in 2001) offers welcome glimpses into his stylistic and thematic preoccupations.
The volume collects six pieces of writing about artists for whom Sebald declares an “unwavering affection”. These “extended marginal notes and glosses”, as the author modestly calls them, connect and overlap through shared allusions, recurring subjects and a common tone.
Sebald’s fascination with written and visual ephemera is vividly displayed in the first essay, about the German-Swiss writer of almanacs Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826). Though frowned upon by the custodians of German bourgeois culture, Sebald shares Walter Benjamin’s opinion that Hebel offers “one of the purest examples of prose writing in all of German literature”. He celebrates Hebel’s almost promiscuous use of vernacular Germanic dialects alongside Yiddish turns of phrase, and relishes his interest in subjects from weather patterns to recipes for vermouth.
The compulsion to write and “the awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing” are persistent themes. They are examined in the essay on philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose time on the Île Saint-Pierre is echoed by Sebald’s own visit in 1996.
Rousseau found refuge on the island in 1765, having left behind a prodigious amount of work but also many enemies – not least Voltaire, self-appointed guardian of the enlightenment project. On Saint-Pierre, Sebald writes, Rousseau attempted “to free himself from the exigencies of literary production” and rid himself of “the pathological aspect of thought”. Sebald, who perhaps suffered from the same affliction, sympathises with the philosophe’s fruitless efforts “to halt the wheels ceaselessly turning within his head”.
Writers’ difficulties in extricating themselves from the task of writing, “even when the activity itself has come to seem loathsome or even impossible”, are exemplified in the life of German poet Eduard Mörike (1804-75), caught between the revolutionary turmoil of the 18th century and the upheavals of industrialisation in the 19th.
In his tribute to Gottfried Keller (1819-90), Sebald attributes to the German-Swiss novelist an uncanny prescience. “Not the least of Keller’s achievements is that he was one of the first to recognise the havoc which the proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind”.
It is the piece on German-Swiss novelist Robert Walser (1878-1956) that most perfectly distils Sebald’s approach to his subjects. Remarking on the physical similarity between Walser and Sebald’s grandfather, and the fact that they died the same year, he wonders: “What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps and coincidences? Are they rebuses of the memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?”
The final essay is on the painter Jan Peter Tripp, who went to school with Sebald in Germany. His trompe l’oeil portraits are, Sebald explains, “an exercise in pathography”, while his still lives are filled with “objects in which melancholy is crystallised”.
From Tripps’s pictures, Sebald writes, he has learnt “how essential it is to gaze far beneath the surface ... and that there are many difficulties to be reckoned with in the recollection of things”. This illuminating collection shows a writer at his most inquisitive, gazing deeply under the surface of things and grappling with the difficulties of personal and collective memory.