Though his life was tragically cut short at the height of his creative powers, W. G. Sebald has been steadily churning out work since his death. Sebald’s posthumous publications have, by and large, followed a now-standard pattern: first were the works already or nearly finished and ready for print (On the Natural History of Destruction, After Nature), then the uncollected essays which offered polished, self-contained pieces (Campo Santo), then the book of interviews, along with the books of minor poetry for which he was not primarily known (Unrecounted, Across the Land and the Water). This last, released in 2012, would seem to have been the beginning of the end of this vast reserve—Sebald’s minor poetry is interesting at times, but far below the quality of his prose works or his masterful poetic work After Nature. Reaching the end of a finite supply, it would seem that the only place left to go would be to journals, fragments of essays, or other ephemera.
Instead, 2014 sees the release in the United States of A Place in the Country: a full prose work published originally in German in 1998, between The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz—in other words, at the height of Sebald’s literary career. The book is a series of essays on five writers (Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser) and one painter (Jan Peter Tripp), the product of what he describes, in the foreword, as an “unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller and Walser,” which in turn “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” A haunting phrase, given his death only three years after the book’s publication—but one that also accurately sums up the admiration and homage that runs through the book, a writer engaging with his forebears and tracing his own literary genealogy through the past two centuries.
Not just scraps or isolated essays, it is a mature, fully realized book. While a few of the pieces were originally written separately, they’ve all been thoroughly interwoven into a holistic and coherent book, one much closer in form and ambition to The Emigrants than it is to Campo Santo. And yet it’s been withheld from an English translation for fifteen years, even as the reading public has been gobbling up lesser work.
It’s not clear at all what motivated this hesitancy to release the last great, finished book of W. G. Sebald. Perhaps part of the problem is that the subject matter will be so unfamiliar to many American readers, particularly those not well-versed in German literature. Names like Hebel, Mörike, and Keller may seem off-putting for readers who have never moved beyond Kafka, and Death in Venice (and indeed, English translations of these authors are not particularly easy to come by). One more familiar with Sebald’s writing may expect chapters on Thomas Bernhard, or perhaps Georg Büchner, but beyond Robert Walser, Rousseau, and Jan Peter Tripp (who has made appearances elsewhere in Sebald’s corpus, and who collaborated with Sebald on Unrecounted), the writers in A Place in the Country may be largely unknown to even Sebald’s American audience.
Beyond that, the opening pages of A Place in the Country signal a difficult, perhaps off-putting read: an unwelcoming sign for a casual reader looking more for the novelistic storytelling of Austerlitz or The Emigrants. “In the feuillton which Walter Benjamin wrote for the Magdeburger Zeitung,” begins the first essay, “on the centenary of the death of Johann Peter Hebel, he suggests near the beginning that the nineteenth century cheated itself of the realization that the Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds [Treasure Chest of the Rhineland Family Friend] is one of the purest examples of prose writing in German literature.” This is a over-full sentence to take in right at the beginning, with its foreign terms, unfamiliar names, and stuffed syntax. It presumes a familiarization with Walter Benjamin, of course, to say nothing of a history of German nationalism, and situating Benjamin’s claims in terms of German literature rather than a more general concern.
But a reader who perseveres will immediately find her or himself in familiar terrain; Sebald tells us he returns to Hebel’s Almanac Stories because of a “completely coincidental fact”: that Sebald’s “grandfather, whose use of language was in many ways reminiscent of that of the Hausfreund, would every year buy a Kempter Calendar, in which he would note, in his indelible pencil, the name days of his relatives and friends, the first frost, the first snowfall, the onset of the Föhn, thunderstorms, hailstorms and suchlike, and also, on the pages left blank for notes, the occasional recipe for Wermuth or for gentian schnapps.” Already we are in the landscape of coincidence and imperfect memory, of the blend of history and nature, of elegiac syntax, that defines the best of Sebald’s writing—accompanied, of course, by images of the grandfather’s almanac, including his handwriting.
Though these essays more deliberately “on” the writers in question (as opposed, for example, to the chapters in Vertigo that interleave the lives and works of Stendhal and Kafka) they are still very much in the vein of a prose writer taking risks, favoring affect over scholarship, and using unlikely synchronicity and unexpected transitions to move the reader through a dreamscape of sorts. These are not the scholarly essays of Sebald’s early academic career, some of which also appeared in Campo Santo; rather A Place in the Country is much closer to The Rings of Saturn, and in sense it is a similar walking tour—albeit through a library instead of a countryside.
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As with The Rings of Saturn, and the way that Sebald uses recurrent motifs like the writings and life of Sir Thomas Browne and images of silk weavers, here too motifs recur, including the image of a boating trip across a body of water, which appears in nearly every chapter. For instance, the chapter on Keller alludes to the previous chapter on Rousseau when it begins with a mention that “hopes for a social contract were beginning to blossom.” Keller himself will get mentioned in the chapter on Robert Walser, by way of three-volume biography bought second-hand that includes “an attractive sepia photograph depicting the house on the island in the Aar, completely surrounded by shrubs and trees, in which Kleist worked on his drama of madness.” Remarking on that chance find, Sebald comments that since that discovery “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time”—indeed, much of the pleasures of the book are the slight resonances and echoes between the various figures, and in Sebald’s treatment of the recurrent motifs both in their writing.
The pervasive tone of melancholy and mourning that energize so much of Sebald’s masterpieces likewise animates A Place in the Country, exemplified perhaps by Sebald’s discovery of a word in Walser’s The Robbers: Trauerlaufbahn (literally a “career in mourning”), “a term which I believed, when I wrote it down at the end of the savoy episode [in The Emigrants] to be an invention entirely my own.” Whatever its provenance, the writers here, at least by Sebald’s reckoning, are all involved in a Trauerlaufbahn, evident from the poetic but bleak titles that head each chapter: “Why I grieve I do not know,” “Death draws nigh, time marches on,” and so forth.
But beyond these familiar themes and motifs, what’s more important about A Place in the Country is the way it highlights new themes and currents in the rest of Sebald’s oeuvre. While he is sometimes described in the United States primarily as a “Holocaust” writer, A Place in the Country makes clear the importance the Napoleonic Wars has in his work—in their way they are as central as World War II. Napoleon’s conquests make an important appearance in Sebald’s first prose work, Vertigo, via Stendhal’s memoirs, and again in Austerlitz—additionally, before writing Austerlitz Sebald worked on a project that would involve Corsica and Napoleon, the completed sections of which make up the first part of Campo Santo. But in Austerlitz in particular they are eclipsed by the focus on World War II—especially among American critics and readers, which stress the trauma of the Holocaust as the major theme in all of his writings.
The more distant apocalypses, of course, are always eclipsed by more recent apocalypses, and in our dim and imperfect memory it’s not surprising that we look for the wounds of the twentieth rather than the nineteenth century. Without minimizing the focus of the Holocaust in Sebald’s works, it’s important to recognize that it was only one of many historical calamities that run through his work; thus what makes A Place in the Country important is the way it returns to these earlier traumas, looking for connective threads that may make them relevant to our modern age. The chapter on Eduard Mörike, for example, opens with an evocation of the apocalyptic terrors of Napoleon and Robespierre, only to immediately suggest the ways in which these apocalypses fade from consciousness: “The previous year, the Emperor who had turned the world upside down all over Europe had died rather a miserable death on a rocky outcrop in the desolate wastes of the South Atlantic, and his precursor, the trailblazer with the red Phrygian cap, had also long since vanished from the stage of history. Now the firebrand of the Revolution is only evoked to give a fright to little children.” Sebald writes in his foreword that “The essays in this volume span a period of almost 200 years—which goes to show how little has altered, in all this time, when it comes to that peculiar behavioral disturbance which causes every emotion to be transformed into letters on the page and which bypasses life with such extraordinary precision.” But the same could also be said for the crisis and trauma of modernity that Sebald sought to chronicle, and that the Holocaust was really just one particularly horrible iteration of a project at least two hundred years old, one that begun with the French Revolution and that continues, unabated, past the apocalypse of World War II and into the present day.
If, most recently, that present-day trauma has taken the form of financial crisis and economic disaster, then the Mörike chapter resonates in other ways, as well, and the situation of post-1848 revolutions echoes our own post–Great Recession moment in ways that even Sebald himself perhaps would not have predicted. “Admittedly Mörike was, from the outset, even more inclined to resignation than most,” Sebald writes early on. “In this he is a true representative of a generation which, still just touched by the breath of a heroic age, is preparing to enter upon the becalmed waters of the Biedermeier age, in which bourgeois domesticity takes precedence over public life, and the garden fence becomes the boundary of a life en famille which conceives itself as a universe in its own right.” One need not be overly familiar with the Biedermeier Age to recognize ourselves in a passage like this, nor in the catalog of maladies that, for Sebald, make up the life of a writer in the age of bourgeois capitalism:
Mörike . . . knew from at least the age of thirteen . . . how precarious life in bourgeois society could be. His hypochondria, the mood-swings he was constantly prone to, his feelings of faint-heartedness, and the weariness of which he so often speaks; unspecified depressions, symptoms of paralysis, sudden weakness, vertigo, headaches, the terrors of uncertainty which he continually experiences—all these are symptoms not only of his melancholic disposition, but also the spiritual effects of a society increasingly determined by a work ethic and the spirit of competition.
The melancholy that suffuses Sebald’s writing and his characters, which often gets ascribed to World War II, to the existential pain of being alive, or an age-old lineage that stretches at least back to Sir Thomas Browne and Matthias Grünewald, here is connected directly to capitalism, to a bourgeois work ethic that all writers and artists must labor under, despite their best attempts to evade it. Nowhere else in his writing does Sebald so directly confront the material conditions of writing, conditions that reappear in the discussion of Keller, and which he himself of course also dealt with, being an academic who by this point had begun to transition to a major literary figure.
Writing in 1850, Sebald tells us, Keller already saw and embodied the disillusionment of the post-1848 era: he was, for Sebald, “perhaps the only one who had any grasp of political ideals and political pragmatism, and was therefore able to see that the gap between self-interest and the common good was growing ever wider, the emerging class of salaried workers was de facto excluded from the newly won rights and freedoms of the bourgeoisie.” This reaction to post-revolution disappointment leads, in turn, to a fascination with the discarded, the useless, the emptied out, a motif in Keller’s works that had a particular relevance for Sebald: “And, as always when Keller has the opportunity of indulging his love for all things antique, there follows an incomparable description of all the outmoded, useless and arcane objects piled high on top of and in front of each other. . . . In contrast to the continuous circulation of capital, these evanescent objects have been withdrawn from currency, having long since served their time as traded goods, and have, in some sense, entered eternity.”
Such a comment on Keller’s work in turn helps inform Sebald’s own writing, highlighting his interest in such discarded-yet-luminous junk, such as the moth-eaten, taxidermied squirrel of Austerlitz that appears first in the window of a junk shop in Terezin: “And then there was the stuffed squirrel, already moth-eaten here and there, perched on the stump of a branch in a showcase the size of a shoebox, which had its beady button eye implacably fixed on me, and whose Czech name—veverka—I now recalled like the name of a long-lost friend.” The significance of the squirrel and the other junk from the Terezin antique shop gradually grow throughout that novel, as Austerlitz struggles to reconcile the glimpses of a past memory and his newfound identity: “What,” he asks himself later, “might be the significance of the river never rising from any source, never flowing out into any sea but always back into itself, what was the meaning of the veverka, the squirrel forever perched in the same position, or of the Ivory-colored porcelain group of a hero on horseback turning to look back, as his steed rears up on its hindquarters, in order to raise up with his outstretched left arm an innocent girl already bereft of her last hope, and to save her from a cruel fate not revealed to the observer?” Always, for Sebald, as for Keller, the true revelations and mysteries lie not in the luxury goods that embody bourgeois aspiration, nor even in the cohesive and unified work of art, but in the cast-off, the fragmented and valueless trinkets and trash that linger at the edges of our perception.
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As a complete, cohesive book, A Place in the Country proceeds not via a linear argument carefully constructed but by a series of half-articulated questions and images that reappear unexpectedly, held together by metonymic association and coincidence. But if there is a dominant thread among, it is that of the writer’s retreat from utopian idealism into solitary melancholy. This takes the form of a repeated image that literalizes the inability of many of these writers to work—the chapter on Keller ends with images and discussions of the desk blotter in which he would maniacally scrawl endless repetitions of his true love’s name, “Betty,” while the chapter on Mörike ends with a memory of a friend who often found him “noting down things which came into his head on special scraps and pieces of paper, only soon afterwards to take these notes and ‘tear them up again into little pieces and bury them in the pockets of his dressing gown.’” The devolution of the artful word into repetition and madness is always lurking around the corner in Sebald’s work, and—like Jacques Austerlitz, who is unable to write his treatise on European architecture and finally buries his manuscript pages under a mound of earth, or Uncle Ambros of The Emigrants, who voluntarily submits himself to electroshock therapy—the writers Sebald is interested in are those whom he sees just on the verge of the same crippling madness.
“The art of writing,” he concludes in his discussion of Keller, “is the attempt to contain the teeming black scrawl which everywhere threatens to gain the upper hand.” Even the prolific Rousseau is depicted as beset by a frantic nightmare of endless writing: “When one considers the extent and diversity of this creative output, one can only assume that Rousseau must have spent the entire time hunched over his desk in an attempt to capture, in endless sequences of lines and letters, the thoughts and feelings incessantly welling up within him.” Likewise, Keller’s manic, senseless repetitions are structured in A Place in the Country to foreshadow Robert Walser’s microscripts—tiny stories and essays that Walser wrote on scraps of paper, receipts, note cards, etc., while institutionalized. Though it should be clear that the microscripts, deciphered by Werner Morlang and Bernhard Echte only recently, and partially brought into English in 2010 by Susan Bernofsky, are not just as lucid and as powerful as his earlier work, but also, as Sebald himself admits, were in their own way a coherent response (perhaps the only response) to the emerging fascist ideology of the 1930s that Walser found himself surrounded by. Writing as though Walser himself might have made a fitting subject for a fifth chapter of Sebald’s The Emigrants, Sebald notes that the microscripts bear “the aspect of preparation for a life underground,” and that in them “can be seen—as an ingenious method of continuing to write—the coded messages of one forced into illegitimacy, and documents of a genuine ‘inner emigration.’” The act of writing, in Sebald, may always be teetering on the edge of manic schizophrenia, threatening to veer into senseless repetition, and the hope that the writer might reach a reader across a vast distance of time and space is one that constantly evades us, but even in that devolution into nonsense there might yet be preserved some measure of hope, and resistance against the forces of bourgeois capitalism and fascism that drive the writer to madness in the first place.
The complicated syntax of Sebald’s own writing, in turn, perhaps reflects this instability of the writer’s perspective—the desire to encapsulate the world confronting the impossibility of doing so. Just like his subjects, Sebald often piles word upon word in his sentences, endless lists that spill over the brim of reasonable syntax or meaning, as though, if he were able to name everything, as Adam in the Garden of Eden, he could exert some measure of control, perhaps on behalf of the writers whom he describes as so often out of control themselves. In an attempt to make a simple point that Mörike never traveled far from home throughout his life, Sebald’s prose, under the pretense of being more precise, unravels into an endless list that bursts open the syntax of the sentence:
Plagued by inner anxieties and constrained economically—as he had been from the outset, and continued to be during his more than three decades as a retired minister—apart from two trips to Lake Constance and an excursion across the border into Bavaria, Mörike never, so far as I am aware, ventured beyond the narrow confines of his native Württemberg, Ludwigsburg, Urach, Tübingen, Pflummern, Plattenhardt, Ochsenwang, Cleversulzbach, Schwäbisch Hall, Nürtingen, Stuttgart, and Fellbach—these were his tagging posts in an age otherwise in the grip of railway mania, stock market speculation, risky credit deals and general expansionism.
In moments like this Sebald’s prose becomes its own railway to mania and general expansionism, an inflationary bubble always threatening to collapse under the weight of its own fictitiousness. As Sebald rattles off the list of possible psychiatric diseases that Mörike suffers from (“hypochondria, the mood-swings he was constantly prone to, his feelings of faint-heartedness, and the weariness of which he so often speaks; unspecified depressions, symptoms of paralysis, sudden weakness, vertigo, headaches, the terrors of uncertainty”), each of which must be constantly quantified and qualified, each symptom held up under the light of scrutiny and medical expertise, subdividing further and further into specific categories—at some point all of this over-naming collapses into its own kind vertigo. And yet this is precisely what is thrilling about it, the constant reminder that the structures on which language depends in order to create sense are illusory, and always one clause, one overlong list, one qualification or equivocation away from gibberish. If Sebald is constantly praised for his empathy with his subjects, here that empathy is linguistic, as his prose tends to emulate or stage the traumatic act of writing that he senses in Keller and Mörike. Reading A Place in the Country we sense his kinship with them—as though at any moment this writing, too, will dissolve into shredded paper as the writer descends into his own madness, leaving us only with the teeming black scrawl.
Colin Dickey is the author of Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith.
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