There is an ironic ‘Sebaldian’ poignancy to the line in his own introduction to A Place in the Country, first published in Germany in 1998 and now translated for the first time: “This unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller and Walser was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” WG Sebald died (of an aneurysm the world later learned) in a car crash only three years later, at the age of 57. With Sebald time is never quite a straight line (as indeed it isn’t). The past lives on. The dead were, as he often said, more alive to him than the living. And so, one must suppose, the future might also have been as vivid, known in ways unknown. Certainly Sebald spoke of how, when writing, the material would build in ways that seemed uncannily fortuitous, as if he divined his stories as much as he authored them. But however prescient his decision to write essays at the age of 54 to pay respects to the writers who shaped him, A Place in the Country, now that WG Sebald is gone, has become an epitaph for his own literary oeuvre. English readers are lucky indeed that Jo Catling – who worked with Sebald at UEA – has finally translated Logis in einem Landhaus and that Hamish Hamilton has published it, fifteen years after the work first appeared in German.
Like Albert Camus, another great European writer whose output ranged from essays and philosophical meditations to novels of breathtaking originality, who addressed the great themes of conflict and humanity in the Twentieth century and who died too young in a car accident, WG Sebald’s literary opus has followed a confusing path for readers in English: an apparent compression of output as work is translated and published in response to a growing reputation; work appearing out of sequence; later, as publishers hunt for material from a curtailed life to keep short-changed readers fed, early work published posthumously (A Happy Death – AC, A Natural History of Destruction – WGS); and finally long after the more realised stuff, words that might, perhaps, never have seen the light of day had the writer lived (The First Man – AC, Campo Santo’s ‘The Corsica Project’ – WGS). Unsighted as to the history, one might think that A Place in the Country, which will surely be the last of Sebald’s works to be translated, must fall into one or other of these latter two categories. In fact it is a late book, and it was published in this form by WGS himself. It was written after The Rings of Saturn and before Austerlitz, his third and then his final works of creative prose-fiction. It is fully realised and formal work in other words and written from a point of reflection, very close to what turned out to be the untimely end of his career.
After Sebald had finished writing The Rings of Saturn in 1995 he began on a “Corsica project”. From the appearance of what is left of the abandoned work it might well have been too similar to and not as good as The Rings. There is much fabulous writing in what has been published as Camp Santo, but overall it feels strained and contrived in comparison with the East Anglian tour. Whatever the reason, the Corsica project was put on hold and this collection A Place in the Country replaced it. Some passages are as transporting as anything he has written. Of Keller, for example, he writes:
“The ‘somewhat melancholy and monosyllabic official’, who says at the end of his novel that nothing can now lighten the shadows which fill his desolate soul, already suspects that even the best arrangement of letters and sentences on the page, like the generosity he showed towards his characters, in the long term counts for little when set against the heavy burden of disappointment. Looking back on his career, he feels that all of this ‘was no life, could not go on thus’. He speaks of a new imprisonment of the spirit in which he has become entrapped and broods as to the means of escaping it, but so hopeless does his situation appear that from time to time, and ever more distinctly, as he says, there stirs in him the wish no longer to exist at all.”
Though Sebald’s prose takes to the stratosphere with that passage and many more like it, this is a more overtly academic work than those for which he is famous and one senses that for Sebald its composition as a series of essays written in 1997 was something of a respite, a regrouping and a time for reflection, as his thoughts assembled in readiness for Austerlitz. As such the book is a wonderful gift for Sebald’s enthusiastic readers. Not only does Sebald, in his homage to authors who, as he writes ‘sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide’, do the very same thing … again and again: but he gives us, also, this fascinating tour through the passages, the sentences, the words, the themes, the obsessions and the hauntings which forged his unique voice.
No-one doubts that Sebald was a great writer – well some do, but mostly other writers who envy the fuss – but his greatness is better underlined by a consideration of the factors that so accelerated his trajectory through the English literary firmament. It helped that he wrote in German – the other wordliness of his sentences is partly a function of the fact that they were constructed in a language with more pedantic, and also more load-bearing grammatical structures than plain English; it helped that they were translated in close collaboration between translator and author, that they were not anglicised even as they were turned into English. It helped that he didn’t write much at all until he was in his mid forties – there’s no juvenilia to speak of, and his pre-occupations, his deftness of touch, his confident deviation from the mainstream, his realistion of a prose-form almost entirely his own – all these things depended on a mature vision, as well as an abundance of talent. It helped that his books were translated in a different order from that in which they were written, and it helped that that he wasn’t translated at all until his genius was undeniably manifest in his fifth published work The Emigrants, a book which burst into the English consciousness with such understated brilliance and newness that critics as seasoned as Susan Sontag were moved to write: ‘where has one heard in English a voice of such confidence and precision, so direct in its expression of feeling, yet so respectfully devoted to recording “the real”?’. And it helped that Sebald’s primary influences, as Jo Catling’s illuminating introduction underlines, were works almost completely unknown to the English reading public, that they were parochial too, almost archaic in some respects and certainly of a gently romantic and elegiac cast. It is this last point, the most important in the long run, that is so wonderfully illustrated by A Place in the Country, where Sebald, as he says, pays homage to a small band of writers who were his constant companion.
Three were with him, packed in his suit-case so to speak, when Sebald arrived in Manchester in 1966: Gottfried Keller’s The Green Henry, Johann Peter Hebel’s Treasure Chest of a Rhineland Family Friend, Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. The two other writers to whom Sebald dedicates essays are the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and the poet Morike. Those two came to the gathering from elsewhere, but are, as Sebald says, by no means out of place. But for Rousseau most are comparatively unknown to English readers, whilst Hebel is obscure even in his native land. Of Hebel’s prose Sebald writes: ‘ … the language constantly checks itself, holding up in small loops and digressions and moulding itself to that which it describes, along the way recuperating as many earthly goods as it possibly can.’ There are pre-echoes of Sebald’s voice in all of these writers, and so one slowly discovers as Sebald guides us on his tour of homage, how these five were condensed and metamorphosed through him into a prose form that was, when The Emigrants was first translated, so startlingly new to the English reader.
In this sense, and in many others, this collection has something of the ‘self-portrait of the artist at work’ about it, and personally I couldn’t shake the image of Valazquez off to the side of Las Meninas, itself a picture that seems to exist outside time, a painting of a moment before a painting of a moment that never formed and Velazquez himself “hammering through oil paint” as Dylan Thomas might have described it. In these essays and Sebald’s loving evocations, Max himself hammers through the beautiful prose, his own and that of others. A telling affliction unites all five, and of course Sebald himself: their ceaseless desire to compose such lines, ‘a behavioural disturbance which causes every emotion to be transferred into letters on the page, and which bypasses life with such extraordinary precision’: the observer condemned to a life not quite lived, spent only recording and composing ‘longing for nothing than to put a halt to the wheels ceaselessly turning in one’s head’.
The essays are also a literary home-coming. All five writers hail from the Swiss German borderlands. The essay on Rousseau sees Sebald traversing the same landscape, pursuing Rousseau in his enforced exile to L’isle St Pierre on Le Lac de Bienne in Switzerland. Those who have chuckled at the understated humour of Sebald’s Eeyorish reflections on his fellow countrymen will enjoy the ferry journey to get there: ‘Among the other passengers on board were the gaudily attired members of a male-voice choir, who several times during the short crossing struck up from the stern a chorus of ‘La-haut sur la montagne, Les jours s’en vont’ or another such Swiss refrain, with the sole intention, or so it seemed, of reminding me with the curiously strained guttural notes their ensemble produced, of how far I had come meanwhile from my place of origin.’ But exile, like the compulsion of creativity, also binds all five authors to Sebald: exile voluntary or enforced, exile of the body, or of the mind. Rousseau gazes over the familiarly bleak East Anglian landscape of Spalding – ‘a godforsaken place set amongst endless fields of cabbage and beet’. Morike dreams of his Peregrina who for the sake of propriety he sent on her way ‘in silence’, and is marooned, an outpost of longing tormented by a novel that goes nowhere, scribbling notes on paper only to tear them up and bury the scraps in the pockets of his dressing gown. Likewise Walser, finally interned in the asylum of Herisau where as he said he went ‘to be crazy, not to write’ nevertheless cannot help keeping notes on paper, though he is quick to conceal them when he senses anyone watching ‘as if he had been caught in the act of doing something wrong or even shameful.’
A Place in the Country may be some kind of respite for them all. The title of this book is taken as a quote from one of Walser’s. And Arcadian retreats of one sort or another rise up, like tea-houses from the mist in Chinese water-colours, again and again. Perhaps to Sebald they are some form of quiet antithesis to the darker forces of destruction which loomed over the calamitous century he only just outlived. Once, in an interview, Sebald rather longingly described the pastoral perfection of Rousseau’s island, containing enough and no more of everything one might need to live happily. He spoke also of retiring to Corsica, whose mountainous villages seemed to represent the idyll of restraint and a simpler life. Throughout this book, and Sebald’s other works, bourgeois ideals of order and commerce are the quiet hand-maidens to ‘the havoc which the proliferation of capital unleashes upon the natural world, upon society and upon the emotional life of mankind’. And yet as Sebald confesses, not even Rousseau ‘nor those who came after him, were ever able to resolve the inherent contradiction between this nostalgic utopia and the inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss … the gap between our longings and our rational strategy for living …’
So many other themes and motifs weave their way through the pages of these essays: a passion for collecting; for list-making; a shadowy, quasi-erotic desire for self-destruction or oblivion; doomed love; the relentless building over of the earth; pathetic fallacies of weather and landscape; miasmic dreams rising out of water and mist; the Sisyphean drudgery of creativity; the shadows of grief; communion with the dead; an unseen and timeless web of connections; the significance of pattern and coincidence. All will be familiar to those who have read Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. To those who haven’t the book may lack a large part of its context and resonance. And in this regard A Place in the Country is perhaps not the place to begin an excursion, as Sebald would have called it, into his work. Or even if that is untrue – and now that I think more on it I can see that there is an argument to say that it is precisely the place to start! – it is undeniably the starting point for an excursion that must be continued through the four major prose works that it illuminates, to say nothing of the works of Hebel, Walser and the others.
A Place in the Country, as it traces a narrow and winding path between critical homage and impassioned reflection, gives fascinating context to one of the most distinctive and original voices of late Twentieth century writing, shining a light onto the gestation of the themes which pre-occupied Sebald, the ‘breaths and cadences’ that shaped the evolution of his distinctive prose style, and on to the precedents for the creation of that unclassifiable blend of treatise, memoir and meditation that so confounded and stunned the English literary world in 1996. And once in a while, as Sebald says of Keller though we might hold a mirror to the remark, his prose ‘attains its most astonishing heights at precisely those moments where it reaches out to touch the edge of eternity.’
A Place In The Country is available from the Caught by the River shop, as is Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s latest book, Silt Road. Charles will be reading at a Caught by the River Social Club inspired by the work of W.G. Sebald with William Adamson and DJ Andrew Weatherall – tickets are available here.