9 December, 2013Issue 23.5Literature

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The Act of Writing

Matthew Reza

Sebald W.G. Sebald
A Place in the Country
Hamish Hamilton, 2013
224 pages
ISBN 978-0241144183

Fifteen years after it was first published in German, and over a decade since Sebald’s untimely death, A Place in the Country has now been published in English, translated by Jo Catling, one of the author’s former colleagues at the University of East Anglia. Catling’s translation is elegant, contextualising the untranslatable with detailed notes. It is supplemented by a very useful bibliography of works cited, though this goes only so far in getting to grips with the work itself. This collection of essays, written over the span of a few years in the 90s, pays homage to six figures who were an inspiration to Sebald since his arrival in England 30 years before. Though the subjects are unified through their common importance to Sebald, the essays were originally written as separate pieces, and thus this collection does vary—sometimes significantly—in style, focus and content. While Sebald considers particular aspects of these writers’ thoughts and lives in great detail, the most accessible moments occur when he explores his own feelings, rather than during the more frequent and detached focus on esoteric biography. Instead of a guide through Sebald’s literary influences, A Place in the Country is best understood as a glimpse into a series of private and erudite conversations where it is often difficult to follow the train of thought.

As a student in the 1960s, Sebald would not have discovered the 19th-century poet and short story writer Johann Peter Hebel “through the Heideggerian fog” if it had not been, he notes, for Bloch and Benjamin. But what kept drawing Sebald to Hebel was a personal connection to his own grandfather, who used to buy a Kempter Calender on which to mark saints’ days and weather patterns. However, this habit paled when compared to the meticulous precision with which Hebel constructed his own Kalendergeschichten. Order is the overriding theme of Sebald’s notes on Hebel, as the latter describes a “world in perfect equilibrium” through his observations of nature. He then directs his attention to the heavens where his cataloguing zeal is momentarily suspended as Hebel contemplates a cosmic order of mechanical perfection, a position, Sebald is quick to point out, which is no less necessary because of Hebel’s theological moorings. Closer to home, Hebel is by no means unaware of the political turmoil of late 18th-century Europe but, perhaps as a jab at Hebel’s ascetic perspective, Sebald recounts an episode where he is horrified at the material waste of building a fleet of warships which would eventually, though inevitably, sink to the depths of the ocean, rather than considering the human cost of warfare. As the 19th century marches on, Sebald ends his reflection on Hebel not with a return to order or closure but with a poem of Hebel’s which reverberates with apocalyptic foreboding, honoured as “an eschatological vision unparalleled in German literature”.

Involved as Sebald claims to be with Hebel, it is difficult to unpick the subtleties beyond the links to his grandfather. In the following chapter on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, where Sebald remembers his own journey to the √éle Saint Pierre, his personal attachment is far clearer, his style lightens dramatically, and a more conversational rhythm emerges—one not dissimilar in style to his The Rings of Saturn. As one of many who have visited the island since Rousseau’s death, Sebald recounts how he spent many hours in the writer’s room and the sensorial experience he gained by noting the well-worn floorboards, the smell of the soot and the names of tourists carved into the woodwork. He takes a particular delight in the still possible silence of the island but his contemplative solitude is very different to the manic writing out to a world that had been trying to silence Rousseau. Yet Sebald imagines Rousseau, despite a never-ending flow of correspondences and visitors, to be content with his lot removed from the world—an affinity which Sebald clearly shares. To fill the time between writing, Rousseau sets about cataloguing the flora of the island with a meticulous care. This has distinct overtones of Hebel, but whereas Sebald’s reflection on Hebel ends with destruction, we leave Rousseau in more serene surroundings as a guest of the Marquis de Girardin before his death from a stroke.

Chronologically following Rousseau and √éle Saint Pierre, Sebald’s piece on Eduard Mörike is the shortest of this collection, originally written as an acceptance speech for the Mörike Prize in 1997. The Biedermeier age, of enclosed personal and private space and a “wishful utopia erected against progress,” provides a refuge which shelters the feeble Mörike from the outside world, from the new “terrors” of industrialisation, and a continual threat of poverty; rarely did he venture far from home, and he was also prone to episodes of emotional instability. Melodrama and an inability to engage with broader plot structures feature in Mörike’s experimental novel, Maler Nolten, but there is a hint that Sebald accepts these flaws because of the extent to which Mörike’s personality seeps into the work.

From Mörike’s sheltered existence in the Biedermeier age, Sebald turns to a more politically engaged writer of the 19th century, Gottfried Keller. He was a man with the perspicacity to be able to distinguish between ideal, economic, and political realities. Sebald returns to the style of his biographic rather than personal account, recalling again his notes on Hebel, and through Keller advances a disapproving argument on the “havoc” of capitalism. Although an admirer of Keller’s commitment to earthly life, Sebald alludes to something more transcendental in his characters’ walks through the countryside, in “a beyond consisting of pure nothingness”, of the white space behind a disfigured painting of Keller’s Ideal Landscape with Trees (which features on the front cover of the book). The chapter closes with a much darker reflection on Keller’s obsessive scribbling of the name “Betty” and on one of his despondent characters considering suicide. While the contrasting attitudes of Mörike and Keller to the world around provide interesting points of comparison, the way in which they inspire Sebald is passed over, as though we are meant to take Sebald’s reverence for them as a given, and turn straight to his biographical anecdotes.

Robert Walser is by far the most solitary and most detached subject in this collection of essays, and despite Sebald admitting his inability to describe Walser in any great detail, he claims a close affinity with him due to the similarities with Sebald’s grandfather. Both share a love of walking, memories of which Sebald fondly recalls, and the grandfather dies the night before Walser’s birthday. Notably, the more sentimental style of the account of Rousseau’s island returns and, clearly clouded by questions of personal significance, for a brief moment Sebald wonders as to any connection beyond coincidence. Instead he leaves this line of thought by simply stating the similarities, as if to acknowledge a momentary lapse of rational judgement. True to his word, and perhaps frustratingly, no further comment is proffered when Sebald discovers Walser’s work in Manchester a few years later, inserted between the pages of a biography of Keller—whether the irony is intentional or not, it is definitely present here, appearing as it does immediately after Sebald’s own, later biographical essay on Keller. Sebald’s affinity with Walser is, as he puts it himself, more a constant companionship, and there is something deeply personal in his mentioning that he sees Walser every time he looks up from his desk.

The final essay, originally part of an art catalogue, examines the work of an old school friend and fellow Keller and Walser enthusiast, Jan Peter Tripp. Somewhat reluctantly, Sebald considers the unavoidably “tiresome question of realism” in Tripp’s art and, acknowledging the almost perfect verisimilitude of his painting, lays on further praise by referring to Pliny’s story of Parrhasius and Zeuxis. Certainly, the prints which feature are astonishingly detailed and nuanced, but Sebald’s is a bleaker outlook due to what he terms a “terrifying abyss” behind Tripp’s images articulated through “time lost, the pain of remembering, and figure of death”. However, in some of the clearest and most personal terms of the collection, including his mediation on Walser, Sebald explores what Tripp’s art means to him and how in particular it teaches him to “gaze far beneath the surface”; by contrast, the relevance of the other authors is instead mediated through biography.

Recurrent throughout are considerations of the style of each writer, and alongside the historical continuity which takes us from the 18th century through to the present day, there is an underlying thematic focus: order in Hebel, exile but also tranquillity in Rousseau, refuge in Mörike, love in Keller, companionship in Walser, and illusion in Tripp. As an afterthought, when considering the unity of this collection, Sebald reveals a sense of surprise at the degree to which these literary figures to whom he is indebted, and his own literary career and identity as a literary figure, are bound up inextricably, sometimes tragically, in the continual act of writing.

Matthew Reza is reading for a DPhil in Modern and Medieval Languages at Pembroke College, Oxford.