Book review: A Place In The Country, WG Sebald

When WG Sebald pays his dues to the ghosts of his literary past he reveals why his own legacy will endure, writes Stuart Kelly

Traumatised: Sebald struggled to come to terms with Germanys descent into barbaric Nazism. Photograph: Ulf Andersen

A Place In The Country

WG Sebald

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Hamish Hamilton, £20

I CAN imagine that a future literary historian might look back on our culture and diagnose three deaths as ushering in, and casting a shadow over, every attempt to forge a 21st century literature: those of David Foster Wallace (2008), Roberto Bolaño (2003) and WG Sebald (2001).

All three were profoundly suspicious of literature, even of language: it was a compromise and a necessity, a rapprochement with silence, an urgency towards stillness, curare and cure, toxin and treatment, antidote and blight, venom and remedy. Each of them was fearful that words could not encompass the world; that they were debased, polluted and fractious, but words were all they had to transmit the message that the message could not be transmitted. Trauma stalks their works, an unspeakable horror glanced at the edge, glimpsed in the corner, grasped at the verge. They all wrote as if they were already posthumous.

A Place In The Country is not the best place to start reading Sebald. I would strongly recommend that readers should only buy it once they’ve already bought, read and digested his major works: The Rings Of Saturn, Austerlitz, Vertigo and On The Natural History Of Destruction are the culmination of his talent, whereas A Place In The Country is his field-notes towards them. That said, it is a revealing book for those who already know his work. There is more than a hint of a magician revealing how the trick was accomplished here.

The book comprises various essays Sebald published as a collection in Germany in 1998 – but it represents something far older. These essays derive from the books Sebald brought with him to Manchester from Switzerland in 1966, and which inspired and challenged his own literary production. Literature written in German has had a scant hearing in the Anglophone world. Of the five authors Sebald discusses in the book – Johann Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser – only the Francophone Rousseau is widely published and only Hebel is published as a “Penguin Classic”. Walser is available in editions from the New York Review Of Books series and his horrifically brilliant novel The Assistant was made a “Modern Classic” by Penguin in 2008.

Why did Sebald obsess about these authors, and why was he equally captivated by the art of Jan Peter Tripp, whose fanatical realism was at once the acme and nadir of painterliness? Sebald offers his own, characteristically elegiac, reason: “This unwavering affection… was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.” A sense of it already being too late suffuses the book. Sebald’s prime concerns – how one lives after tragedy, how the past impinges on the present, how reading is a kind of haunting – are displayed throughout.

In effect, this is a series of self-portraits. On almost every page Sebald is not just describing an author but implying a reader. “I have always tried,” he writes about Walser, “in my own works, to mark my respect for those writers with whom I felt an affinity, to raise my hat to them, so to speak… but it is one thing to set a marker in memory of a departed colleague, and quite another when one has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side.” That awful beckoning is what makes this book so intriguing: it is not just a gallery of elected ancestors but a curious form of self-epitaph.

To an extent, Sebald does in this book what he achieves over his canon: the redemption of Germany from Fascism, and the necessary integrity to face down what happened to his country. In writing about Hebel and Keller in particular, Sebald is both identifying prophets of the bourgeois complicity with Fascism and staking a claim to surreptitious resistance. The future always infects the past in Sebald’s work – he is fascinated by Rousseau’s fascination with Corsica as a potential revolutionary democracy, especially since the unintended realisation of it was Napoleon, who in some ways instigated two centuries of European warfare. As he writes, there is an “inherent contradiction between this nostalgic utopia and the inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss”. In writing about Hebel, for example, Sebald reconstitutes a German culture not just sympathetic to Jews, but in which they were an intrinsic part. Reading this book back into his previous works shows how deeply and significantly such matters formed Sebald.

If there is one image that encapsulates Sebald’s work, it is his writing about Gottfried Keller’s 1849 painting Ideal Landscape With Trees. Sebald is not so much concerned 
with the painting as with the quarter of it cut away by Johanna Kapp. “What moved her to such drastic action, we do not know,” he writes, “but perhaps he [Keller] may have sensed that the snow-white space which opens up behind the ­almost transparent landscape is even more beautiful than the coloured miracle of art”. Sebald knew that cap­italised ideas – “Art”, “Literature”, “Home”, “Culture”, “Europe” – were impositions, not propositions. «