Why Sebald Matters
A Place In The Country
(Random House, 2014)
The work of W.G. Sebald (1944 – 2001) reminds us that the effects of what Wallace Stevens called “the Supreme Fiction” may be achieved without recourse to the supernatural: consciousness is plenty fantastic, or dreary, without it. As Stevens said, “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” Throughout Sebald’s career, he took “real” material—such as illness, war, scientific discovery, and literary history—exposing its vast interior in his haunting corpus of fiction.
A German national, known to intimates as Max, Sebald taught the literature of his great patria for some 30 years at the University of East Anglia (U.E.A.), in England. It was during this time, especially from 1990 onwards, that Professor Sebald embarked on a sparkling, if woefully short-lived, career in fiction and poetry, an endeavor which culminated in his final novel, Austerlitz. That book, which was published just weeks before his untimely death (aneurysm, car wreck), went on to win The National Book Critics Circle Award. One pictures the Swedish Academy, who had considered Sebald a contender for its high prize, folding its hands in grief at the sad news, and looking out their stately drawing room windows in hopes of finding some other worthy Nobel laureate in the palm of the desperate continent.
Now, a selection of Sebald’s non-fictive prose has been published—“extended marginal notes and glosses,” to take the author at his word. Sebald’s original title, Logis in einem Landhaus has been translated into English as A Place in the Country by Professor Jo Catling, a veteran, as the late John Updike would say, of the “grant wars,” and former co-mate-in-exile with Sebald in the U.E.A. Department of Comparative Literature. With this volume, we have, if not exactly the theoretical underpinnings of a marvelous fiction writer, the explanation of his devotion, in a personal-essay format, to the thinkers and artists he found most inspiring. Also, of course, “extended marginal notes and glosses.”
Many famous writers, such as Wordsworth and Dickens, did famous amounts of walking. Sebald, as it were, follows in their footsteps. Walking in a landscape is the main method for achieving aesthetic and intellectual understanding of a place both in Sebald’s fiction (notably, in The Rings of Saturn), as well as in the present monograph, particularly in the essays on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and poet Robert Walser. One’s got to move through it—through the mountain-passes, copses, and hedgerows—and it hardly hurts if that landscape is as history-rich as Europe. The winding steps of a small Swiss village lead, not merely down to the bar, but down into the winding steps of historical time. Sebald’s text, recording these descents and ascents, allows the reader to inhabit the philosophical and aesthetic space between present and past. This is the key effect of Sebald’s literature: inhabitation. It is fitting that while reverence and attention for Sebald’s supremely fictive work continue to expand at a lively trot, the publication in English of A Place in the Country brings us closer to Sebald’s oft elusive inner-evolution.
Of what, one may ask, does the book generally comprise, and why, might we ask, does Sebald matter? Regarding the first point of inquiry, we look no further than the author himself, who states the following in the forward to the collection:
The essays in this volume span a period of almost two hundred 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. What I found most surprising in the course of these observations is the awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing. There seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature.
No remedy, indeed. Sebald’s soft-smiling prose lets us in on the long-form joke that is human existence. The writing curiously, in its tactility and its tenebrous tone, manages to surpass the ready feel the author has for irony. Irony, of course, when taken to heart, can become the basis for a worldview, and one can easily succumb to its inevitable, if often morose, charms: just as we achieve some measure of wisdom in this life, so passeth our glory from the earth. Sebald betters this somewhat maudlin formulation, adulterating it with a streak of vividness, and with a relentless, if insistently esoteric sense of candor in art, and an interest in origins. As when he writes of Romantic poet Eduard Mörike, “The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is—like all the Biedermeier arts—a kind of instinctive defense mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.” Namely, the collapse of bourgeois society vis à vis radical industrialization. Biedermeier here refers to the period of peace between the Napoleonic Wars and the revolutions of 1848, in which the middle class expanded in central Europe, along with arts and literature. The term reflects a certain quaintness, however, since a degree of political repression in Central Europe kept the arts distinctly romantic and decorative, that is to say, non-political.
Sebald, piqued by his influences, including Mörike, Rousseau, and a sole contemporary, artist Jan Peter Tripp, locates dislocation, of all literary tropes, as a source of shared richness with his forebrothers, and in this instance, the wager pays. As when he writes, of poet Robert Walser, “he had neither a house, nor any fixed abode, nor a single piece of furniture, and as far as clothes are concerned.” Yes, we see where he’s going with this.
He did not, I believe, even own the books that he had written. […] evidently, coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility[…] he refused by and large to reveal himself to readers. […] External events, such as the outbreak of the First World War, appear to affect him hardly at all.
The absence (and absent-mindedness) in Walser’s life and writing “lends it,” for Sebald, “an air of spectral insubstantiality which may deter the professional critics just as much as the indefinability of the text.” Yet for the reader of Sebald’s fiction, this absence is instructive, as it informs one’s sense of the master and his personal syllabus. It is a pleasure to read again in 2014, so lucid and temperate a voice as the late author’s on ideas and elements of humanity so familiar—and thus so difficult to describe freshly—as dislocation, literary memory, and the unpaid dividends thereof.