A couple of days of vacation are on their way, so this will be the last post until Monday.
I have been ignoring the issue of just who Gottfried Keller and Johann Peter Hebel and so on actually are, or what they wrote – everyone knows Jean-Jacques Rousseau, right, but not Eduard Mörike – just taking it for granted that they are worth reading not only because Sebald found them valuable but because I have read them myself, not that I have written much about them.
Keller is a good example. You would think that Keller’s massive Green Henry (1854) would have given me two weeks of material, but I barely mentioned it, likely because I never really got hold of it, or I was writing about something else. Keller’s novel is a portrait of a young artist much like himself who runs through a series of troubles with school, girls, and his attempts to become a painter. Sebald is writing about a description of Henry walking at night:
What is remarkable about this passage is the way in which Keller’s prose, so unreservedly committed to earthly life, attains is most astonishing heights at precisely those moments where it reaches out to touch the edge of eternity. (109)
Like, Sebald says, “the work of a baroque poet of mortality and vanitas.” And this really is just a passage about a man out walking in the dark. Sebald is talking about the mysteries that slip in, like the “invisible swarms of migratory birds [that] passed high overhead with an audible rustling of wings.”
Green Henry is a strange book that violates almost every idea I have about good writing, much like Adalbert Stifter’s Indian Summer, the other long German-language masterpiece from the 1850s. One strange thing about it is that it is constructed out of a series of novella-length and novella-like episodes, an unusual structure. Why I did not write about Keller’s actual novellas, like the heartbreaking A Village Romeo and Juliet or the fine folk tale-like comedies Clothes Make the Man and The Three Righteous Combmakers is more of a puzzle, although I see that I did write a bit about not writing about them. How very helpful. Those stories are all easy to like.
Eduard Mörike is a different, since I have not read his long Kunstlerroman titled Nolten the Painter (1832) – Sebald makes it sound like a mess – but rather some poems, which I wrote about many years ago, and his effervescent novella Mozart on the Way to Prague (1855). The poems are so sweet and charming, except for the one where the poet kicks acritic down the stairs, and the Mozart story is also a delight, and frankly a corrective to the “kooky Mozart” stereotype.
I feel that Sebald cheats a bit with Mörike, since he never mentions Mozart on the Way to Prague or the more amusing poems. Not melancholy enough, I guess, although they, too are part of the artistic “mystery” Sebald describes, the result of craft and “a very long memory” and
possibly, a certain unluckiness in love, which appears to have been precisely the lot of those who, like Mörike and Schubert, Keller and Walser, have bequeathed to us some few of the most beautiful lines ever written. (87)
If I have turned this post into a bibliography, it is because the translator of A Place in the Country, Jo Catling, has created such a fine bibliography herself, with German and English sources, primary and secondary. It would make a fine course of study, or a good guide to take with on a search for those beautiful lines. It is full of temptations. I predict I will soon succumb.