Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some few of the most beautiful lines ever written - a Sebald bibliography

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 issue, 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 a critic 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 good 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.


  1. 1. The Morike novella about Mozart is beautiful. Thank you for recommending it last year, by the way.

    2. I confess that the only Sebald I've read is The Emigrants, and while I think highly of the writing, I remain utterly baffled by it.

    3. A Place in the Country looks good, a book about books, a writer writing about writers. What's not to like?

    4. I hate the word "massive" when applied to novels. It's a lure I can hardly resist of late, even as I tell myself that I'm going to start reading only short books again.

  2. I remember first reading On the Natural History of Destruction without any background reading at all about the writers/books mentioned there. A fascinating glimpse of postwar German lit from a curtained window opened by Sebald. Since then I've read Böll, Weiss, Ledig and the panorama was widened. My unfamiliarity with the bibliography you mentioned actually primes me for this book. I ordered a copy from the Book Depository when it came out but it got lost in transit. Happened a lot to me in this part of the world. yayks.

  3. How sad, Rise, although I hope the book fell into good hands.

    I have only eased into the Natural History of Destruction reading. Obviously well worth doing.

    Scott, when I read The Emigrants I was not baffled. It rather felt like a lot of things fell into place. Ah, now I see.

    I should reread Mörike, or read some other Mörike, and write something. He deserves it.

  4. I see you're reading Pelle the Conqueror. Any good? I haven't seen the film (which I guess is just the first book), but Bille August--who made the 1987 movie "Pelle the Conqueror"--is allegedly going to make a film version of Lucky Per this year. I assume he'll cut a lot of it. Have you heard that August is also making (or maybe by now has made) a movie of Laughter in the Dark? Which is a Nabokov I haven't read yet.

  5. I hadn't heard any of that. I guess I am starting at the end with the questions.

    The movie of Pelle is so good, but it features the greatest living actor in a signature role. The absence of Max von Sydow aside, the novel is good, too, better than the book I hope to write about tonight, which is a direct ancestor of both Pelle and Lucky Per. Your last Pontoppidan post was clarifying.

  6. Decades ago, I was visiting a certain parking lot located somewhere near a Caribbean beach, where a makeshift used books store sold foreign language books. I still remember reading there Morike's Mozart novella, while standing up in 95 degrees humid Weather and coming to the unforgettable ending:

    A little pine tree is growing somewhere,
    Who knows in which forest or where;
    And so does a little rose bush,
    Who can say in what garden?
    Their seeds are already chosen
    – O soul, remember this –
    to take root and grow on your grave.

  7. All right, there may be some melancholy in the Mozart novella.

    It is a captivating little book.

  8. Your willingness to have those ideas violated is admirable.

  9. It was one of the books where I had to let it teach me to read it. I am still not sure I was such a good pupil, but I tried.