Monday, March 17, 2014

Unwavering affection - Sebald's A Place in the Country

The only certain thing is that he writes incessantly, with an ever increasing degree of effort; even when the demand for his pieces slows down, he writes on, day after day, right up to the pain threshold and often, so I imagine, a fair way beyond it.  (129)

W. G. Sebald is describing Robert Walser in a chapter of A Place in the Country, his 1998 book of essays on all of my favorite writers:  not just Walser but Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, and Gottfried Keller, as well as the artist Jan Peter Tripp.  If not my favorites, exactly, I can at least say that I have read something by all of them, which must be rare among English readers although not among serious readers of Sebald.

I can still remember quite clearly how, when I set out from Switzerland for Manchester in the early autumn of 1966, I placed Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich, Johann Peter Hebel’s Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds, and a disintegrating copy of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten in my suitcase.  The countless pages I have read since then have done nothing to diminish my appreciation of these books and their authors, and if today I were obliged to move again to another island, I am sure they would once again find a place in my luggage.  This unwavering affection for Hebel, Keller, and Walser was what gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late.  (3)

That last phrase is a little too sad.  The pieces on Rousseau, Mörike and Tripp have different origins but share thematic material with the others.  To point out an obvious one, Rousseau, Keller and Walser are Swiss, while Mörike, Hebel, and Tripp (and Sebald) are from nearby parts of Germany.

A Place in the Country is not a work of fiction, but it is written in the hybrid style Sebald had developed in his novels.  It is easy enough to imagine Sebald making it fiction.  It is no surprise to see, for example, Nabokov (another Swiss writer) make an appearance in the Walser essay, although this time as a writer, as a source of quotations, rather than as the ghost who floats through The Emigrants.  If Sebald’s fictional prose works are not exactly novels, this late work of criticism gestures towards fiction, more so than, I think, his next book, also criticism, On the Natural History of Destruction (1999).  This book is rather a history of destruction through writing.  Please revisit the description of Robert Walser up above.

Sebald’s colleague Jo Catling translated the text and added thoughtful notes.  She is, I am amazed to see, now translating Sebald’s earlier critical essays on Austrian writers, thornier stuff than in this book.  I never thought any of this would be translated – Hebel! Stifter! You gotta be kidding me! – but I could not be happier to be wrong.  I will wander in it for a couple more days.  Terry Pitts at Vertigo has, as one might guess, already written a piece on each chapter, beginning with Hebel.


  1. It seems like every other I time I come here I end up ten bucks poorer and Amazon or BN ten bucks richer. Thank you for introducing me to Hebel. I couldn't resist reading what both that saint, Kafka, and that rascal, Canetti, considered to be the most wonderful story in the world: 'An Unexpected Reunion'. And it IS a wonderful story. Just that one little marvel is fully worth the ten bucks the download costs.

  2. Hebel, in the tiny scraps I know, is something special. I do not understand why no one in English - no one I have heard of - has tried out the "almanac" as a literary format.

    Hebel is like Stifter in that there is this pleasant, placid surface that conceals the most peculiar things.

    That Hebel story has a particularly important place in German. Hoffmann wrote a longer version, which in turn led to an unfinished Hofmannsthal play, an opera treatment by Richard Wagner (!), and other works.

  3. My first and only Sebald was On the Natural History of Destruction, which was a superb book of essays.

  4. That is a good book, too, coherent in its own way, although directly polemical, while A Place in the Country is more private.

    Ah, we are lucky to have both in English. That is when I really understood Sebald's status, when Luftkrig und Literatur was translated. It is a book in which I eavesdrop on someone else's (fascinating) argument.