It has been almost thirteen years since the loss of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) and works are still occasionally rising from his effects like gloomy lights up from the faroff, inky crags. Since the publication date for Silent Catastrophes has been pushed back from 5 April till next June, we have to turn from the clouds clotting over the Austrian highlands and look back onto the view of the cloudbreaks over the cantons of Switzerland.
Although A Place in the Country, Sebald’s cluster of essays on, for the most part, Swiss writers, is his latest to appear in English, it appeared in German in 1998, as Logis in einem Landhaus, and for whatever reason has only made it into English in 2013. Sebald’s selection of authors is, as he writes, according to his ‘unwavering affection’ for three of their number (Johann Peter Hebel; Gotfried Keller and Robert Walser) and then, later, the honorary induction of two (Rousseau and Eduard Mörike) as members of the little group, for all of whom, Sebald feels, writing became a ‘vice’ where ‘those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it.’ Though they are basically only essays, what Sebald seems to accrete across these essays is a fugitive impression of ‘writers trapped in their web of words [who] sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.’
In these essays Sebald displays the academic acuity and rigor we all suspected he cloaked and seldomly flaunted in his prose; this manner was anticipated, for his English audience, in his essayettes, particularly those on Peter Handke and the brief, but splendid, piece on Nabokov. The essay on Johann Peter Hebel, ‘A Comet in the Heavens,’ is probably the best example of Sebald writing primarily as an academic, although even this incorporates elements of his own biography. This particular essay will prove the most practical for any Sebald academics because it, at times, feels like it is telling us more about Sebald than about Hebel. ‘A Comet in the Heavens’ is eminently quotable, not only perspicuous, but well written, and I, personally, found myself cribbing a few sentences from the essay into a blue cahier for later use.
But this is not the texture of all the essays and, although it is not poor, one’s enthusiasm for ‘A Comet’ wanes slightly when running across Sebald’s pieces on Rousseau and Gottfried Keller. The Rosseau and Keller essays are much more a case of speculative biographies and often give way to indirectly narrating through these writer’s books, with veins of academic thought and analysis now intercessing throughout. While sprigs of thought that illuminate Sebald’s own works remain and can still be easily reached from these footpaths, the writing often steps into the speculative and searching narratives that characterise Sebald’s other writing, investing less in the academic activities of dissection, explanation and analysis and more in tracing a kind of emotional sensitivity or understanding for a writer in a watery and faintly transparent outline.
The thin colours adumbrating each author’s biography often run down and pool in shallow wells, lightly sequencing the authors into general patterns of pain extending from lovelessness; loss of physical and mental health or loss of one’s family or home in exile; for whom the introspection of writing became necessity. As the colours run, they ring excerpts of the authors’ writing (particularly the beautiful examples of the angels in the wet glass, or any of the scenes with Judith, in Keller or the boat on the lake in Walser’s The Tanners) and outline various images (like Keller’s blotting paper, on which the name ‘Betty’ has been incised over and over). Many of the faint themes that seem to thread from each essay to another, such as the baroque love of ornamentation or the bourgeois impulse towards collecting, which drip and commingle in these common wells, are first sketched out in the course of ‘A Comet in the Heavens,’ shading itself into Rousseau’s amateur botany collecting or Keller’s penchant for knickknacks.
Approaching this collection of essays largely as an academic exercise, I found myself, as I moved on through the essays, in many ways succumbing to the bourgeois habit of collecting, noting down the likes of Sebald’s application of Walter Benjamin or the quotations that might illuminate The Rings of Saturn (1995). But this eventually attenuated and instead, as progress was made, I was marking out my appreciation for turns of phrase and insights, resorting to only this when reaching the essay on Robert Walser.
Although I have a weakness for the Gottfried Keller essay, the Walser essay is the finest in A Place in the Country; among the various observations Sebald manages to sew in remembrances of his grandfather, which, of course, further elaborates Sebald’s emotional attachment to Walser’s writing. This particular essay has also plainly influenced more recent Walser criticism, percolating down into Ivan Vladislavić’s heavily Sebaldindebted ‘The Last Walk,’ with its strange analysis of the photographs of Walser’s dead body, and makes J. M. Coetzee’s treatment of Walser look a touch scant and amateurish. Sebald ties the chimerical, dreamy essay into a soft ribbon by attaching Walser’s account of a balloon ride, which, I think, is somewhere in the Microscripts, to the accompaniments of a balloon photograph, probably not at all connected, and a section from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (Sebald adored this) involving his favourite childhood book:
At the immense altitude,’ writes Nabokov, ‘to which the ship reached, the aeronauts huddled together for warmth while the lost little soloist, still the object of my intense envy notwithstanding his plight, drifted into an abyss of frost and stars alone.’
We should avoid taking A Place in the Country only as a supplement to Austerlitz (2001) or Vertigo (1990), remembering that Sebald’s style is rather discursive in the first instance. Although the essays are not wholly on a par with Sebald’s other writing, there are traces and elements which could easily occupy pages in one of them. Even the Eduard Mörike piece, which I found eminently forgettable on first reading, when reading without the expectation of a practical end, seems to have a charming smell of Napoleonic cannonsmoke about it and could happily belong in Vertigo. Sebald’s essays reward his reader not with material to garner for your own essays, but in the same vein as his prose. And I hope as you navigate the strange hinterlands and coastlines Sebald washed across pages you will still be able to see silk balloons drifting like Chinese lanterns up from the crags, trailing lines of frost among the stars.