Anna Harrah, #2 Tokyo, 2010, oil on panel. Courtesy of the artist.
Like the rest of W. G. Sebald’s work, the posthumous essay collection A Place in the Country reaches American readers already in its afterlife. The study of the painter Jan Peter Tripp appeared in a catalog of Tripp’s work in 1993; the remaining five pieces were published in Manuskripte and Sinn und Form in 1997–8. After the success of Rings of Saturn the following year, all six essays were released under the title Logis in einem Landhaus (“Lodging in a Country House”), and now, after an English release last year, in a slightly stiff translation by Jo Catling, the book has finally reached us.
Luckily, timeliness has never been much of a concern for Sebald’s readers, or, for that matter, Sebald himself. Of the five writers profiled alongside Tripp, only the Swiss-born Jean-Jacques Rousseau enjoyed renown in his lifetime; the rest—the almanac writer Johann Peter Hebel; the Swiss realist Gottfried Keller; the Biedermeier poet Eduard Mörike; and the uncategorizable Robert Walser—remained, as Sebald notes, lifelong provincials. Born in the “Alemannic” region (covering southwest Germany, northwest Switzerland and Alsace), the book’s subjects never made lasting headway in the cultural centers of Paris or Berlin. Instead, they lived as exiles in a time, stretching from the French Revolution to the Second World War, that saw every previously-held value uprooted and every human relation overturned—in which untold progress was inseparable from unimaginable destruction.
Apart from the odds and ends assembled in the earlier collection Campo Santo, A Place in the Country is the English-speaking world’s first encounter with Sebald’s work as an essayist and professor of European Literature. His first publications, Describing Misfortune (1985) and Strange Homeland (1991), were collections of monographs on Austrian literature that devoted considerable attention not only to well-known figures like Kafka or Hugo von Hofmannstahl, but also to writers who had fallen through the cracks of the literary canon, like Charles Sealsfield, Adalbert Stifter, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. As a monograph writer, Sebald’s greatest asset is the warmth and generosity he extends to these “minor” figures. The pieces are, above all, tributes, and do much to revive the reputation of the authors of the little-read Realist period in Germany. Even readers who find Sebald’s loping, detail-heavy prose stifling can follow Country’s table of contents to Gottfried Keller, easily the most-overlooked novelist of the nineteenth century, or to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose autobiographical writing is as thrillingly modern today as it was two-hundred fifty years ago.
What unites Sebald’s subjects, besides their shared provenance, is a relationship to writing and to literature that is less expressive than it is compulsive. “There seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature,” writes Sebald in the foreword to Country. “Those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it, even at that critical age when … one every day runs the risk of becoming simpleminded and longs for nothing more than to put a halt to the wheels ceaselessly turning in one’s head.” Sebald casts this devotion to a wholly useless activity as a form of resistance against a society that has no patience for objects without an immediate monetary purpose. By the same token, nature, the perennial Sebald theme, appears in Country as a political and historical alternative—a road not traveled—to the blind self-destruction of industrial capitalism. This idea is spelled out most explicitly in the chapters on Hebel and Rousseau, in a lengthy excurse on the French physiocrats, whose plans for a society based on land agriculture “sought, in the face of the far-reaching changes affecting collective life in the eighteenth century to achieve a lasting basis for a harmonization of society based on natural law,” as well as on Rousseau’s little-read constitution for Corsica, in which Rousseau suggests that the Corsicans avoid urbanization and monetary exchange in favor of agriculture, “as the only possible basis for a true and free life.”
Sebald’s ecology engagé reveals, as he admits in Country’s first chapter, a long-standing debt to the Frankfurt School—not simply to Walter Benjamin, whose essay on Hebel is cited explicitly, but to the Dialectic of Enlightenment, and the link drawn by Adorno and Horkheimer between man’s mastery of nature and man’s exploitation of other men. Readers who find Sebald’s work cloistered and nostalgic will be glad for this consideration of the political side of his poetics—particularly in his study of Gottfried Keller, far and away the best chapter of the book. Of all the writers profiled, Keller is Sebald’s most obvious stylistic forebear; not accidentally, Keller is also the only writer in the collection to have directly engaged with the political establishment of his home country. In a passage that might serve as a mission statement for his own writing, Sebald argues that Keller’s intricate descriptions of, for example, the junk piled high in a curio shop are intended as a counterweight against the destructive torrents of capital unleashed all over Europe. “As always when Keller has the opportunity of indulging his love for all things antique,” writes Sebald, “there follows an incomparable description of all the outmoded, useless, and arcane objects piled high on top and in front of each other.” “In contrast to the continuous circulation of capital,” he concludes, “these evanescent objects have been withdrawn from currency, having long since served their time as traded goods, and have, in some sense, entered eternity.”
Unfortunately familiar in Sebald’s writing, however, is the romanticized role played by women in what can be a stuffily male view of history and literature. Women tend to float around the margins of Sebald’s narratives as symbols of unfulfilled sexual desire or the unattainable normalcy of family life, rather than characters in and of themselves. Sebald shuffles Rousseau’s relationship with Therese Levasseur, a laundress who stood behind Rousseau through his many hardships, into the picture of Rousseau, the promeneur solitaire. And despite a sensitive passage on androgyny in Keller’s work, one is tempted to point out that Annette von Dröste-Hülshoff, who lived the last six years of her short life in Meersburg—that is, in the “Alemannic region”—and whose poetry is no less rich than Eduard Mörike’s, might have provided a valuable difference of perspective in Country, just as a chapter on Ingeborg Bachmann, instead of two devoted to Peter Handke, her vastly inferior contemporary, might have greatly enlivened the books on Austrian literature.
It is unlikely, in the end, that A Place in the Country will win Sebald any new fans—not that he needs them. Rather, Sebald’s essays perform the valuable service of opening up an English-language readership to a continent of literature they would otherwise never have encountered, and to give them, through the incredible pathos of his analysis, a way into their innermost depths. Paying tribute is part of the task of speaking with one’s own voice. As Sebald writes in the foreword, “I have always tried, in my own works, to mark my respect for those writers with whom I felt an affinity, to raise my hat to them, so to speak, by borrowing an attractive image or a few expressions…” The best writers, Sebald reminds us, are also readers. The best works of literature are not just documents of their own time, but also wreaths, placed respectfully on the headstones of those who have come before.