The scholar and essayist WG Sebald had a lifelong fascination with the highways and byways of German letters, and his latest posthumous collection takes on some crucial figures little known to the English-speaking world.
All out of step: WG Sebald's celebration of the solitary walkers of German literature
A Place in the Country
Eduard Mörike, the German Romantic poet, is more famous in the English-speaking world for his slender, gem-like novel, Mozart’s Journey to Prague. In it, the composer’s destination plays second fiddle to his mindset during his trip. Not only are we privy to Mozart’s personal thoughts, we also get a glimpse of his creative processes. At one point in the journey he takes a break and, surveying his peaceful surroundings, wonders what it would be like to flee the hustle and bustle of the city for good and compose his scores with help from “Nature and her bounty”. “If only I had a small property, a little house at the edge of a village in lovely countryside, what a new lease of life that would be!”
Mörike was not the only German-speaking writer to recreate the pastoral yearnings of a real-life cultural figure. In 1913 Robert Walser penned one of his finest short stories, Kleist in Thun, in which he reimagines the German dramatist’s sojourn in Walser’s native Switzerland in 1801. This story captivated the German novelist W?G Sebald, who was particularly drawn to the bleak-upbeat contrast of a writer despairing of himself and his talents amid the mesmerising beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Both Mörike and Walser are the subjects of essays in A Place in the Country, the latest collection of Sebald’s essays to appear in English since his untimely death in 2001. The book’s title is a quotation from Walser’s Kleist story, and seems fitting as most of the essays here touch on the typical Sebaldian theme of locality, specifically rural retreat, and the sense of sanctuary or dislocation it engenders. Sebald’s last volume of essays, Campo Santo (2003), combined thoughts on Corsica with illuminating pieces on Kafka, Bruce Chatwin and Günter Grass. A Place in the Country focuses entirely on people – five German or Swiss writers plus the artist Jan Peter Tripp – all of whom have helped shape Sebald as a writer. (Tripp, the only contemporary one, even collaborated with Sebald, his lithographs complementing Sebald’s poems in Unrecounted.) As with Sebald’s novels, each essay is composed of long paragraphs that unfold languorously over pages, sentences that incorporate English, French and German, and scatterings of beautiful and beguiling photographs – if not of the author under scrutiny then of people and places relating to Sebald’s many discursive tangents.
In the book’s foreword Sebald explains how in the autumn of 1966 he set off from Switzerland to Manchester with battered copies of books by Walser, Gottfried Keller and Johann Peter Hebel. Although these “hapless” writers found themselves at some point in their lives stuck in their “web of words”, they nevertheless succeeded in “opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide”. This book, then, is a “tribute” to them, a paean expressing Sebald’s “unwavering affection”. The reader will not be familiar with every writer – Mörike and Hebel are not household names like Goethe and Thomas Mann – but Sebald as a guide speaks to the initiated and the uninitiated alike, entrancing both readerships with his lapidary style, searing character studies and blend of erudition and personal anecdotes.
He starts with Hebel, asserting that his classic Treasure Chest of the Rhineland Family Friend is “one of the purest examples of German literature”. The essay is in many ways representative of those that follow. Topics serve as springboards for new ideas, trains of thought hold fast then waver and branch out in different directions. Suddenly close readings of Hebel’s 19th-century poems give way to meditations on the fall of Napoleon and collapse of France, and how “from its smouldering ruins there also arose the new and terrifying Deutschland”. The effect of the Second World War and the Holocaust on Sebald’s generation of Germans is another recurring theme in his work, one he explored at length in the masterly Austerlitz (2001) and the essay collection On the Natural History of Destruction (1999). Its reappearance in these essays on long-dead German and Swiss writers is, in Sebald’s skilled hands, no off-topic add-on but an ingeniously interwoven leitmotif.
Other stepping stones pave equally unexpected ways, taking us well off the originally beaten track. The Mörike essay (actually a prize-winning acceptance speech) flits from the author’s student days in Tübingen to Biedermeier art to comparisons with Schubert. In the Keller piece, Sebald highlights the treatment of Jews in his work before veering off to comment on the plight of Swiss governesses forced to find work “in lands far distant from their home cantons” and various “androgynous” portraits of Keller. The more obscure the digressions, the more rapt we become. At times that peripheral trivia is no more than an aesthetic side dish; at other times it feeds back into the main mix and provides a greater understanding of each writer’s craft.
There are two standout essays here. The Rousseau piece deals predominantly with Sebald following in Rousseau’s footsteps by visiting the Île Saint-Pierre, the island “paradise in miniature” to which the philosopher fled in 1765. Rousseau wrote much of his Reveries of the Solitary Walker there, and Sebald is given to doing just that – losing himself in thought and walking. Solitary walkers can be glimpsed traversing all of Sebald’s fictional landscapes. The Rings of Saturn (1995) tracks a character, also named Sebald, on a walking tour of Suffolk. In one section of Vertigo (1990) we accompany an unnamed narrator (who again may well be Sebald) on a walking tour of Vienna that is “without aim or purpose”.
The solitary walker returns in the best essay here on Robert Walser. Sebald traces Walser’s tragic life from awkward youth to asylum inmate, while attempting to critique his “literary fantasias” despite the odds stacked against him: “How is one to understand an author who was so beset by shadows and who, none the less, illumined every page with the most genial light?”
Sebald’s riffs this time around encompass a portrait of his own grandfather who looked like Walser and a convincing case for Nikolai Gogol as Walser’s immediate literary predecessor. Curiously, though, despite making much of Walser’s peregrinations, Sebald has nothing to say on Walser’s last walk, his one-way trek on Christmas Day, 1956, from the asylum to a snowy field where he was later found frozen to death. Also, Sebald mentions Walser’s stay in Berlin from 1905 to 1913 but then laments “so little does he tell us about the German metropolis”. If only Sebald had lived to read Berlin Tales, published last year, Walser’s wonderful (and detailed) journalistic account of his time in the capital.
But the Walser essay reveals far more than it omits. Better still, as we read it a pattern emerges – a delicate, though discernible, tracery of links with the other writers Sebald has covered. Keller’s frequent bouts of unrequited love echo Walser’s voyeuristic lusting after chambermaids, women always “beings from a distant star”. Rousseau and Walser both walked miles while lost in thought (Sebald even appropriates Rousseau’s book title – Le promeneur solitaire – for the title of his Walser essay). Walking, water, war, exile, homeland, memory, musing – all themes and motifs recur again and again. References to Nabokov cropped up in each of the four sections of The Emigrants (1992); in these essays it is Walter Benjamin quotes that help bind. Towards the end, Sebald discloses that “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time”, and we agree: what started out as a collection of stand-alone essays becomes one in which each of the finely wrought parts subtly interlock.
In a 1993 interview, Sebald admitted: “My medium is prose, not the novel.” And yet in his foreword here he is somewhat self-deprecating about his essays, describing them as mere “extended marginal notes and glosses”. He was in any case better than he thought. Those glorious, multilayered novels are dreamy, at times disorienting, fusions of fact and fiction. These essays are also hybrids, a clever amalgam of biography, critical analysis and creative writing. At the beginning of A Place in the Country he reflects on the writers (“colleagues”) he has studied and comes to the conclusion that “there seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature; those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it”. It is our loss that Sebald is not with us to persist in his “habit”, whatever the literary form. These essays prove that if any pleasure was lacking in the crafting of them, a great deal is to be had in reading them.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.