A Place in the Country  by  W. G. Sebald  translated by  Jo Catling  (Random House, February 2014)  Reviewed by  Nell Pach

A Place in the Country
by W. G. Sebald
translated by Jo Catling
(Random House, February 2014)

Reviewed by Nell Pach

Along with close reading, English majors learn the art of apologizing for their studies. While working toward my master's degree in prose fiction at the University of East Anglia, I got to know the list of UEA's more prominent creative-writing teachers and alumni. The master’s program, the oldest of its kind in the UK, was founded by Malcolm Bradbury and graduated Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, and I invoked them all when people asked me about UEA. W.G. Sebald came up too, although he generally only impressed my fellow English majors. In the UEA fiction pantheon, Sebald was attached to but still somewhere outside these notables, tangent to them in the way that his work lies tangent to prose fiction. He’d taught literature and translation at the university, but he was not, as far as I knew, involved with the fiction master’s. No one exactly came in wanting to be Sebald. We knew, though, that he had famously walked the flat coastal land of Norfolk and Suffolk—part of the Netherlands in a previous continental arrangement, the UK customs officer said when I told him where I was going—and with this in mind, it was easy to walk around even just the UEA Broad, a quarried lake on campus that joins the River Yare, and imagine some sort of writerly affinity, if you ignored the fact that you were probably out walking—or more likely running, in my case—to avoid the terror of sitting in front of a blank Word document with the cursor blinking, you blinking right back. There was something to be said for drumming up writing focus by taking a ruminative ramble. The brief tight community formed in the master’s program was altogether too much fun, in a laidback way well-suited for an introvert, and, though I wasn’t much of a partier, I began to have the perverse sense that I wasn’t lonely enough to be writing well. Despite the jealous competition supposed to prevail among aspiring writers, we enjoyed an uncomplicated camaraderie, to the point that even our professors seemed slightly disappointed in our collective lack of angst—in other years, we heard, participants had broken each other’s hearts, stolen each other’s girlfriends, and trashed each other’s work, but we remained happily platonic and scrupulously polite even while being scrupulously honest in workshop. The members of my workshop—some of whom, to the great benefit of my English-apology efforts, now already have work available for preorder on Amazon—were generous and supportive. We joked that at one of our get-togethers someone would eventually get drunk and call someone else “a bad writer”—or maybe a genre writer, burn—but in practice, late-night rantings tended to be less mean and more simply eccentric, as when one of my friends informed another that the ceiling of her apartment had been designed by Nikola Tesla. (He believed her.) Maybe it was inevitable that you might start feeling as if you ought to induce a little meditative pain, to get back in touch with the narrative of writers-as-unhappy. Another classmate once mentioned a certain path as a “good place to walk and feel melancholy,” as if it was part of creative maintenance, the opposite of a health regime. My own obsessive runs sometimes seemed to have the same function. Perhaps this was what writers required for optimal productivity, a morning deconstitutional.

Writers suffer, and they suffer alone, at least in the popular imagination, and quite frequently in their own imaginations as well. Moreover, they proverbially cannot abide each other’s company. “Few things are as immutable as the vindictiveness with which writers talk about their literary colleagues behind their backs,” writes Sebald in A Place in the Country, his latest posthumous publication, where he seems to accept, more or less without irony, the truth of writer-pain. Per Sebald, creative people “torment” themselves with their creations; aesthetic beauty perhaps issues not only from craft and intelligence but also from “a certain unluckiness in love” that he notes in Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser, all of whom make appearances here. A profound, ambivalent mood of separation emerges as a constant in W.G. Sebald’s analyses of the lives and creative works of his six subjects. They suffer geographic exile, they are ignored or reviled at home; not always of sound mind and body, they undergo a kind of alienation from themselves. Frequently, they walk—away, alone.

An expatriate German who died in England, Sebald recorded his own famous walking tour of Norfolk and Suffolk in The Rings of Saturn, a travelogue-novel-memoir hybrid that orbits thematically around its geographical center, from Swinburne to fishing to silk cultivation. A musing near the end of the book on the eighteenth-century weavers of Norwich, the now-quiet city where UEA stands, glancingly acknowledges the mournful strain that aches through the book: “That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable . . . It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” Far from the grounded collegiate communities fostered in the age of workshops and retreats, Mark McGurl’s “program era,” Sebald’s solitary, peripatetic figures can hope for a sense of social connectedness only through their difficult solitude. Sebald, who clearly feels and often explicitly claims a kinship with his disparate cast—“I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” he writes in the chapter on Swiss writer Robert Walser—suggests that a writer inevitably hates and seeks isolation and detachment. The creative urge is both enabled and suppressed by these removes; they are at once flights to concentration and to oblivion, forced and voluntary in both cases. His Walser ends his life in a sanatorium as a result of a deliberate “inner emigration,” producing texts that Sebald defends as the work not of a delusional mental patient but “of someone compelled . . . to be thinking of something somehow very far distant.” Anticipating that his work will be unwelcome in Nazi Germany, Walser literally shrinks his writing to the point of illegibility; he cedes the hour to the “Heimat poets,” whose “solid earthiness” evokes the homeland that he has metaphysically left in order to go on writing. At the same time, his health slips over the years of “unremitting composition” that Sebald figures as working on Walser more than Walser works on it. By night and by day, he flees it on foot, a “solitary walker” who dreams of traveling farther abroad but never goes, though Sebald allows him a flight into a counterfactual history: “It is not difficult to imagine him hidden in a green leafy picture by Henri Rousseau, with tigers and elephants, on the veranda of a hotel by the sea while the monsoon pours down outside, or in front of a resplendent tent in the foothills of the Himalayas, which—as Walser once wrote of the Alps—resemble nothing so much as a snow-white fur boa.” He was offered a job in Samoa, Sebald writes, and though his reasons for turning it down are unknown, Sebald readily proposes one for his capricious subject: “Let us simply assume that it is because among the first German South Sea discoverers and explorers there was a certain gentleman called Otto von Kotzebue, against whom Walser was just as irrevocably prejudiced as he was against the playwright of the same name, whom he called a narrow-minded philistine, claiming he had a too-long nose, bulging eyes, and no neck,” and had been popular when Walser’s preferred Heinrich von Kleist suffered obscurity. A reader can almost hear Sebald’s fond chuckle at Walser’s intergenerational literary loyalty—fond, and knowing.

Sebald is strikingly tender in this chapter, where he finds his own grandfather in Walser and vice versa—“something about the way each had of holding his hat in his hand, and the way that even in the finest weather, they would always carry an umbrella or a raincoat”—and invites the reader to compare photographs of the two: a hatted Walser out for a walk during his days in the Herisau home, a similarly dressed and similarly mustached man on a country road with a very young Sebald by the hand. Such correspondences are not trivial to Sebald, who cannot ignore the fact that his grandfather and Walser died in the same year, nor that his grandfather died just before Walser’s final birthday. Sebald does not attempt to speculate on the meaning of this apparent synchronicity, though he clearly wishes to draw some from it:

“Perhaps that is the reason why now, when I think back to my grandfather’s death—to which I have never been able to reconcile myself—in my mind’s eye I always see him lying on the horn sledge on which Walser’s body, after he had been found in the snow and photographed, was taken back to the asylum. What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences? Are they rebases of memory, delusions of the self and of the sense, or rather schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension? . . . I . . . will just set down without comment what happened to me recently while reading the novel Der Räuber [The Robber], the only one of Walser’s longer works with which I was at the time still unfamiliar. Quite near the beginning of the book the narrator states that the Robber crossed Lake Constance by moonlight. Exactly thus—by moonlight—is how, in one of my own stories, Aunt Fini imagines the young Ambros crossing the selfsame lake . . . Barely two pages farther on, the same story relates how, later, Ambros . . . made the acquaintance of a lady from Shanghai [who] marked the beginning of his Trauerlaufbahn [career in mourning]. It is a similarly mysterious woman . . . whom the Robber meets, two pages on from the moonlit scene on Lake Constance, in a pale November wood—and nor is that all: a little later in the text, I know not from what depths, there appears the word Trauerlaufbahn, a term which I believed . . . to be an invention entirely my own. 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, but it is one thing to set a marker in memory of a departed colleague, and quite another when on has the persistent feeling of being beckoned from the other side.”

Indeed, Sebald’s voice rises with a seer’s authority—or maybe simply the authority, and liberty, of a novelist—as he conjures Walser’s “nocturnal epic marches with the moon shining a white track before him,” as he at once sees “the view from a window of the Herisau asylum” and hears “the pistol shot across the Wannsee” that killed Kleist, a death he connects to that of Walser, who wrote similarly speculative meditations upon Kleist’s life and work. Walser’s mystical presence descends on Sebald in Sebald’s moments of walking and of writing: “On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.” Walser’s gaze becomes Sebald’s, and through Walser, Sebald’s becomes Rousseau’s: “[S]ometimes I imagined that I see with [Walser’s] eyes the bright Seeland and within this land of lakes the lake like a shimmering island, and in this lake-island another island, the Île Saint-Pierre.” With Walser mediating this vision of the Swiss island where Rousseau took temporary refuge, the three writers find some sort of communions; they bleed like watercolors into each other. Translator Jo Catling, a UEA colleague of Sebald, negotiates these delicate layers of embedded identity with a sensitive and confident hand. Her renditions of Sebald’s words and the words of his subjects—quoted at length in the text—are at once distinct from one another and remain of a piece in mood. She gives us not just Sebald’s voice but the voices of Sebald’s Walser, Sebald’s Walser’s Rousseau.

Rousseau in retirement Credit: Hanser Verlag

Rousseau in retirement
Credit: Hanser Verlag

Rousseau too must run for and from his work; as rendered by Sebald, this solitary walker also harbors a “dégoût” for writing that “always went hand in hand with the act of writing,” and he walks to escape the dirty, “pathological” compulsion to write and think. After a 1965 Pisgah-sight of Île Saint-Pierre, a student Sebald decides to visit the island as soon as possible, which turns out to be in 1996. Staying in a room a few doors down from Rousseau’s own, he spends hours looking out of Rousseau’s window “as if I had been transported back to an earlier age, an illusion I could indulge in all the more readily inasmuch as the island still retained that same quality of silence . . . as was still to be found everywhere in the world a century or two ago.” In his account of Rousseau’s unhappy movements across Europe, Sebald gives him, too, a better, broader counter-history, interpolating his own walk on the Corsican estate that could have been Rousseau’s, had his theoretical interest in the island’s nationalist movement moved him to accept a post as its constitutional architect. Rousseau, loath to leave his creature comforts, never actually set foot there, but Sebald sees him finding longer-lasting relief from writer-pain on the southern island: “In the surrounding area, covering the slopes of the hills, were groves of sweet chestnuts in whose dappled shade Rousseau could have taken the air with his dog at his side. Who can say whether, if he had spent the rest of his life there, far removed from the hubbub of literary business and hypocrisy, he might yet have retained that sense of sanity and proportion which later at times threatened to desert him altogether.”

Such bold claims are perhaps at odds with the narrative personality Sebald cultivates in his earlier books. A kind of curatorial modesty seems to guide much of Sebald’s work; his novels—if novels they are—intersperse the movements and memories of a self-effacing, seemingly autobiographical narrator with anecdotes from other lives; indistinct black-and-white photographs; and forays into history, literature, and natural science that would seem like digressions if the actual subject of discourse were at all clear. In his 1967 essay The Literature of Exhaustion, novelist John Barth speaks of Borges’ Labyrinths as the “fictions of a learned librarian.” Borges is cursed with a literary consciousness not unlike the painfully comprehensive memory of his famous Ireneo Funes, who can only find relief from his powers of recall by imagining—or failing to imagine—places he has not yet seen. He abandons any presumption of narrative originality in favor of writing “brief comments on imaginary books.” New fiction is doomed to be a—perhaps inadequate—footnote to what has come before. Like Borges, whose preoccupation with memory and repetition he shares, Sebald frequently poses on the page as presenter and arranger. He is at times presenter, indeed, of Borges’ work, which he references by name in The Rings of Saturn, and even, in a sort of second-generation capacity, of things presented by Borges. The Rings of Saturn opens and closes with the seventeenth-century polymath Thomas Browne, whose real and imagined works make appearances in Labyrinths, and whose own writings include careful descriptions of imaginary objects in a nonexistent museum. The result is a novel that reads like a journey through one of the blurred landscapes in the pictures, at once familiar but unplaceable, somewhere between the sober documentation of an archive photograph and the subjectivity of a watercolor. 

Playing card with Rousseau's notes Credit: Hanser Verlag

Playing card with Rousseau's notes
Credit: Hanser Verlag

What Sebald does in writing, then, is not unlike what he sees in the paintings of contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp, whose work, according to Sebald, is suspended between photorealistic reproduction of the world and an implicit critique of “realism.” Fittingly, Sebald’s discussion of Tripp—a friend and collaborator, whose images accompany Sebald’s poetry in the book published after Sebald’s early death as Unrecounted—ends the book, though Sebald curiously does not acknowledge the actual connection between the two, the only one of his subjects he knew personally. Tripp’s “trompe l’oeil” accuracy of representation holds within it its own repudiation; by its very apparent authenticity, Sebald writes, it conveys a “whiff of trickery and inconsequentiality.” Such a sense of deception comes, he continues, from the knowledge of the artifice that underlies even the most faithful representation: “[T]he essence of a painting by Jan Peter Tripp lies not in what one might assume to be the purely objective and affirmatory quality of its identical reproduction of reality . . . but rather in the far more subtle ways in which it deviates and differs from it.” However meticulous the artist, there must be a convenient blurring here, a subjective adjustment there to fill in the details that lie “beyond the threshold of visibility.”

This understanding permeates A Place in the Country, where Sebald’s archival fastidiousness is fully present, but his artistic interventions are mixed in less evenly than elsewhere. Seemingly scholarly reflections on a series of German and Swiss writers (and one artist) who are, though not imaginary, little-known to Anglophones (with the exception of Rousseau and perhaps Walser), nearly obscure the author’s studiously unobtrusive I, only to recede entirely behind it without warning. The calmly assembled argument for inherent deviation of realist art from the real moves suddenly from quoting art historian Ernst Gombrich on the artist’s inevitable reliance “‘on suggestion, when it comes to representing the infinitely small,’” to an authoritative evocation of a kind of sublime creative experience, with Sebald claiming, on a physiological level, to know Tripp’s experience as if Tripp is a character. “[T]he creation of a perfect illusion depends . . . ultimately upon the intuitive channeling of a breathless state in which the painter himself no longer knows whether his eye still sees or his hand still moves,” he writes. Through this impossibly intimate, even molecular sense of Tripp’s artistic process, Sebald arrives at an authoritative interpretation of Tripp’s work: “The recurring experience of a state of utmost concentration in which the breath grows ever shallower, the silence ever greater, the limbs gradually go numb and the eyes grow dim, brought death into the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp . . . In order to discover it, the painter had to venture across the border.” The evidence of this journey is in the “terrifying abyss” that Sebald finds beneath Tripp’s “surface illusionism”—the knowledge of oblivion that art, in its “endless series of reproductions,” tries to deny.

Sebald's grandfather's almanac Credit: Hanser Verlag

Sebald's grandfather's almanac
Credit: Hanser Verlag

The subjective voice, Sebald-as-agent or even character, breaks out flamboyantly and without warning in the findings and analyses of a diligent researcher. Sebald deftly parses the French Revolution-era Alemannic poet and tale-teller Johann Peter Hebel’s grammar and syntax to deliver an account of Hebel as a tolerant, democratic cosmopolitan. Sebald thus rehabilitates Hebel from his cooptation by Heidegger as a Nazi-boosting ethnically-allied speaker for the Volk, denying any nationalistic use of language on Hebel’s part: “The words are . . . not set down in accordance with Alemannic usage, but rather follow exactly the word order of Yiddish, which refuses to subordinate itself to the rules of German syntax . . . The highly wrought language which Hebel devised . . . probably functioned even in his own day more as a distancing effect than a badge of tribal affiliation[…his] particular fondness for the paratactic conjunctions ‘and,’ ‘or,’ and ‘but’ . . . gives rise to some of his most sophisticated effects. Opposed to any hierarchy or subordination, they suggest to the reader in the most unobtrusive way that in the world created and administered by this narrator, everything has an equal right to coexist alongside everything else.” From coolheaded intellectual explication, however, Sebald shifts suddenly into the affective and deeply personal, a childlike, animistic belief in the stories that “every few weeks makes [Sebald] want to check whether the Barber of Segringen and the Tailor of Penza are still there.” This devotion, particularly to Hebel’s “calendar stories,” published in the Rheinländischer Hausfreund almanac, stems from “the completely coincidental fact that my grandfather, whose use of language was in many ways reminiscent of that of the Hausfreund, would every year buy a Kempter Calender [Kempten Almanac] in which he would note, in his indelible pencil, the name days of his relatives and friends, the first frost, the first snowfall, the onset of the Föhn, thunderstorms, hailstorms, and suchlike, and also, on the pages left blank for notes, the occasional recipe for Wermuth or for gentian schnapps.” A few facsimiles of what are presumably pages from Sebald’s grandfather’s almanac, with handwritten annotations, follow, as if in an attempt to recreate for the reader—or at least illustrate—the sense of order, quite apart from any textual analysis, that Sebald finds in Hebel:

Almanac multiplication tables Credit: Hanser Verlag

Almanac multiplication tables
Credit: Hanser Verlag

[T]he multiplication tables, the tables for calculating rates of interest, the saints’ names beside every date, the Sundays and holy days marked in red, the phases of the moon, the symbols of the planets and signs of the Zodiac, and the Jewish calendar, which strangely enough was still retained even after 1945—all this even today constitutes for me a system in which, as once in my childhood, I would still like to imagine that everything is arranged for the best. For this reason, nowhere do I find the idea of a world in perfect equilibrium more vividly expressed than in what Hebel writes about the cultivation of fruit trees, of the flowering of the wheat, of a bird’s nest, or of the different kinds of rain; nowhere more readily grasped than when I observe the way in which, with his unerring moral compass, he differentiates between gratitude and ingratitude, avarice and extravagance, and all the various other vices and frailties mankind is heir to. Against the blind and headlong onrush of history he sets occasions when misfortune endured is recompensed; where every military campaign is followed by a peace treaty, and every puzzle has a solution . . . Hebel’s wonderful inner certainty is derived, though, less from what he knows about the nature of things than from the contemplation of that which surpasses rational thought.

Through this chain of associations specific and personal to Sebald, Hebel becomes a death-transcending link to kith and kin, a figure of natural and genetic continuity, a teleological claim. The reappropriation of Hebel from the Nazis, begun with a sedate examination of linguistic patterns, is made complete only by this flight into personal testimony, Sebald’s I. The narrator is a key term in Hebel’s redemption here, a medium of sorts. Through Sebald’s childhood memories, Hebel is connected to elements of Jewish culture voluntarily maintained by a German publication, to moral accountability, to the possibility of atonement. Further, with his propensity to lose himself in “pure contemplation and wonderment” at the natural world, Hebel, like Sebald, retains as a narrator a susceptibility to the sublime. Hebel’s scientific expertise, like Sebald’s literary expertise, can cede place at any moment to a “cosmic perspective,” a desubjectification that “undermines his own proclaimed omniscience at every turn.”

Perhaps it’s cheap to look for a cosmic perspective in the work of the dead, but Sebald seems to be straining toward one here. He is not just the observer of The Rings of Saturn but a participant who can share bodies and thoughts with the circle of artists he has assembled. Long-dead writers are quick again, and Sebald brings them together; confronting mortality and artistic loneliness, he seems here to look for—and at times obtain—solace in the face of both. The remedy for at least the latter is perhaps available now, given the ever-widening availability of writer communities; an investigation in the vein of McGurl’s inquiries into the changes that institutionalized training for creative writing have produced in contemporary literature might be worthwhile. Ultimately, however, salutary though they may be for morale, energy, and motivation, such communities cannot hide or change the persistent single-passenger form that writing takes. Writing at UEA still meant seclusion in my campus dorm room—where, thrown off by the long English spring and summer days when twilight comes at ten p.m., I eventually turned my always-fragile sleep schedule inside out completely, settling down to work at midnight and going to bed at six—or in the library, where, after canvassing several floors of stall-like study rooms to find an unoccupied one, and reading all the graffiti on the wall—What is teen angst? and in response, in another hand, Fuck you, that is such an unfair question!—and drinking a Pepsi Max, I might at last summon the strength to open the file, to one-handedly pick out words that echoed flat and sharp in the necessary silence. The ghostly unity Sebald summons up is perhaps the only kind of true company a writing writer can have. Nothing can be done for people who insist on going looking for melancholy places to walk. No camaraderie can help those who, dreaming, are haunted by the thought they have “got hold of the wrong thread.” As with dying, everyone writes alone.


Nell Pach completed her master's in creative writing in 2011 and is working on a Ph.D in English literature at the University of Chicago.