A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald, trans. by Jo Catling, Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, £20 (hardback)
It may be that the editors of this latest volume of posthumously-translated Sebald were doubtful about its reception. The watercolour landscape by Gottfried Keller featured on the dust jacket has been so significantly cropped as almost to efface the troubling blank of its lower third which, as Sebald’s essay on Keller relates, was rather fastidiously excised by one of his failed loves. Similarly, the louring, bilious tones in which the image was reproduced on the original Suhrkamp edition have been bleached to an inviting pastel. This design, coupled with the rendering of Logis in einem Landhaus as A Place in the Country – attenuating as it does the insecurity of ‘lodgings’ – may conspire to evoke a holiday home in Tuscany or Provence as readily as the more equivocal landscapes with which Sebald is concerned. Indeed, it could be that the exceptionally high regard in which Sebald’s enigmatic novels are held in Britain seemed an uncertain recommendation for a volume largely composed of essays on relatively obscure Germanophone writers. Would readers find enough of the ‘hypnotic’ prose, its technical mastery matched only by its moral lucidity, for which the fictions are celebrated? Certainly Leo Robson’s Guardian review, although it began by announcing Sebald’s final victory over naysayers who find him ‘pompous or banal’,1 went on to strike a more cautious, or even slightly apologetic tone. The volume arrives, then, with the presumptive air of a last sock plucked from the bottom drawer of the oeuvre.
Yet this is no mere Nachlass or posthumous leaving. Its German publication came, in 1996, at the height of Sebald’s novel-writing. And the essays, particularly those on Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser, not only shed light on corners of German letters that would otherwise be quite obscure to English readers; they also tell, in an oblique manner, a story about the emergence of some important aspects of Sebald’s own aesthetic. They carve out a notional historical space, roughly book-ended by bourgeois dismay at the Reign of Terror in 1793 and the rise of National Socialism, in which Sebald imagines a province of unquiet quietism. It is a place in which small, unassuming values strive to hold out against monumentalism and the spirit of system; but also one which threatens to reveal itself as a mere retreat from an unwelcome history, set against the theatrical backdrop of a domesticated landscape.
Haunted by portents of disaster to come and no longer sure of the ground they tread, in Sebald’s telling these writers cut slightly ghostly figures reminiscent of his fictional protagonists; and they act out the difficult, exilic relationship with Heimat or homeland that was a red thread of his novels from The Emigrants to Austerlitz. But it would be wrong to simply privilege the novels here. In the essays collected in Unheimliche Heimat (1991), which were written before Sebald’s career as a novelist began, the central question was already, how should we approach a familiar landscape made uncanny (unheimliche) by a disastrous history of appropriation and compromise? If Sebald’s fictions are all in some degree critical responses to this question, it is equally true that the criticism dramatises it. Indeed, the drama is in some respects closer to the surface, as all that is fictional in Sebald’s critical position – the partiality and tendentiousness to which his desire to delineate exemplary literary lives drives him – risks exposure. But this drama, which troubles at moments the placid distance of his prose, is the great virtue of the present volume and what makes of it, to borrow one of its recurring motifs, a Schatzkästlein or little treasure chest of insights.
Perhaps the first of these insights indeed relates to the value of objects and the nature of the Sebaldian alchemy that transforms them into treasure. When the protagonist of Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich is washing in a lake a pane of glass taken from an old picture frame with which he means to glaze the window of his sister’s coffin, he finds on it the ghostly image of angels. This apparition is explained by a chemical process through which an engraving, through long contact, imprints its negative. Thus Keller, Sebald insists, attributes the magic of the scene not to the angels but to the air, the light and the water of the lake, ‘unclouded by any transcendence’. It is this commitment to earthly things as against the illusions of religion and transcendence that Sebald cherishes. Yet, as in his fictions, the motif of spectrality survives, and necessarily so, for things themselves stand in need of a secular redemption. They attain this when they have lost or forgotten their original place in the narrative of use and productivity, like the bric-à-brac piled up in a dingy old emporium in another episode from Keller’s novel, which owes its charm to having escaped the circuit of capitalism and so ‘entered eternity.’
There is a close analogy between this fictional topic and Sebald’s critical enterprise. Thus we learn that Johann Peter Hebel – whose literary almanac, the Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds [The Treasure Chest of the Family Friend from the Rhine, (1803-11)], introduces the topic of the treasure-chest – is himself a piece of cultural bric-à-brac. Depreciated in his own time for homely insignificance, then appropriated by National Socialist völkisch ideology, he has all but passed out of historical circulation. But what Sebald wants to find in Hebel is neither the nostalgic glow of a peasant past, nor the fresh aesthetic possibilities of an object whose original use has become a mystery in the present. Rather what matters to him is Hebel’s consciousness of his predicament in his own time. Thus the shifts in his narrative point of view – from close attention to small, homely things to a ‘cosmic perspective’ in which human activity seems insignificantly small, then back to undermining any pretention to omniscience – strangely fore-echo the self-cancelling detours of the writer’s afterlife. If this view itself seems strangely omniscient, we must put this down to Hebel’s ‘unerring moral compass’, a device so magical it has the power to turn Hebel’s ‘unfortunate’ patriotic call to arms of 1814 into its opposite. ‘Possibly’, says Sebald before citing the offending passage, Hebel already had an intimation of the downward slide of history, so he must have felt ‘ill at ease’ composing it. Possibly. But the compass’s more evident magic consists of a highly partial hindsight rather hopefully projected backwards as prophecy.
It is in such moments, when he wrestles to extricate his protagonists from any taint of compromise, even to the extent of awarding them powers that perversely contradict their prized refusal of transcendence, that Sebald’s hand is most evident. It is a hand that desperately wants to be, like Robert Walser’s, ‘unerringly steady’, and armed with an ‘aesthetic and moral assurance’ that, aiming for ‘the greatest possible degree of lucidity’, allowed him to see, better than anyone in the 1920s, the disaster that was to come. Because Walser is not given to reflecting directly on current affairs, Sebald can offer by way of evidence only a single piece written before the First World War on the fate of the Ottoman Empire. But his notion of Walser’s impeccable ethical tact in any case derives more from Sebald’s insistence that such a quality must be implicit in the traits of the writing he loves so much. Tellingly, these traits – a love of walking, a preference for the lost and insignificant over the monumental, and a penchant for characters who enter and exit so fleetingly that they seem shrouded in a ghostly flickering – may strike keen readers of Sebald as uncannily familiar.
Indeed, Sebald reveals where he picked up some of his own stuff with a generosity that we ought to admire. Even so, he implies that there is much more at stake here than mere borrowing or influence. Only upon belatedly reading Walser’s novel The Robber, he tells us, did he realise that several incidents in a novel of his own had been, so to speak, forewritten there. This leads to a trademark musing on the mystery of such strange coincidences: are they the work of memory, delusions, or signs of an order underlying existence but beyond our understanding? Sebald’s yearning is towards the last of these alternatives: that he and Walser would alike have chanced upon the face of things as they are unconditioned by a malign history. And yet, because we must not, for ethical reasons, turn away from history, and cannot in any case find any significance in things that is not in some measure historical, the idea of a thing in itself would be a scandal. Its ersatz, however – a community of letters forged around an ability to see the neglected face of things – remains. This is the only homeland Sebald can contemplate, one that has the used, makeshift character of an old room whose peace we populate with the ghosts of past strife while we lodge there.
In the end, then, Sebald leaves us in a place that is uncertain and provisional, and it is for this above all that his writing has been prized. Yet it is equally important not to lose sight of the extraordinary surefootedness upon which even this community of despondency in letters depends, and indeed to which his own writing, with the stately unfolding of its long, masterfully lugubrious sentences, itself palpably aspires. In their haste to promote uncertainty as the supreme value of his writing, Sebald’s admirers have sometimes left the unerring moral compass tacitly in the hands of the writer, thus engendering the chimera of a writer whom we can trust with absolute assurance to lead us to the right sort of uncertainty. It is to this mythical figure, I would suggest, that we owe the eschatological notion of a final victory that leaves no room for any middle position. But why should we wish to immure a poet of small, lost things in a ghastly, inhuman monument? The present volume, with its amiable, yet also precarious wandering through the byways of German letters may be just the thing that the current English-language reception of Sebald, with its incipient universalising and monumentalising, needs.
1 Leo Robson, ‘The school of sullen flanerie’, The Guardian 22 June 2013.