I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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And Another Thing

Enda O’Doherty
A Place in the Country, by WG Sebald, (translated by Jo Catling), Hamish Hamilton, 202 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0241144183 Thomas Mann once defined a writer as a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. WG Sebald’s newly translated collection of essays, which comprises short studies of five writers and a painter, explores that difficulty, though not in its more commonly observed ‑ and perhaps milder ‑ aspects: not the screwed up sheets of paper in the overflowing waste paper bin, not the four sentences that are all that can be kept after seven hours at the desk; no, Sebald’s interest is in writing as a mania, a heavy weight, a compulsion that grips the victim and will not let go, that pushes him to the edge of madness, and sometimes over. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed, at least with part of his faculties, that the practice of rational thought wrenched the human animal from his natural, happy state. He found that the copying of musical notation, a task he sometimes had to fall back on to earn a living, served to keep the thoughts whirling in his mind at bay. But mostly he was a slave to that kind of writing which, in Sebald’s words, can be seen as “a continually self-perpetuating compulsive act, evidence that, of all individuals afflicted by the disease of thought, the writer is perhaps the most incurable”. Sebald’s subjects in this volume, first published in German in 1998 under the title Logis in einem Landhaus, are the dialectal poet, storyteller and pedagogue Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826); Rousseau; poet and novelist Eduard Mörike (1804-1875); novelist and short story writer Gottfried Keller (1819-1890); novelist Robert Walser (1878-1956) and painter Jan Peter Tripp (1945- ). All are slightly marginal figures, closer to the edge than the centre of the ‑ save for Rousseau, marginal in a different culture ‑ German linguistic space. Hebel was born in the Swiss border city of Basel, close to both French Alsace and German Baden; Mörike in Ludwigsburg in Swabia; Keller in Zurich, Walser in Biel/Bienne on the French-German linguistic frontier of Switzerland, while the painter Tripp, like his friend Sebald, is from the Allgäu in the far south of Germany. All come from what is called the Allemanic dialect region. Indeed Hebel is much celebrated in Germany for his dialect poems. Apart from those poems, he has…

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