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 been best known for the almanac tales he wrote for the Badischer Landkalender and the Rheinländischer Hausfreund. The best of these were collected in 1811 in the Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds (Treasure Chest of the Rhineland Family Friend). A selection in English is published by Penguin Classics as The Treasure Chest: Unexpected Reunion and Other Stories. An almanac was once an important possession in the house of any rural family of moderate literacy. Sebald’s particular affection for Hebel’s tales (a casket of jewels, he writes, whose key was carelessly thrown among peasants and children) stems partly from the fact that his 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 Fähn [a warm wind from the Alps], thunderstorms, hailstorms and suchlike, and also, on the pages left blank for notes, the occasional recipe for Wermuth [wormwood or absinthe] or for gentian schnapps”. The world of the almanac in which Hebel’s tales were interspersed, a comfortingly unchanging one represented by multiplication tables, tables for the calculation of interest, saints’ names for every date and Sundays and holy days marked in red, the phases of the moon, the Jewish calendar (still there, curiously, after 1945)
… all of 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 wheat, of a bird’s nest or of the different kinds of rain; nowhere more readily grasped than the way in which, with his unerring moral compass, he differentiates between gratitude and ingratitude, avarice and extravagance, and all the other vices and frailties mankind is heir to.
It was perhaps not surprising that the National Socialists should attempt to appropriate a figure so apparently rooted in the German soil for their own ends. Sebald points out, however, that Hebel’s greatness was first championed in the twentieth century by the Jewish writers Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka and Ernst Bloch; also that Martin Heidegger’s lecture on him in 1957 “differed not in the slightest form” from that employed by the crudest propagandists of the Third Reich. When Sebald began his university studies at Freiburg in 1963 all of that had only just been – he does not say swept away but “swept under the carpet” – so it was only due to the gradually reappearing essays of the Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School that he was able to find his way to Hebel at all.
One of the more obvious satisfactions that can be derived from Sebald’s observations on these cherished figures is that his praise of them often shines particular light on his own practice as a prose writer. Of Hebel’s engaging long-windedness, he writes that “[as] one thing follows another, so very gradually, the narrative unfolds. Nevertheless, the language constantly checks itself, holding itself up in small loops and digressions and moulding itself to that which it describes, along the way recuperating as many earthly goods as it possibly can [emphasis added].” Hebel’s fondness for long sentences linked by paratactic conjunctions – “and”, “or” and “but” ‑ does not signify naivete or lack of linguistic means but rather suggests to the reader “in the most inobtrusive way that, in the world created and administered by this narrator, everything has an equal right to coexist alongside everything else”. And here is Sebald himself four pages earlier:
Doubtless his continued observations about the cosmos were intended to give his readers a gentle introduction to the universe, to make it familiar so that they might imagine that on the most distant stars, as they glisten in the night like the lights of a strange town, people like us are sitting in their living rooms at home ‘and reading the newspaper, or saying their evening prayers, or else are spinning and knitting, or playing a game of trumps, while the young lad is working out a mathematical problem using the rule of three’; and certainly Hebel describes for us the orbits of the planets, noting for our edification how long a cannonball fired in Breisach would take to reach Mars, and speaks of the moon as our most trusted guardian, true household friend and the first maker of calendars of this earth; yet his true art lies in the inversion of this perspective encompassing even the furthest stars, when from the point of view of an extraterrestrial being he looks out into the glittering heavens, and from there sees our sun as a tiny star, and the earth not at all, and suddenly no longer knows ‘that there was a war on in Austria and that the Turks won the siege of Silistria’.
Johann Peter Hebel is, probably by some distance, the most at home in the world of the writers Sebald chooses as his subjects. His Rousseau, on a visit to the tiny island of Saint-Pierre in the Lac de Bienne (or in German the Peterinsel in the Bielersee), is on the cusp of “a dozen years of fear and panic” when the paranoia to which he has always been prone will become increasingly dominant. Eduard Mörike, uneasy in a new Germany which in its visual art (Biedermeyer style) celebrates calm, order and cosy domesticity but in which one’s place is increasingly determined by a pitiless work ethic and a harsh spirit of competition, feels weariness, vertigo and headaches and goes around “like a frightened chicken” or “a stupid child who cries at everything”. Towards the end of his life we see him sitting in the garden surrounded by his wife’s relations, the only man among women and the only one reading a book. For years now his novel has been going nowhere in particular, but he is a writer; he cannot stop, cannot retire. A visitor to the house recalls seeing him on several occasions furtively scribbling down ideas on scraps of paper, only to tear them up into little pieces and stuff them in his dressing gown pockets some time later.
His biographer Adolf Muschg has said of Gottfried Keller, the author of the classic bildungsroman Der Grüne Heinrich (Green Henry), that it “would have required a miracle of empathy and consideration to overcome the feelings of social and physical inferiority from which he suffered”. The beautiful women he readily admired were not able to ignore his exceptionally short stature and the only one who seemed prepared to share her life with him drowned herself a few weeks after their engagement. Sebald reproduces images of the blotting paper Keller used as he worked on his novel, on which is endlessly scribbled the name or names (“Betty Betty Betty” “BBettytybetti”, “bettibettibetti”, “Bettybittebetti”) of an unrequited love. He also quotes at considerable length a passage of exceptional beauty from Keller’s novel in which the young Heinrich experiences an epiphany while attending to the construction of a coffin in which to lay his young cousin Anna, who has died before her time.
Robert Walser grew up bilingual in Bienne/Biel on the French/German linguistic border of Switzerland. Forced to leave school because of his family’s poverty he took a number of short-lived jobs as a clerk. His first writings were published in a Berne newspaper and shortly afterwards in the influential Munich literary magazine Die Insel. In 1905 he went to Berlin, where his brother Karl was successfully established as a theatre painter. Robert, who had himself had aspirations to act, was attracted to his brothers’ witty and cosmopolitan friends but felt himself to be something of a bumpkin in their company, no doubt even more so when he was told that he was welcome to join their gatherings ‑ but only if he did not eat so much.
His novels The Tanners, The Assistant and Jakob von Gunten were well received, earning praise from Musil, Kafka and Hesse among others. Walser’s mother had suffered from mental illness for most of her life. Now his brother Ernst too became ill, was brought to the Waldau mental home and in 1916 died there. In 1919 his brother Hermann committed suicide. At the end of the 1920s Walser himself succumbed to mental illness and entered the Waldau home. Though he recovered, he was eventually moved, against his will, to the sanatorium at Herisau in Appenzell, where he spent the last two decades of his life. Asked, while there, if he was still writing he apparently replied: “I came here to be mad, not to write.” And yet one orderly has reported that on more than one occasion he saw Walser jotting down notes on small pieces of paper which he then hid away.
Walser’s art, Sebald writes, is that of “a clairvoyant of the small”. Though the figure of the attractive woman is far from absent from his fiction, in real life “coming to an arrangement with a woman was an impossibility”. And so his capacity for love was deflected into literary creation, for
in life, as in fairytales, there are those who, out of fear and poverty, cannot afford emotions, and who therefore, like Walser in one of his most poignant prose pieces, have to try out their seemingly atrophied ability to love on inanimate substances and objects unheeded by anyone else ‑ such as ash, a needle, a pencil, or a matchstick.
In terms which might remind us of those used of Hebel, Sebald writes that among Walser’s notable literary qualities are his “almost manic loquaciousness … [one element in] the painstaking process of elaboration [he] indulges in, out of fear of reaching the end too quickly”.
Walser entered Herisau in 1933, in the same year his German neighbours embarked on their disastrous engagement with national destiny. Knowing that his work would henceforth find little favour with the German-speaking audience, he told Carl Seelig, a friend and protector who was to rescue his work and reputation from obscurity, that his world had been destroyed by the Nazis. In recent years new Walser material has been found, all that was previously published brought back into print and widely translated and a new, definitive biography is expected.
The posthumous publication in English translation of this volume by Sebald (he died in a car accident in 2001) will certainly add to his already very considerable reputation. The collection, which incidentally as a physical object is a credit to the publisher, will certainly be appreciated for its literary qualities, but one also hopes it will encourage more English-speakers to read some of the writers about whom Sebald is so enthusiastic and to whom he would seem to be such an admirable guide. Certainly we could all do with expanding our horizons: the title of the Guardian’s recent feature (April 20th) published to coincide with the book’s appearance – “WG Sebald: The missing essays” – has, given that the said essays have been available for fifteen years, something of the flavour of the famous Times headline “Heavy fog in channel, continent cut off”.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.