Sebald’s place in the country

Sebald is a significant figure in the walking/writing arena, hailed by not least Self, Sinclair and Macfarlane. He came along after I had finished my Germanistik studies, and although I picked up The Emigrants on publication he didn’t become a regular habit. If I’d studied at UEA rather than Bristol it could all have been different.

WG also found time to be founding director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. How to get your head around it?

In his review of A place in the country Leo Robson states:

efforts to co-ordinate a wave of dissent – or to win even partial acceptance for the view, expressed by Alan Bennett, Michael Hofmann and Adam Thirlwell, that his work is pompous or banal – have faltered

He highlights how ‘Sebaldian’ is constantly invoked to characterise the “new school of sullen flanerie, to substantiate non-fiction’s claims to creativity”.

Taking A place in the country as an example, sections of the six essays read like presentation speeches for an academic conference (which some of them were), with the assumption that the reader is familiar enough with the subjects to bypass biographical narrative in favour of what they “might be shown to symbolise or represent…in Sebald’s own variant of Romantic autobiography” (Robson):

Sebald’s work is driven by associative thinking – coincidences, connections – but his chief aim was to evoke and capture, and his images, rich in mystery, or resonant with pathos, are what linger.

Damien Searls finds his approach out of date is some ways, but redeemed by the fact that he “never just found connections or followed links; he made them, made them new”. This “unsystematic searching, idiosyncratic linking” is more, not less, relevant in a time of big data and preprogrammed hyperlinks.

The Danish library system delivered the original Carl Hanser edition of A place in the country, published as Logis in einem Landhaus in 1998, from the national library to my local library in less than a week. It didn’t look like it’s ever been opened, but there were a few light pencil marks on the text. Sadly, both sustained reading on a screen and borrowed books present me with problems, plus here I was beaten by the German, so I finally invested in the paperback Penguin. This is less satisfactory as an object than the German edition, with the colour plates at the heart of each essay bisected rather than included as two page foldouts.

In translation the style is still troublesome – Wikipedia sums up Sebald’s German as “intentionally somewhat old fashioned and elaborate”, making frequent use of page long paragraphs and even sentences. I’m not sure what it’s left me with.

Selection from the review canon: Vertigo | Towards UtopiaTredynas DaysObserver | Slate | LA Review of Books | New York Times | Music and Literature

The links with Robert Walser are significant, and for many of the above the Walser essay (Le Promeneur Solitaire, available online in The New Yorker) is the most successful. See Vertigo on The Robber intro (2009) and in A place in the country (2013).

You can spot the common ground – from A little ramble: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much”.

Like Walser, Sebald attracts a wide range of responses, inspiring others to curate and create:

I’m still tempted to give The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz a whirl at some point – the cover of the latter is familiar, as my father had it on his desk until he died, I suspect at best half-read, the battle against the nine page sentence lost.

New for 2015! Sebaldiana, a blog for the exhibition Sebald Variations, part of the Kosmopolis15 amplified literature festival in Barcelona, being held from 18-22 March. Posts include The clocks of Austerlitz part 1 and part 2, Sinclair on Sebald and Sebald and Germany. In Five Dials 36 we find To the brothel by way of Switzerland: WG Sebald Kafka’s travel diaries (trans: Anthea Bell) – with added Mahler: “Wiesengrund once wrote of Mahler that his music was the cardiogram of a breaking heart” (lots more Sebald).

And into 2016…Hidden Europe on The art of flying, citing Sebald’s Die Kunst des Fliegens (untranslated, it seems) and issues of displacement and perspective; more via Vertigo: “…travel as a unifying “aesthetic strategy” for Sebald. Sebald’s hybrid writing style and his “extremely multifarious material” could only be bound together through his use of travelogue as a narrative structure”…Teju Cole’s Always returning in The New Yorker (2012).

2017 brings us Melancholia: a Sebald variation at Somerset House (via Barcelona).

See also Sebald and photography (“photos catch the moment, have a short time to survive before they are lost/stuck in a box, stop the flow of text, disturb the norms of seeing and reading” and Vertigo’s annual bibliography of photo-embedded literature.

And for Sebald on method see Benjamin Lytal in The Daily Beast, with the Sebald quote  on dogs and writing:

If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.

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