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Damien Searls finds his approach out of date is some ways, but redeemed by the fact that he “never just found connections or followed links; he made them, made them new”.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).

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.

Lake Lucerne and the Alps

Here’s a second post from our recent trip to Switzerland. It’s taking rather longer than intended to turn these round, but fine polishing my notes has meant revisiting Switzerland on a grey February day in Denmark, so maybe not such a bad idea after all. Although our trip was mainly centred around cities, it was hard to avoid the constant presence of mountains. Not necessarily in a hearty “let’s get up there and do some sport” way, but integrated into Swiss culture rather more subtly. How does a country’s topography affect the people who live there? It may be one of those things you don’t notice until you don’t have it any more. Growing up in Edinburgh, one of many cities built on seven hills, views of the Pentlands from our house or driving down Kaimes Road, walks with the dogs up Costorphine and Blackford Hills and the occasional foray up Arthur’s Seat were the norm. It took quite a while for me to realise just how flat Denmark is – but we’ll leave that for another post. Having missed the opportunity to visit Chalet School favourite Interlaken while we were in Bern, we decided to take a day trip to Luzern, partly inspired by the mural in Basel station:

Photo 03-01-14 19.13.10

Luzern itself tended to the pretty pretty and was a bit Zurich without the grit (of which more later), but the views of the Alps were just what we were looking for. We took a boat trip on the ink blot shaped Vierwaldstättersee, one arm of which offers the 35km Weg der Schweiz, a national path opened in 1991 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Swiss Confederation in the meadow of the Rütli:

The route recognises each of the cantons making up Switzerland, with markers announcing each canton along the route. The length of route for each canton is proportional to the population at the time of building, and the order is determined by the order in which the cantons joined the Swiss federation.

Mount Pilatus, a destination in itself, reared up behind us on a 40 minute voyage to Weggis, at the foot of Mount Rigi, with its own cable car to Rigi Kaltbad. How delighted was I to discover that the area had been visited not only by Mark Twain but also by Goethe – both of whom have their own trail. For more see Rigi: Koningin der Berge, with a timeline of the area’s development, cogwheel railways, aerial cable cars and all.

Factoid corner Wanderland.ch has a wealth of information on the mountains plus an interactve map. Webcams galore – Bergfex.comSwiss Panorama, plus My Switzerland.com has 32 walks on an app. Switzerland has a total of 62,500km of marked trails which would stretch around the world 1.5 times, in the following designations:

  • yellow: easy
  • white-red-white: mountain trails, some experience required
  • white-blue-white: high Alpine trails, some climbing or glaciers involved
  • pink: prepared winter walking trails

Updates: nice post from Kulturflaneur on Die Erfindung des Gruppentourismus…the area is also one of A literary atlas of Europe‘s model regions – see the literary hiking guide (publisher’s info)…lovely piece on walking in the footsteps of Jemima Morrell, who went on  one of Thomas Cook’s earliest tours to Switzerland in 1863…Inspiration in the Alps, reviewing The gilded chalet: off-piste in literary Switzerland, ooh!

Robert Walser

Update: »Spazieren muß ich unbedingt«. Robert Walser und die Kultur des Gehens (sic) – Spaziergangstagung to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Der Spaziergang, plus a teutonically comprehensive bibliography, wonderful!

Robert Walser (1878-1956; Wikipedia) lived for many years in Bern and is the author of Der Spaziergang (The Walk). As a German graduate this is already enough for a burgeoning obsession, and it seems I am not alone.

US translator Susan Bernofsky, aka Translationista (interview | another), is currently working on a Walser biography and has produced several recent translations, including Microscripts (publisher’s page), Berlin Stories (article | another) and a new translation of The Walk (review | another | same?). Other translations are available, and no doubt a whole heap of secondary literature.

It being Berchtoldstag (2 January) the Robert Walser Zentrum (Facebook | Twitter) was geschlossen when I was in Bern, although the lights were on. Undaunted, we kept coming across traces during the rest of our trip, not least the Thomas Schütte exhibition in Basel, advertised by his head of Walser’s wife:

Accompanying events included Bruno Ganz reading Walser (see 2012 video), and we also spotted a conference in the ZPK and an exhibition on his years in Biel. The Zentrum’s website includes a chronology, presentations and a links collection. It has hosted at least two walks, led by Werner Morlang in September 2012 (found on Facebook), and regularly shares Walser related links, for example The wisdom and stupidity of the child in Robert Walser’s “Fritz Kocher’s essays”: take one.

Walser responses

Published by New Directions in a limited edition in 2013, A little ramble: in the spirit of Robert Walser was initiated by gallerist Donald Young, who invited a group of artists to respond to Walser’s writing – see article in Time Out Chicago. The artists, who included Tacita Dean and Mark Wallinger, created artworks and chose stories and excerpts from Walser’s conversations with Carl Seelig (see postscript below). Reviews on Goodreads and in The Quarterly Conversation, which also reviews Jelinek on/with Walser.

Other responses include Traces of Robert Walser 1 (annotated scans of book covers) and Traces 2 (archival photos), plus Dickinson/Walser pencil sketches (see article). Of particular interest are Helen Mirra’s index – the index as experimental writing? analogue text analysis? – and the Robert Walser Pfad (PDF) in Herisau, Switzerland’s first literary path.

Sam Jones’ Wandering with Robert Walser keeps popping up, a tribute started on the 50th anniversary of Walser’s death. It’s no longer live, but all is not lost thanks to the Wayback Machine – time sink alert! See also his introduction to Robert Walser and Robert Walser in Berlin map.

A bit cheeky maybe to put them here, but Sebald’s tribute (see Robert Walser, my constant companion | Sebald’s Walser | Heimat and exile Sebald’s place in the country) and Coetzee on The genius of Robert Walser (2000) need to be done. A piece by Michael Hofman (2006) also feels worthy of due attention, and crossing the pond here’s a Guardian article, plus the programme | Facebook for Festival Robert Walser (Newcastle, 2012).

I didn’t study Walser as part of my degree and I can’t remember if I ever read any, so here’s hoping my copy of The Walk (Middleton translation) arrives soon – John Self’s reviews are tantalising. After that, maybe I’l try something in the original, or even på dansk. Checking Bibliotek.dk reveals 19 hits including Spadsereturen (a 1966 translation). With 192 hits auf deutsch, incl Mikrogramme, and 36 in English, plus a number of Project Gutenberg manuscripts, I’m not going to be short of reading.

In this age of blogging and the short form, Walser’s experimental, high-modernist short prose appeared aesthetically visionary, and now there were visual artists as well as writers obsessed with his work. (Susan Bernofsky)

Updates: there is no shortage of pieces about Walser, however I found the sections in Connecting their visions: tracing the lines between Martín Ramírez and Robert Walser quite moving. A particular kind of solitude, an exhibition inspired by his writings, is being held in a garden in New York until 1 June. Other novelties include a bestiarium, Der kleine Tierpark and an essay on Peripateticism in Robert Walser, while finally! we have Geoff Nicholson on walking with Walser. New for Xmas 2015: Looking at pictures (extracts: Gdn | Paris Review etc).

Postscript: Walks with Walser, trans. Anne Posten, published May 2017 it seems there is no English translation of Carl Seelig’s Vandringer (1957), although Bob Skinner (Wayback Machine) and Sam Jones (Wayback Machine) published versions online which have vanished into the Internet ether. But there is a  1978  film by Percy Adlon on Carl and Robert, Der Vormund und sein Dichter. Carl also wrote a biography of another Bern resident, Albert Einstein.

Bern: walking city

Update, 2016: In praise of the tram – it’s time to follow the Swiss model, which has led to Zurich having “the lowest modal share of car transport of almost any global city of comparable size”.

We recently spent eight days in Switzerland. Being fans of the whistle stop tour the original plan was to visit a city in each of the three major language regions, but our itinerary kept shrinking and in the end we only visited the German speaking part of the country, spending time in Bern, Basel, Zürich and Luzern.

Our journey started on New Year’s Eve with the overnight train from Copenhagen to Basel. The fireworks were already starting in Hvidovre as we left, having delivered the beagles to the safer haven of Roskilde. After sustenance of a sort at CPH station we boarded our two person sleeper – more private than a couchette, but a little claustrophobic. My partner chooses to retire early, which left me perched on the lower bunk looking out at the fireworks at midnight in Hamburg and beyond.

As a German graduate there’s something magical for me in travelling the length of Germany through the night. I was awake at Frankfurt, where I studied, and we had breakfast in Freiburg, travelling through the Schwarzwald and over the border to Basel. We then hopped on a train to Bern, arriving there around an hour later.

In common with Scotland both 1st and 2nd January (Berchtoldstag) are public holidays in the German speaking part of Switzerland. This meant limited shopping opportunities, however the slick modern station, like many in Germany, had a wealth of shops and supermarkets of the everyday variety so this was not really an issue. With a branch of ace vegan buffet restaurant Tibits just outside the station we were well set. Our hotel was a little way out of town but it was easy to take a tram outside the station. On the second evening we walked back, getting more of the feel of the suburbs. All in all, despite it being a holiday period, the impression we got was of a lively well functioning city.

Bern’s centre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, includes 6km of arcades, the largest in Europe. The weather was clement, but I can imagine that it wouldn’t really be an issue to get around when cold or snowing. There were plenty of reasons to be out and about – for example the small park behind the cathedral was historic, not an artificial construction, and included a mini-library. All over the city there were people simply sitting and reading, no longer warding off TB, but probably old habits die hard. As it stays lighter longer there’s more of an impetus to sit out, plus glimpses of the Berner Oberland, the Eiger and the Jungfrau, don’t really hurt.

All around town were yellow Walk your city style signs with the walking time to particular locations. Turns out that these are standard Swiss hiking signs – perhaps Walk your city got some inspiration from Switzerland. There were also cycling signs and a city bike depot, but these did not seem over-used.

Bern is home to the Zentrum Paul Klee, of taking a line for a walk fame, and the city fathers haven’t shirked on building on this connection (see article auf deutsch | video). 54 Wege zu Klee signs connect streets and landmarks to Klee and his works, leading you onward:

(pics from the Wege zu Klee Facebook page)

Three routes around the city and beyond (see trail maps for Zentrum Paul Klee circular walk | station to ZPK), plus street names further underline aspects of walking:

With many Klees currently on show at Tate Modern the main exhibition at the ZPK was on Klee’s life and work, making the man himself come alive. Of particular note was the letter signed by the Bauhaus professorial team after Paul went AWOL – it was easy to picture Walter Gropius going round getting everyone to sign it. A second exhibition with paintings from the collection of Frankfurter Hanne Becker included lots of highlights for Expressionism fans.

Klee update, July: clearly a fan, three sections in Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz, are set in the Bauhaus, and he wrote a lengthy piece around the Tate exhibition as well as a nice entry in the Guardian’s my hero series: “Somewhere in the afterlife, I am going to accompany [Klee’s] violin in the Brahms G major sonata.”

More Bernese walks and related:

Update: several holidays later I’m forced to concede that planned photo essays on Basel and Zurich aren’t going to happen. Both cities were great sources of inspiration – Basel for its border town position in a triangle between France and Germany and multiple railway stations, the Rhine, its stress on walking the city and trams creating life even on a Sunday…we went on two guided walks, at the Vitra Design Museum across the border in Germany and at Rudolf Steiner’s unique Goetheanum in the nearby village of Dornach.

Zurich, jockeying with Copenhagen in the liveable city lists, was more elusive. Stand-outs were our first James Joyce Museum, Umsicht, an urban development exhibition we found by chance in the university, and Zurich West, with the house which refuses to give way to shiny new things. Need to go back!