A Place in the Country

Essays from the author of 'Austerlitz' offer clues to the inner life of a beloved but often enigmatic writer.

A Place in the Country, by W. G. Sebald, translated by Jo Catling, Random House , 240 pp.

"Who and what Robert Walser really was," writes W. G. Sebald in "Le Promeneur Solitaire," the penultimate essay in the group of six that makes up A Place in the Country, "is a question to which, despite my strangely close relationship with him, I am unable to give any reliable answer."

Sebald's readers may well recognize the feeling: he himself was and remains a deeply elusive author, a writer who feels present in every one of his elegant, meticulously constructed sentences and yet whose books, and body of work as a whole, suggest nothing so much as a sense of lingering absence. That Sebald died in 2001, unexpectedly and early, at the age of 57, only adds to the sense of unbridgeable distance and enforced separation.

It isn't just that absence and its bedfellows – disappearance, exile, loss – are among Sebald's favorite and defining subjects. This is true; but there is also something unique and deeply idiosyncratic about his sensibility and voice, as if he were always approaching his chosen topics from a place off to the side, viewing them from an angle no one else would have thought to occupy, an angle whose existence other thinkers and writers might not even have been aware of. A poet, essayist, and novelist, he was constantly drawing connections between apparently unrelated matters and always seemed on the verge of leaping out of whatever genre he appeared to be working in into an entirely different one.

His writing, which often affected a casual tone that surely belied an intense degree of effortful deliberation, frequently took the form of a mildly archaic, gently self-conscious, sometimes rambling prose tinged with erudition and a slight touch of academic dryness. He often comes across as a folksy figure, a warm but slightly stiff grandfather or neighbor – a retired professor, perhaps – relating what had happened to him on his recent walk from one town to another, or passing along a tall tale he happened to overhear from some traveler on the road.

But there is also nearly always a dark, almost surrealistic undercurrent in the work; it is rarely long before we sense a gesture toward some further dimension of meaning, an attempt to discuss, through the ordinary language that is the only means available to us, matters that can only be articulated poorly and with great difficulty. As a reader of Sebald, that is, I often find myself feeling the way he reports feeling when he looks at the paintings of his friend Jan Peter Tripp: "The longer I look at [these paintings], the more I realize that beneath the surface illusionism there lurks a terrifying abyss. It is, so to speak, the metaphysical underside of reality, its dark inner lining."

"A Place in the Country" comprises essays on six European artists: the writers Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser and the painter Jan Peter Tripp. It is the last of Sebald's books to make the transition from German into English, and although it was not the last book that he wrote before his death – its initial German publication in 1998 was followed by a work of nonfiction ("On the Natural History of Destruction") and his final and possibly greatest novel ("Austerlitz"), as well as a number of posthumous collections of essays and poetry – there is something about its gentle, elegiac tone that makes it feel like an appropriate coda to Sebald's career.

Perhaps this is in part because these "extended marginal notes and glosses," as Sebald describes them, are intended not only as tributes but also elegies to creators who have influenced and inspired him, people who, more often than not, lived difficult, melancholy lives and were often more likely to see their effort to make art as a dispiriting burden than as a source of satisfaction, reassurance, or comfort.

The essay on Walser, for instance, which in many ways feels like the heart of the book, probes Sebald's relationship with a writer whose profile in early-20th-century Germany was higher than that of Walter Benjamin or Kafka but who since then has drifted into obscurity; a man who, moreover, could not make a living from his writing even at the height of his popularity.

"He did not, I believe, even own the books he had written," Sebald writes. "What he read was for the most part borrowed. Even the paper he used for writing was secondhand."

One might perhaps be forgiven for wondering whether Sebald is not applying a bit of poetic license with this final claim. No source is cited for the claim – "A Place in the Country" almost entirely dispenses with footnotes and other similar academic apparatus – and it may well be that this particular metaphor for the profound unworldliness and ontological precariousness of the writer simply struck him as too delicious to be resisted. Then again, perhaps it is simply true. Truth and fiction tend to be hard to distinguish in Sebald's writings, penetrating one another and melding together, much as dream and waking awareness do during the day's first few moments of consciousness.

At any rate, that Walser's life was difficult and to some degree tragic is not in dispute. His childhood "was overshadowed by his mother's melancholia and by the decline of his father's business year after year." He lived in poverty, was unsuccessful in love, and suffered from hallucinations, as the result of which he spent much of his later life in a sanitarium.

"The only certain thing," Sebald tells us, "is that he writes incessantly, with an ever increasing degree of effort; even when the demand for his pieces slows down, he writes on, day after day, right up to the pain threshold and often, so I imagine, a fair way beyond it." These later writings were composed, using what he called the Pencil Method, in symbols not much more than a millimeter high, and remained unreadable until, in the last couple decades of the 20th century, a pair of researchers managed to crack the code; they went on to publish Walser's late works in a multivolume edition that restored to him a certain degree of notoriety, if not the outright fame some readers feel he deserves.

Why did Walser write for so long in a nearly unreadable code? Did he want to write without the risk of being read, and if so, what purpose did the act of writing serve for him? The idea of writing as an obsession, perhaps even an inescapable affliction, recurs throughout "A Place in the Country." Of Rousseau, who continued to compose books even in his final years, when the persecution of an ever-increasing number of enemies prevented him from settling comfortably anywhere in Europe, Sebald suggests:

"Less heroically, but certainly no less correctly, one could also see writing 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.… How difficult it is in general to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill.…"

One wonders to what extent Sebald himself experienced the urge to write as a compulsion. If, in the following passage from his foreword to the book, he seems fascinated by the thought, his use of the word surprising suggests that it was, at least to some degree, alien to his own mind. At the end of the passage, though, the surprise seems almost to have dropped away; Sebald seems, here, to be speaking for "the writer" as a general figure, a representative of a class that must surely be taken to include himself:

"What I found most surprising in the course of these observations is the awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing. There seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature; those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it, even at that crucial age when, as Keller remarks, one every day runs the risk of becoming simpleminded and longs for nothing more than to put a halt to the wheels ceaselessly turning in one's head.… Evidently the business of writing is one from whose clutches it is by no means easy to extricate oneself, even when the activity itself has come to seem loathsome or even impossible. From the writer's point of view, there is almost nothing to be said in its defense, so little does it have to offer by way of gratification."

Part of Sebald's attraction to Walser's microscopic script seems rooted in his general appreciation for miniatures and meticulous, small-scale work, a preference that surfaces at several points throughout "A Place in the Country." In her introduction to the book, the translator, Jo Catling (who has done, it should be said, a fine job of capturing Sebald's rhythms, cadences, and hesitations), quotes from a 2001 interview Sebald conducted with Arthur Lubow, in which he describes his experience of the Île Saint-Pierre:

"I felt at home, strangely, because it is a miniature world.… One manor house, one farmhouse. A vineyard, a field of potatoes, a field of wheat, a cherry tree, an orchard. It has one of everything, so it is in a sense an ark. It is like when you draw a place when you are a child. I don't like large-scale things, not in architecture or evolutionary leaps. I think it's an aberration. This notion of something that is small and self-contained is for me a moral and aesthetic ideal."

It is not surprising, then, to find him complaining, of Mörike's work, that "if his myopic eyes are often able to detect hidden wonders in the smallest detail, his eye grows dim if it falls on a wider panorama…." And in the essay on Tripp he makes his point with the help of a fascinating quotation from the work of Ernst Gombrich:

"[L]ooking at Tripp's pictures one would do well to bear in mind Gombrich's lapidary statement that even the most meticulous realist can accommodate only a limited number of marks in the allotted space. 'And though he may try,' writes Gombrich, 'to smooth out the transition between his dabs of paint beyond the threshold of visibility, in the end he will always have to rely on suggestion when it comes to representing the infinitely small. While standing in front of a painting by Jan van Eyck we … believe he succeeded in rendering the inexhaustible wealth of detail that belongs to the visible world. We have the impression that he painted every stitch of the golden damask, every hair of the angels, every fiber of the world, yet he clearly could not have done that, however patiently he worked with a magnifying glass.'"

Sebald seems drawn to the ideal of representing vastnesses on tiny canvases: to show "a world in a grain of sand," as William Blake described his own visionary ambitions. Reading "A Place in the Country," we come to realize that this is not only about intellectual ambition; it also contains, implicitly, an ideal of compassion: to sacrifice the details for the sake of the grand statement is to miss the essence of human suffering, which always takes place on an individual level and is, correspondingly, always a small matter for the world, no matter how large it may loom in the experience of the sufferer. Consider his comments on the almanac deviser Johann Peter Hebel, who, as he writes,

"sometimes covers a whole century on a single page, and yet keeps a watchful eye on even the most insignificant circumstances, who does not speak of poverty in general but describes how back at home the children's nails are blue with hunger, and who senses that there is some unfathomable connection between, for example, the domestic squabbles of a married couple in Swabia and the loss of an entire army in the floodwaters of the Berezina."

"[E]verything is connected," he writes elsewhere, "across space and time, the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author who claims to have worked as a clerk in a brewery in Thun, the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum, Walser's long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of 'Heimat' with that of exile."

Among the most moving passages in "A Place in the Country" are those in which Sebald makes connections between the lives of the writers he is exploring and relating, and those of his own relatives. His feeling for his grandfather is particularly apparent. Into his meditation on Hebel he inserts a personal memory: "[W]hat always draws me back to Hebel is the completely coincidental fact that my grandfather … 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 Föhn, thunderstorms, hail-storms, and suchlike, and also, on the pages left blank for notes, the occasional recipe for Wermuth or for gentian schnapps." Meditating, in the essay on Walser, on the surviving photographs of that terminally mysterious author, he drifts again into personal reverie:

"When I look at these pictures of him on his walks, the cloth of Walser's three-piece suit, the soft collar, the tiepin, the liver spots on the back of his hands, his neat salt-and-pepper mustache and the quiet expression in his eyes – each time, I think I see my grandfather before me. Yet it was not only in their appearance that my grandfather and Walser resembled each other, but also in their general bearing, something about the way each had of holding his hat in his hand, and the way that even in the finest weather, they would always carry an umbrella or a raincoat. For a long time I even imagined that my grandfather shared with Walser the habit of leaving the top button of his waistcoat undone.... [N]ow, when I think back to my grandfather's death – to which I have never been able to reconcile myself – in my mind's eye I always see him lying on the horn sledge on which Walser's body, after he had been found in the snow and photographed, was taken back to the asylum. What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences? Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?"

These final questions, which remain and indeed must remain unanswered, hang over the entirety of this quietly moving book. Like all of Sebald's books, it represents its author's continuing attempt to penetrate and shed light on the most perplexing, and sometimes most demoralizing, aspects of human existence; not so much to solve these problems as simply to enable us to speak meaningfully and consolingly about them.

"Art," he writes in the essay on Tripp, "deploys the deconstruction of outward appearances as a means of countering the obliteration … of the visible world." It takes, perhaps, someone as deeply touched by loss as Sebald was – someone who could not, even after several decades, reconcile himself to his grandfather's death – to write as compellingly and beautifully as this of other artists who were also engaged in the struggle against obliteration.

Reflecting on this book, and on Sebald's life and death, one is left with the final impression that it is not, after all, so difficult to bring the machinery of thought to a standstill. What is difficult, rather, is to preserve a truly living appreciation and memory of these deeply hopeless, deeply human efforts in the infinite silence that follows.

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