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Book review: A Place in the Country, By WG Sebald, trans. Jo Catling
Wry, eerie, intimate, these essays on favourite writers capture the essence of a unique voice
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Friday 16 August 2013
While WG Sebald was reading The Robber by Swiss author Robert Walser – the only novel he didn't then know by a tormented, eccentric loner whom he much admired – he came across the word "Trauerlaufbahn". It means "career in mourning". Not only does the composite German noun fit the wistful, elegiac and quietly stricken mood of Sebald's own writing. Up to that point, he thought he had invented it himself. "It is one thing," he notes with the bone-dry, deadpan humour that also inflects his work, "to set a marker in memory for a departed colleague," but quite another "when one has the persistent feeling of being beckoned to from the other side".
Max Sebald first collected these six essays – five on beloved writers, one on a contemporary painter – into a book in 1998. Now, a dozen years after his death in a road accident near his adopted home in Norwich, they beckon to us "from the other side" thanks to Jo Catling's beautifully inward, tender and delicate translation. In them, the author of The Emigrants and Austerlitz seeks to "raise my hat" to misfit kindred spirits across time: most visionary wanderers from his own Alpine and "Alemannic" region, and all insecure outsiders who stood, like Sebald, at the margins of literature.
His subjects range from Rousseau (the sole French-language author here) to provincial mavericks such as Hebel, Keller and, the ultimate soulmate, Walser himself, "the most unattached of all solitary poets". Afflicted with "awful tenacity" by "the vice of literature", doomed to addictive authorship despite poverty, failure and loneliness, his broken heroes somehow transform their misery into "vistas of… beauty and intensity".
For all the marginality of these writers (Rousseau apart), Sebald makes their ghosts dance with the resurrectionist power of his voice alone. Embellished with his trademark wry detours and eerie asides, A Place in the Country feels like the essence of Max. Wonderfully intimate, it offers passages – his visit to the lake island where Rousseau hid from notoriety; a spine-tingling section where Walser merges with Sebald's adored grandfather Josef – as unforgettable as any in his books. In Sebald, beyond the grieving compassion and empathy, we can always find what he discerns in the paintings of Jan Peter Tripp: glimpses into "the metaphysical underside of reality, its dark inner lining".
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