A Place in the Country

Overview

A Place in the Country is W. G. Sebald’s meditation on the six artists and writers who shaped his creative mind—and the last of this great writer’s major works to be translated into English.
 
This beautiful hardcover edition, with a full-cloth case, includes more than 40 pieces of art and 6 full-color gatefolds, all originally selected and laid out by W. G. Sebald.

This extraordinary collection of ...

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Overview

A Place in the Country is W. G. Sebald’s meditation on the six artists and writers who shaped his creative mind—and the last of this great writer’s major works to be translated into English.
 
This beautiful hardcover edition, with a full-cloth case, includes more than 40 pieces of art and 6 full-color gatefolds, all originally selected and laid out by W. G. Sebald.

This extraordinary collection of interlinked essays about place, memory, and creativity captures the inner worlds of five authors and one painter. In his masterly and mysterious style—part critical essay, part memoir—Sebald weaves their lives and art with his own migrations and rise in the literary world.
 
Here are people gifted with talent and courage yet in some cases cursed by fragile and unstable natures, working in countries inhospitable or even hostile to them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is conjured on the verge of physical and mental exhaustion, hiding from his detractors on the island of St. Pierre, where two centuries later Sebald took rooms adjacent to his. Eighteenth-century author Johann Peter Hebel is remembered for his exquisite and delicate nature writing, expressing the eternal balance of both the outside world and human emotions. Writer Gottfried Keller, best known for his 1850 novel Green Henry, is praised for his prescient insights into a Germany where “the gap between self-interest and the common good was growing ever wider.”
 
Sebald compassionately re-creates the ordeals of Eduard Mörike, the German Romantic poet beset by mood swings, depression, and fainting spells in an increasingly shallow society, and Robert Walser, the institutionalized author whose nearly indecipherable scrawls seemed an attempt to “duck down below the level of language and obliterate himself” (and whose physical appearance and year of death mirrored those of Sebald’s grandfather). Finally, Sebald spies a cognizance of death’s inevitability in painter Jan Peter Tripp’s lovingly exact reproductions of life.
 
Featuring the same kinds of suggestive and unexplained illustrations that appear in his masterworks Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn, and translated by Sebald’s colleague Jo Catling, A Place in the Country is Sebald’s unforgettable self-portrait as seen through the experiences of others, a glimpse of his own ghosts alongside those of the men who influenced him. It is an essential addition to his stunning body of work.

Praise for A Place in the Country
 
“Measured, solemn, sardonic . . . hypnotic . . . [W. G. Sebald’s] books, which he made out of classics, remain classics for now.”—Joshua Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

“In Sebald’s writing, everything is connected, everything webbed together by the unseen threads of history, or chance, or fate, or death. The scholarly craft of gathering scattered sources and weaving them into a coherent whole is transformed here into something beautiful and unsettling, elevated into an art of the uncanny—an art that was, in the end, Sebald’s strange and inscrutable gift.”Slate
 
“Reading [A Place in the Country is] like going for a walk with a beautifully talented, deeply passionate novelist from Mars.”New York
 
“Out of exquisitely attuned feeling for the past, Sebald fashioned an entirely new form of literature. I’ve read his books countless times trying to understand how he did it. In the end, I can only say that he practiced a kind of magic born out of almost supernatural sensitivity.”—Nicole Krauss

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - John Williams
The essays include the familiar Sebaldian flourish of black-and-white photos, as well as stunning color images in two-page fold-outs, and they lean on the indirect approach used in Sebald's major works…The book's enthusiasm will likely lead readers to other texts…but its most lasting interest may reside in moments when Sebald's analysis hints "at an oblique comment on his own style of writing," as the book's translator, Jo Catling, says in her foreword…Sebald is humanized and softened in these essays…but also darkened.
The New York Times Book Review - Joshua Cohen
Sebald's self-definition was the shadow subject of everything he wrote, but especially of his nonfiction, which, like his fiction, is measured, solemn, sardonic—with just a whisper of bibliography…A Place in the Country, which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it's the last. It's fitting that his English posterity ends at the beginning—with literary history, and with influence.
Publishers Weekly
10/07/2013
In this posthumous collection of six essays by Sebald (1944–2001), the last of his major works to be translated into English, the author of Austerlitz, among other works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, uses critical appreciations of five writers and one painter to explore the nature of the creative persona. Like his fiction, Sebald’s essays are hybrid constructions, blending literary biography and personal essay, with photos included throughout. Although their careers span some 200 years, his subjects—Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and the contemporary painter Jan Peter Tripp—bear certain resemblances, as all are products of the same Alpine landscape. Sebald wants to understand “that peculiar behavioral disturbance” that makes writers write. In an effort to anatomize “the awful tenacity,” he draws upon biography, history, close reading, analogous works in other art forms, and his memories. He turns repeatedly to the “relentless strain of composition” and the circumstances under which authors, especially late in life, grapple with their artistic compulsion. Walser’s entry into a mental hospital in the 1930s echoes Rousseau’s 1765 retreat to Switzerland’s Île Saint-Pierre after he was banished from France. Given Sebald’s small oeuvre, Catling’s translation will be welcomed by his fans. Catling taught with Sebald in the last decade of his life, and her flowing translation pays crucial attention to the prosody and contours of Sebald’s sentences. Illus. Agent: the Wylie Agency. (Feb.)
Library Journal
The last big work by the renowned author of Austerlitz to be translated into English, this book studies the interrelationship of place, memory, and creativity by investigating six important influences on Sebald's life: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gottfried Keller, Eduard Mörike, Robert Walser, and the painter Jan Peter Tripp. By talking about them, he reveals more of himself and how he came to be a prize-winning author. An important testament.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-04
The late German novelist's essays of appreciation for writers and artists whose influences pervade his work. The last book published by Sebald receives its first English translation, after it was issued in Europe in 1998. American readers will likely find it illuminating for its insight into the author's work and its obsessions, themes, and observations on home and exile. When he writes, in his essay on Rousseau, how "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," it's plain that this writer is also writing about himself. The longest, most ambitious and revelatory essay is subtitled "A Remembrance of Robert Walser," who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, died institutionalized, and was little-known or -read when he was alive: "The traces that Robert Walser left on his path through life were so faint to have almost been effaced altogether." Yet Sebald's critical resurrection will likely spark the reader's interest in an author "who almost always wrote the same thing and yet never repeated himself" and who felt that "he was always writing the same novel, from one prose work to the next--a novel which, he says, one could describe as ‘a much chopped-up or disremembered Book of Myself.' " (Walter Benjamin remarked that the characters in Walser's fiction came "from insanity and nowhere else.") Contemplating the work of others, Sebald writes from a writer's rather than a reader's perspective, of one who shares the affliction, who recognizes that, as he writes of painter Jan Peter Tripp, "beneath the surface of illusion there lurks a terrifying abyss. It is, so to speak, the metaphysical underside of reality, its dark inner lining." This last word from the novelist provides a nice footnote on his own writing.
From the Publisher
“Measured, solemn, sardonic . . . hypnotic . . . [W. G. Sebald’s] books, which he made out of classics, remain classics for now.”—Joshua Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

“In Sebald’s writing, everything is connected, everything webbed together by the unseen threads of history, or chance, or fate, or death. The scholarly craft of gathering scattered sources and weaving them into a coherent whole is transformed here into something beautiful and unsettling, elevated into an art of the uncanny—an art that was, in the end, Sebald’s strange and inscrutable gift.”Slate
 
“Reading [A Place in the Country is] like going for a walk with a beautifully talented, deeply passionate novelist from Mars.”New York

“The publication in English of A Place in the Country brings us closer to Sebald’s oft elusive inner-evolution. . . . It is a pleasure to read again in 2014, so lucid and temperate a voice as the late author’s on ideas and elements of humanity so familiar—and thus so difficult to describe freshly—as dislocation, literary memory, and the unpaid dividends thereof.”—The Brooklyn Rail

A Place in the Country’s publication in English is something to celebrate.”—W. S. Merwin
 
“Out of exquisitely attuned feeling for the past, Sebald fashioned an entirely new form of literature. I’ve read his books countless times trying to understand how he did it. In the end, I can only say that he practiced a kind of magic born out of almost supernatural sensitivity. A Place in the Country extends the too-short time we were given in his company.”—Nicole Krauss
 
“Few writers have traveled as quickly from obscurity to the sort of renown that yields an adjective as quickly as German writer W. G. Sebald (1944–2001), and now Sebaldian is as evocative as Kafkaesque. Sebald is that rare being: an inimitable stylist who creates extraordinary sentences that, like crystals, simultaneously refract and magnify meaning. This posthumous collection, a boon to Sebald admirers, is a series of tributes to writers and artists Sebald admires and feels affinity with. . . . All of Sebald’s subjects had uneasy relations with their times and with themselves: ‘Exile, as [Gottfried] Keller describes it, is a form of purgatory located just outside the world.’ One does not have to leave home to feel bereft, and Sebald is the great contemporary master of this liminal territory.”Booklist

“A beautiful book.”—The Spectator
 
“An intimate anatomy of the pathos, absurdity and perverse splendour of trying to find patterns in the chaos of the world.”—The Telegraph
 
“A fascinating volume that confirms Sebald as one of Europe’s most mysterious and best-loved literary imaginations.”—Evening Standard
 
“This illuminating collection shows a writer at his most inquisitive, gazing deeply under the surface of things and grappling with the difficulties of personal and collective memory.”—Financial Times
 
“[A Place in the Country is] illuminating for its insight into the author’s work and its obsessions, themes, and observations on home and exile. . . . Contemplating the work of others, Sebald writes from a writer’s rather than a reader’s perspective, of one who shares the affliction. . . . This last word from the novelist provides a nice footnote on his own writing.”Kirkus Reviews

“Sebald’s subtle dissection . . . illuminates the writer’s trade . . . by one of its more elusive practitioners. . . . These essays are well worth reading.”Library Journal

“Catling’s translation will be welcomed by his fans. Catling taught with Sebald in the last decade of his life, and her flowing translation pays crucial attention to the prosody and contours of Sebald’s sentences.”Publishers Weekly

From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
01/01/2014
Until his unexpected death at age 57, German-born Sebald (1944–2001) was touted as a potential Nobelist for his meticulous meditations on memory and decay, presented in the guise of fiction (The Rings of Saturn; The Emigrants). He was honored with multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the Berlin Literature Prize. This is Sebald's last major work to appear in English and contains essays on five German and Swiss writers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller, Eduard Mörike, and Robert Walser, and one painter, Jan Peter Tripp. Composed mainly in 1997, these essays explore familiar themes in Sebald's creations—the writer's isolation, the fading of memory, and the painstaking attention to the details in writing. His observation about Rousseau—for him, composition became "a continually self-perpetuating compulsive act"—seems almost to describe Sebald himself. These are not straightforward essays of explication or tribute. Rather, they insinuate an appreciation of the author under discussion into the reader's mind. Rousseau aside, these writers may not be household names, but Sebald's subtle dissection of them illuminates the writer's trade, as plied until his premature death, by one of its more elusive practitioners. VERDICT Given the subject matter of this collection, its audience is limited, but these essays are well worth reading.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
The Barnes & Noble Review

"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 fifty-seven, 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- twentieth-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 twentieth 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 grand father 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 comprehensin?
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.

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His most recent books are Love's Vision and At Lake Scugog: Poems, both from Princeton University Press.

Reviewer: Troy Jollimore

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400067718
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/18/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 188,554
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

W. G. Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu, Germany, in 1944. He studied German language and literature in Freiburg, Switzerland, and Manchester. He taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, for thirty years, becoming professor of European literature in 1987, and from 1989 to 1994 was the first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. His books The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, Vertigo, and Austerlitz have won a number of international awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Berlin Literature Prize, and the LiteraTour Nord Prize. He died in December 2001.
 
Translator Jo Catling joined the University of East Anglia as Lecturer in German Literature and Language in 1993, teaching German and European literature alongside W. G. Sebald. She has published widely on Sebald and Rainer Maria Rilke.
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Read an Excerpt

A Comet in the Heavens

A piece for an almanac, in honor of Johann Peter Hebel

In the feuilleton which Walter Benjamin wrote for the Magdeburger Zeitung on the centenary of the death of Johann Peter Hebel, he suggests near the beginning that the nineteenth century cheated itself of the realization that the Schatzkästlein des Rheinischen Hausfreunds [Treasure Chest of the Rhineland Family Friend] is one of the purest examples of prose writing in all of German literature. Out of a misplaced sense of cultural superiority, the key to this casket was thrown among peasants and children, heedless of the treasures concealed within. Indeed, between Goethe’s and Jean Paul’s praise of the almanac author from Baden and the later appreciation of his work by Kafka, Bloch, and Benjamin, we find scarcely anyone who might have introduced Hebel to a bourgeois readership and thus shown them what they were missing in terms of a vision of a better world designed with the ideals of justice and tolerance in mind. It says something, too, about German intellectual history if we consider what little impact the intercession of these Jewish authors of the 1910s and 1920s had on Hebel’s posthumous reputation, by comparison with the effect the National Socialists had when they later laid claim to the Heimatschriftsteller [local or provincial writer] from Wiesenthal for their own purposes. With what false neo-Germanic accents this expropriation took place, and how long it was to prevail, is clearly set out by Robert Minder in his essay on Heidegger’s 1957 lecture on Hebel, the whole tenor and expression of which differed not in the slightest from that employed during the Nazi era by Josef Weinheber, Guido Kolbenheyer, Hermann Burte, Wilhelm Schäfer, and other would-be guardians of the German heritage, who fondly imagined that their jargon was rooted directly in the language of the Volk. When I commenced my studies in Freiburg in 1963, all that had only just been swept under the carpet, and since then I have often wondered how dismal and distorted our appreciation of literature might have remained had not the gradually appearing writings of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School—which was, in effect, a Jewish school for the investigation of bourgeois social and intellectual history—provided an alternative perspective. In my own case, at any rate, without the assistance of Bloch and Benjamin I should scarcely have found my way to Hebel at all through the Heideggerian fog. Now, though, I return time and time again to the Kalendergeschichten [Calendar or Almanac Stories], possibly because, as Benjamin also noted, a seal of their perfection is that they are so easy to forget. But it is not just the ethereal and ephemeral nature of Hebel’s prose which every few weeks makes me want to check whether the Barber of Segringen and the Tailor of Penza are still there; what always draws me back to Hebel is the completely coincidental fact that my 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 Föhn, thunderstorms, hailstorms, and suchlike, and also, on the pages left blank for notes, the occasional recipe for Wermuth or for gentian schnapps. Naturally, by the 1950s the stories in the Kempter Calender—which first appeared in 1773—by authors such as Franz Schrönghamer-Heimdahl and Else Eberhard-Schobacher, telling of a shepherd lad from the Lechtal or a skeleton discovered in the Bergwald, did not quite live up to the quality of Hebel’s own Kalendergeschichten, but the basic format of the Almanac had by and large remained the same, and the multiplication tables, the tables for calculating rates of interest, the saints’ names beside every date, the Sundays and holy days marked in red, the phases of the moon, the symbols of the planets and signs of the Zodiac, and the Jewish calendar, which strangely enough was still retained even after 1945—all 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 the wheat, of a bird’s nest, or of the different kinds of rain; nowhere more readily grasped than when I observe the way in which, with his unerring moral compass, he differentiates between gratitude and ingratitude, avarice and extravagance, and all the various other vices and frailties mankind is heir to. Against the blind and headlong onrush of history he sets occasions when misfortune endured is recompensed; where every military campaign is followed by a peace treaty, and every puzzle has a solution; and in the book of Nature which Hebel spreads open before us we may observe how even the most curious of creatures, such as the processionary caterpillars and the flying fish, each has its place in the most carefully balanced order. Hebel’s wonderful inner certainty is derived, though, less from what he knows about the nature of things than from the contemplation of that which surpasses rational thought. 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 may 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.” Ultimately it is this cosmic perspective, and the insights derived from it into our own insignificance, which is the source of the sovereign serenity with which Hebel presides in his stories over the vagaries of human destiny. Such moments of stopping to stare, in pure contemplation, give rise to his most profound inspiration. “Have we not all,” he writes, “seen the Milky Way, which encircles the heavens like a broad, floating girdle? It resembles an eternal wreath of mist, shot through by a palely gleaming light. But viewed through an astronomer’s lens, this whole cloud of light resolves itself into innumerable tiny stars, as when one gazes out of the window at a mountain and sees nothing but green, yet looking even through an ordinary field-glass one can make out tree upon tree, and leaf upon leaf, and gives up counting altogether.” Rational thought is stilled, and the bourgeois instinct—otherwise so favored by Hebel—with its passion for cataloging everything no longer stirs. By often thus abandoning himself to pure contemplation and wonderment, with subtle irony our Hausfreund undermines his own proclaimed omniscience at every turn. Indeed, despite his professional didactic inclinations, he never takes up a central role as preceptor, but always positions himself slightly to one side, in the same manner as ghosts, a number of whom inhabit his stories, who are known for their habit of observing life from their marginal position in silent puzzlement and resignation. Once one has become aware of the way Hebel accompanies his characters as a faithful compagnon, it is almost possible to read his remarks on the comet which appeared in 1811 as a self-portrait. “Did it not every night,” writes Hebel, “appear like a blessing in the evening sky, or like a priest when he walks around the church sprinkling holy water, or, so to speak, like a good and noble friend of the earth who looks back at her wistfully, as if it had wanted to say: I was once an earth like you, full of snow flurries and thunderclouds, hospitals and Rumford’s soup kitchens and cemeteries. But my Day of Judgment has passed and has transfigured me in heavenly light, and I would fain come down to you, but I may not, lest I become sullied again by the blood of your battlefields. It did not say that, but it seemed so, for it became ever brighter and more lovely, the nearer it came, more generous and more joyful, and as it moved away it grew pale and melancholy, as if it too took this to heart.” Both, the comet and the narrator, draw their train of light across our lives disfigured by violence, observing everything going on below, but from the greatest distance imaginable. The strange constellation, in which sympathy and indifference are elided, is as it were the professional secret of the chronicler, who 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. If the essence of Hebel’s epic worldview is the result of a particular disposition and receptiveness of the soul, then the way it is conveyed to the reader, too, has a flavor all its own. “When the French army was encamped across the Rhine after the retreat from Germany”; “after she had left Basel by postchaise via the St. Johannistor and had passed the vineyards on the way into the Sundgau”; “just as the sun was setting over the mountains in Alsace”: in such manner the stories progress. 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 molding itself to that which it describes, along the way recuperating as many earthly goods as it possibly can. Hebel’s narrative style is characterized further by his intermittent borrowings from dialect, of both vocabulary and word order. “For to count the stars there’s not fingers enough in the whole world,” it says in the syntax of Baden or Alsace at the beginning of a piece in the “Betrachtungen des Weltgebäudes” [Observations concerning the Cosmos], and in the piece about the Great Sanhedrin in Paris we read: “The great Emperor Napoleon accepted this, and in the year 1806, before he began the great journey to Jena, Berlin and Warsaw, and Eylau, he had letters be sent to all the Jews in France that they should from among their midst send him men of sense and learning from all the departments of the Empire.” The words are, in this sentence, not set down in accordance with Alemannic usage, but rather follow exactly the word order of Yiddish, which refuses to subordinate itself to the rules of German syntax. This fact alone ought to be enough to refute the primitive Heideggerian thesis of Hebel’s rootedness in the native soil of the Heimat. The highly wrought language which Hebel devised especially for his stories in the Almanac makes use of dialect and old-fashioned forms and turns of phrase precisely at those points where the rhythm of the prose demands it, and probably functioned even in his own day more as a distancing effect than as a badge of tribal affiliation. Nor is Hebel’s particular fondness for the paratactic conjunctions “and,” “or,” and “but” necessarily indicative of a homespun naïveté; rather, it is precisely the way he deploys these particles which gives rise to some of his most sophisticated effects. Opposed to any hierarchy or subordination, they suggest to the reader in the most unobtrusive way that in the world created and administered by this narrator, everything has an equal right to coexist alongside everything else. The pilgrim promises to bring the landlady of the Baselstab a shell “from the seashore of Ascalon” on his return, or a rose of Jericho. And the journeyman’s apprentice from Duttlingen says at the graveside of the merchant from Amsterdam, more to himself than to the latter, “Poor Kannitverstan, what use are all your riches to you now? No more than my poverty will bring me one day: a shroud and a winding-sheet; and of all your lovely flowers a bunch of rosemary perhaps upon your cold breast or a sprig of rue.” In these cadences and inflections at the end of a sentence, which mark the profoundest emotional moments in Hebel’s prose, it is as if the language turns in upon itself, and we can almost feel the narrator’s hand upon our arm. This sense of fraternité can be realized—far from any thought of actual social equality—only against the horizon of eternity, whose other side is the gold background against which, as Walter Benjamin noted, the chroniclers love to paint their characters. In these seemingly inconclusive final clauses, ending as it were on a half note and trailing away into nothingness, Hebel rises above the concerns and considerations of the world and assumes a vantage point from where, as it says in a note in Jean Paul’s Nachlaß, one can look down on mankind’s distant promised land—that home, in fact, where, according to another saying, no one has ever been.

Hebel’s cosmographical observations are an attempt, in the clear light of reason, to lift the veil which separates us from the world beyond. Weltfrömmigkeit [secular piety] and the study of nature take the place of faith and metaphysics. The perfect mechanism of the spheres is, for the Almanac author, proof of the existence of a realm of light which we may at the last enter upon. Hebel permitted himself no doubts on this matter; indeed, his office clearly precluded such a possibility. But in his dreams—beyond the reach of the controlling authority of consciousness—which for a while he was in the habit of writing down, we find not a few indications that he, too,was prey to troubling fears and insecurities. “I was lying,” he notes on the fifth of November 1805, “in my old bedroom in my mother’s house. There was an oak tree growing in the middle of the room. The room had no ceiling, and the tree reached up into the rafters. In places the tree was aflame, which was most lovely to look at. Finally the flames reached the uppermost branches and the roof beams began to catch fire. After the fire had been extinguished, a greenish resinlike substance, which later became gelatinous, was found at the seat of the fire, as well as a great number of ugly dirty-green beetles gnawing greedily at it.”

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