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The beguiling first novel by W. G. Sebald, one of the most enormously acclaimed European writers of our time.
Times Literary Supplement
- New Directions Publishing Corporation
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In mid-May of the year 1800 Napoleon and a force of 36,000 men crossed the Great St Bernard pass, an undertaking that had been regarded until that time as next to impossible. For almost a fortnight, an interminable column of men, animals and equipment proceeded from Martigny via Orsières through the Entremont valley and from there moved, in a seemingly never-ending serpentine, up to the pass two and a half thousand metres above sea level, the heavy barrels of the cannon having to be dragged by the soldiery, in hollowed-out tree trunks, now across snow and ice and now over bare outcrops and rocky escarpments.
Among those who took part in that legendary transalpine march, and who were not lost in nameless oblivion, was one Marie Henri Beyle. Seventeen years old at the time, he could now see before him the end of his profoundly detested and, with some enthusiasm, was embarking on a career in the armed services which was to take him the length and breadth of Europe. The notes in which the 53-year-old Beyle, writing during a sojourn at Civitavecchia, attempted to relive the tribulations of those days afford eloquent proof of the various difficulties entailed in the act of recollection. At times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them such as that of General Marmont, whom he believes he saw at Martigny to the left of the track along which the column was moving, clad in the royal- and sky-blue robes of a Councillor of State, an image which he still beholds precisely thus,Beyle assures us, whenever he closes his eyes and pictures that scene, although he is well aware that at that time Marmont must have been wearing his general's uniform and not the blue robes of state.
Beyle, who claims at this period, owing to a wholly misdirected education which had aimed solely at developing his mental faculties, to have had the constitution of a fourteen-year-old girl, also writes that he was so affected by the large number of dead horses lying by the wayside, and the other detritus of war the army left in its wake as it moved in a long-drawn-out file up the mountains, that he now has no clear idea whatsoever of the things he found so horrifying then. It seemed to him that his impressions had been erased by the very violence of their impact. For that reason, the sketch below should be considered as a kind of aid by means of which Beyle sought to remember how things were when the part of the column in which he found himself came under fire near the village and fortress of Bard. B is the village of Bard. The three Cs on the heights to the right signify the fortress cannon, firing at the points marked with Ls on the track that led across the steep slope, P. Where the X is, at the bottom of the valley and beyond all hope of rescue, lie horses that plunged off the track in a frenzy of fear. H stands for Henri and marks the narrator's own position. Yet, of course, when Beyle was in actual fact standing at that spot, he will not have been viewing the scene in this precise way, for in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different.
Beyle furthermore writes that even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them. Just as the magnificent spectacle of General Marmont at Martigny before the ascent remained fixed in his mind, so too, after the most arduous portion of the journey was done, the beauty of the descent from the heights of the pass, and of the St Bernard valley unfolding before him in the morning sun, made an indelible impression on him. He gazed and gazed upon it, and all the while his first words of Italian, taught him the day before by a priest with whom he was billeted quante miglia sono di qua a Ivrea and donna cattiva were going through his head. Beyle writes that for years he lived in the conviction that he could remember every detail of that ride, and particularly of the town of Ivrea, which he beheld for the first time from some three-quarters of a mile away, in light that was already fading. There it lay, to the right, where the valley gradually opens out into the plain, while on the left, in the far distance, the mountains arose, the Resegone di Lecco, which was later to mean so much to him, and at the furthest remove, the Monte Rosa.
It was a severe disappointment, Beyle writes, when some years ago, looking through old papers, he came across an engraving entitled Prospetto d'Ivrea and was obliged to concede that his recollected picture of the town in the evening sun was nothing but a copy of that very engraving. This being so, Beyle's advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one's travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. For instance, he could no longer recall the wonderful Sistine Madonna he had seen in Dresden, try as he might, because Müller's engraving after it had become superimposed in his mind; the wretched pastels by Mengs in the same gallery, on the other hand, of which he had never set eyes on a copy, remained before him as clear as when he first saw them.
At Ivrea, where the bivouacing army occupied every building and public square, he contrived to find quarters in the storehouse of a dyeing works for himself and Capitaine Burelvillers, in whose company he had ridden into the town. Their billet was amid all manner of barrels and copper vats, there was a curious acidic tang in the air, and Beyle had barely dismounted but he had to defend their quarters against a band of marauders bent on ripping off the shutters and doors for the camp fire they had lit in the yard. It was not only on account of this but indeed by virtue of all that had happened to him of late that Beyle felt he had come of age and, in a spirit of adventure, disregarding his hunger and weariness and the objections of the Capitaine, he set forth for the Emporeum, where that evening, as he knew from several public notices, Il Matrimonio Segreto was being performed.
Beyle's imagination, already in turmoil owing to the abnormal conditions then prevailing everywhere, was now further agitated by the music of Cimarosa. At the point in the first act where the secretly married Paolino and Caroline join their voices in the apprehensive duet Cara, non dubitar: pietade troveremo, se il ciel barbaro non è, he imagined himself not only on the boards of that rudimentary stage but indeed actually in the house of the deaf-eared merchant of Bologna, holding his youngest daughter in his arms. So profoundly was his heart stirred that, as the performance continued, tears came repeatedly to his eyes, and on leaving the Emporeum he was convinced that the actress who had played Caroline and who, he felt certain, had more than once bent her gaze most particularly on him, would be able to afford him the bliss promised by the music. He was not in the least troubled by the circumstance that when the soprano was grappling with the more difficult of the coloraturas, her left eye swivelled a little to the outerward, nor that her right upper canine was missing; quite the contrary, his exalted feelings seized upon these very defects. He knew now where happiness was to be sought: not in Paris, where he had supposed it dwelt when he was still in Grenoble, nor in the mountains of the Dauphiné, where on occasion he had longed to be when in Paris, but here in Italy, in this musical realm, in the beholding of such a divine actress. This conviction remained unshaken by the obscene jokes about the dubious morals of theatre ladies with which the Capitaine teased him the following morning as, leaving Ivrea behind, they rode on towards Milan and Beyle felt the emotion in his heart expanding to embrace the broad, rich landscape of early summer and the countless trees with their fresh green leafage that greeted him on all sides.
On the 23rd of September, 1800, some three months after his arrival in Milan, Henri Beyle, who until then had been performing clerical duties in the offices of the Embassy of the Republic in the Casa Bovara, was assigned to the 6th Dragoon Regiment with the rank of sub-lieutenant. Acquiring what was necessary in order to be correctly uniformed rapidly depleted his resources, since the cost of buck-leather breeches, of a helmet adorned from tip to nape with horsehair, of boots, spurs, belt buckles, breast straps, epaulettes, buttons and his insignia of rank far exceeded all his other expenses. This notwithstanding, it was with some satisfaction that Beyle now observed the figure he cut in his mirror, and, as he supposed, in the eyes of the Milanese women. He felt transformed, as if the high embroidered collar had lengthened his all too short neck and he had at last succeeded in shedding his unprepossessing body. Even his eyes, set somewhat far apart, on account of which, to his chagrin, he had often been called Le Chinois, suddenly seemed bolder, more focussed on some imaginary midpoint. And once fully apparelled in the uniform of a dragoon, this seventeen-and-a-half-year-old went around for days on end with an erection, before he finally dared disburden himself of the virginity he had brought with him from Paris. Afterwards, he could no longer recall the name or face of the donna cattiva who had assisted him in this task. The overpowering sensation, he wrote, blotted out the memory entirely. So thoroughly did Beyle serve his apprenticeship in the weeks that followed that in retrospect his entry into the world became a blur of the city's brothels, and before the year was out he was suffering the pains of venereal infection and was being treated with quicksilver and iodide of potassium; although this did not prevent him from working on a passion of a more abstract nature. The object of his craving was Angela Pietragrua, the mistress of his fellow-soldier Louis Joinville. She, however, merely gave the ugly young dragoon the occasional pitying look.
It was not until eleven years later, when Beyle returned to Milan after a long absence and visited the unforgettable Angela once again, that he plucked up the courage to tell her of his exalted feelings. She scarcely remembered him. Somewhat discomfited by the passion of her unorthodox admirer, she attempted to ease the tension by proposing an excursion to the Villa Simonetta, where a widely famed echo would repeat a pistol shot up to fifty times. But this delaying tactic was of no avail. Lady Simonetta, as Beyle called Angela Pietragrua from that time on, at length felt compelled to capitulate before what seemed to her the insane loquacity Beyle displayed in her presence. All the same, she succeeded in exacting from him the promise that once he had enjoyed her favours he would depart Milan forthwith. Beyle accepted this condition without demur and left Milan, which he had missed for so long, that very same day, though not without recording, on his braces, the date and time of his conquest: 21 September at half past eleven in the morning. When the perennial traveller was once again seated in the diligence and the fine scenery was passing by, he wondered whether he would ever again carry off another such victory. As darkness fell, the now familiar melancholy stole upon him, feelings of guilt and inferiority very similar to those that had first given him real and lasting anguish at the close of 1800. That whole summer, the general euphoria that had followed upon the Battle of Marengo had borne him up as if on wings; utterly fascinated, he had read the continuing reports in the intelligencers of the campaign in upper Italy; there had been open-air performances, balls and illuminations, and, when the day had come for him to don his uniform for the first time, he had felt as if his life finally had its proper place in a perfect system, or at least one that was aspiring to perfection, and in which beauty and terror bore an exact relation to each other. Late autumn, however, had brought dejection with it. Garrison duties increasingly oppressed him, Angela seemed to have little time for him, his disease recurred, and over and over again, with the aid of a mirror, he examined the inflammations and ulcers in his mouth and at the back of his throat and the blotches on his inner thighs.
At the start of the new year, Beyle saw Il Matrimonio Segreto for the second time, at La Scala, but although the theatrical setting was perfect and the actress playing Caroline a great beauty, he was unable to imagine himself among the protagonists as he had in Ivrea. Indeed, he was now so far removed from it all that the music well-nigh broke his heart. The thunderous applause which shook the opera house at the close of the performance struck him as the final act in a process of destruction, like the crackling caused by a tremendous conflagration, and for a long time he remained in his seat, numbed by his hope that the fire might consume him. He was one of the last to quit the cloakroom, and in leaving he gave a parting glance at his reflection in the mirror and, thus confronting himself, posed for the first time the question that was to occupy him over the ensuing decades: what is it that undoes a writer? In view of the circumstances it seemed to him of particular significance when, a few days after that signal evening, he read in a gazette that on the eleventh of the month, in Venice, while working on his new opera, Artemisia, Cimarosa had suddenly died. On the 17th of January, Artemisia was given its première at the Teatro La Fenice. It was a huge success. Subsequently, strange rumours began circulating, to the effect that Cimarosa, who had been involved in the revolutionary movement in Naples, had been poisoned on the orders of Queen Caroline. Others speculated that Cimarosa had died as a result of the maltreatment he had suffered in the Neapolitan gaols. These rumours gave Beyle nightmares in which everything he had experienced in recent months was most horribly mixed up. They persisted undiminished, nor were they laid to rest when the Pope's personal physician, having especially conducted a post-mortem examination of Cimarosa's corpse, declared the cause of death to have been gangrene.
It was some considerable time before Beyle regained his peace of mind after these events. Throughout the early months of the year he suffered fevers and gastric cramps, which were treated partly with quinquina, partly with ipecacuanha and a paste of potash and antimony, whereupon his condition deteriorated to the extent that he more than once thought his end was nigh. When the summer arrived his fears, and with them the fever and the terrible stomach pains, gradually subsided. As soon as he was restored to a reasonable degree of health, Beyle, who had never been in any engagement except for his baptism of fire at Bard, set about visiting the places where the great battles of recent years had been fought. Time after time he traversed the landscape of Lombardy, of which he came to realise he had become exceedingly fond, with the grey and blue of distance lying in ever more delicately nuanced bands until at the horizon they dissolved into something resembling the haze that hangs over the high mountains.
So it was that Beyle, on the way from Tortone, stopped in the early morning of the 27th of September, 1801, on the vast and silent terrain only the larks could be heard as they climbed the heavens where on the 25th of Prairial the previous year, exactly fifteen months and fifteen days before, as he noted, the Battle of Marengo had been fought. The decisive turn in the battle, brought about by Kellermann's ferocious cavalry charge, which tore open the flank of the main Austrian force at a time when the sun was setting and all already seemed lost, was familiar to him from many and various tellings, and he had himself pictured it in numerous forms and hues. Now, however, he gazed upon the plain, noted the few stark trees, and saw, scattered over a vast area, the bones of perhaps 16,000 men and 4,000 horses that had lost their lives there, already bleached and shining with dew. The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced. It may have been for that reason that the memorial column that had been erected on the battlefield made on him what he describes as an extremely mean impression. In its shabbiness, it fitted neither with his conception of the turbulence of the Battle of Marengo nor with the vast field of the dead on which he was now standing, alone with himself, like one meeting his doom.
Later, thinking back to that September day on the field of Marengo, it often seemed to Beyle as if he had foreseen the years which lay ahead, all the campaigns and disasters, even the fall and exile of Napoleon, and as if he had realised then that he would not find his fortune serving in the army. At all events, it was in the autumn that he resolved to become the greatest writer of all time. He did not, however, take any decisive steps towards the fulfilment of that ambition until Napoleon's empire began to crumble, nor did he make a first real advance into the world of literature until in the spring of 1820 he wrote De l'Amour, a kind of resumé of the hopeful yet disconcerting years that had gone before.
In March 1818, Beyle, who at that period often travelled to and fro between France and Italy, as indeed he did at other times in his life, met Métilde Dembowski Viscontini at her salon in Milan. Métilde, married to a Polish officer almost thirty years her senior, was twenty-eight and a woman of great, melancholy beauty. After about a year had passed, during which time he was one of the regular visitors at the houses on Piazza delle Galline and Piazza Belgioioso, Beyle's unspoken, discreet passion was on the point of winning the affection of Métilde, when he himself, as he later admitted, dashed his hopes by committing a blunder for which he could never make amends.
Métilde had gone to Volterra to visit her two sons, who were at the monastery school of San Michele there, and Beyle, unable to endure even a few days without seeing her, followed incognito. He was simply incapable of putting out of his mind his last glimpse of Métilde, on the eve of her departure from Milan. She had bent down in the hallway of her house to adjust her footwear, and, suddenly oblivious to everything else, he had beheld, in a profound darkness, as if through drifting smoke, a crimson desert behind her. This vision left him in a kind of trance, and it was in that state that he purchased the clothing he meant to wear as a disguise. He bought a new buff jacket, dark blue breeches, black patent leather boots, a velours hat with a more than usually high crown, and a pair of green spectacles, and in this attire he sauntered about Volterra, endeavouring to catch sight of Métilde at least from a distance as often as he possibly could. At first Beyle supposed himself unrecognised, only to realise, to his still greater satisfaction, that Métilde was giving him meaningful looks. He congratulated himself on this ingenious arrangement and from time to time, to a tune of his own devising, intoned the words Je suis le compagnon secret et familier, which struck him somehow as particularly amusing. Métilde, for her part, felt compromised by Beyle's conduct, as can readily be imagined, and, when his unaccountable behaviour finally became too vexatious, she sent him a dry note that put a fairly abrupt end to his hopes as a paramour.
Beyle was inconsolable. For months he reproached himself, and not until he determined to set down his great passion in a meditation on love did he recover his emotional equilibrium. On his writing desk, as a memento of Métilde, he kept a plaster cast of her left hand which he had contrived to obtain shortly before the débâcle providentially, as he often reflected while writing. That hand now meant almost as much to him as Métilde herself could ever have done. In particular, the slight crookedness of the ring finger occasioned in him emotions of a vehemence he had not hitherto experienced.
In De l'Amour he describes a journey he claims to have made from Bologna in the company of one Mme Gherardi, whom he sometimes refers to simply as La Ghita. La Ghita, who reappears a number of times on the periphery of Beyle's later work, is a mysterious, not to say unearthly figure. There is reason to suspect that Beyle used her name as a cipher for various lovers such as Adèle Rebuffel, Angéline Bereyter and not least for Métilde Dembowski, and that Mme Gherardi, whose life would easily furnish a whole novel, as Beyle writes at one point, never really existed, despite all the documentary evidence, and was merely a phantom, albeit one to whom Beyle remained true for decades. It is furthermore unclear at what time in his life Beyle made the journey with Mine Gherardi, always supposing that he made it at all. However, since there is much about Lake Garda in the opening pages of the narrative, it seems probable that some of what Beyle experienced in September 1813, when he was convalescing by the lakes of upper Italy, went into his account of the journey with Mme Gherardi.
In the autumn of 1813, Beyle was in a continuously elegiac frame of mind. The previous winter he had taken part in the terrible retreat from Russia, and afterwards had spent some time dealing with administrative business at Sagan in Silesia, where at the height of the summer he succumbed to a serious illness, during the course of which his senses were often confounded by images of the great fire of Moscow and of climbing the Schneekopf, which he had been planning to do immediately before the fever came upon him. Time after time Beyle found himself on a mountaintop, cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by great squalls of snow driven horizontally through the tempestuous air and by the flames breaking from the roofs of burning houses.
The leave he took in upper Italy after recovering was marked by a sensation of debility and quietude, which caused him to view the natural world around him, and the longing for love which he continued to feel, in a wholly new way. A curious lightness such as he had never known took hold of him, and it is the recollection of that lightness which informs the account he wrote seven years later of a journey that may have been wholly imaginary, made with a companion who may likewise have been a mere figment of his own mind.
The narrative begins in Bologna, where the heat was so unbearable in the early July of a year we cannot date precisely that Beyle and Mme Gherardi decided to spend a few weeks breathing the fresher air of the mountains. Resting by day and travelling by night, they crossed the hilly country of Emilia-Romagna and the Mantuan marshes, shrouded in sulphurous vapours, and on the morning of the third day arrived in Desenzano on Lake Garda. Never in his entire life, writes Beyle, had the beauty and solitude of those waters made so profound an impression on him. Because of the oppressive heat, he and Mme Gherardi spent the evenings in a barque out on the lake, observing, during hours of unforgettable tranquillity, the most extraordinary gradations of colour as night fell. It was on one of those evenings, Beyle writes, that they talked of the pursuit of happiness. Mine Gherardi maintained that love, like most other blessings of civilisation, was a chimaera which we desire the more, the further removed we are from Nature. Insofar as we seek Nature solely in another body, we become cut off from Her; for love, she declared, is a passion that pays its debts in a coin of its own minting, and thus a purely notional transaction which one no more needs for one's fulfilment than one needs the instrument for trimming goose-quills that he, Beyle, had bought in Modena. Or do you imagine (thus, according to Beyle, she continued) that Petrarch was unhappy merely because he never knew the taste of coffee?
A few days after this conversation, Beyle and Mme Gherardi continued on their journey. Since the breezes traverse Lake Garda from north to south around midnight but from south to north in the hours before dawn, they first rode along the bank as far as Gargnano, halfway up the lake shore, and from there took a boat aboard which, as day broke, they entered the small port of Riva, where two boys were already sitting on the harbour wall playing dice. Beyle drew Mme Gherardi's attention to an old boat, its mainmast fractured two-thirds of the way up, its buff-coloured sails hanging in folds. It appeared to have made fast only a short time ago, and two men in dark silver-buttoned tunics were at that moment carrying a bier ashore on which, under a large, frayed, flower-patterned silk cloth, lay what was evidently a human form. The scene affected Mme Gherardi so adversely that she insisted on quitting Riva without delay.
The further they penetrated into the mountains, the cooler and greener the landscape became, much to the delight of Mme Gherardi, for whom the dust-laden summers of her native city were so often an ordeal. That sombre moment in Riva, which crossed her memory like a shadow several times, was presently forgotten, and gave way to such high spirits that in Innsbruck, for the sheer pleasure of it, she bought a broad-brimmed Tyrolean hat of the kind familiar to us from pictures showing Andreas Hofer's rebellion, and persuaded Beyle, who had been meaning to turn back at this point, to continue further down the Inn valley with her, past Schwaz and Kufstein and onwards to Salzburg. There they stayed for several days, visiting the famed underground galleries of the Hallein salt mines, where one of the miners made Mme Gherardi a present of a twig which was encrusted with thousands of crystals. When they returned to the surface of the earth once again, Beyle writes, the rays of the sun set off in it a manifold glittering such as he had only seen flashing from diamonds as ladies revolved with their partners in a ballroom blazing with light.
The protracted crystallisation process, which had transformed the dead twig into a truly miraculous object, appeared to Beyle, by his own account, as an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul. He expounded this idea at length to Mme Gherardi. She for her part, however, was not prepared to sacrifice the childish bliss that filled her that day in order to explore with Beyle the deeper meaning of what was doubtless a very pretty allegory, as she sardonically put it. Beyle took this as another example of the obstacles that so often appeared in his path as he continued his quest for a woman who might accord with his intellectual life, and he remarks that it was then he realised how even his most extravagant efforts would never be able to overcome those obstacles. In noting this, he broached a subject that was to occupy him as a writer for years to come. And so now, in 1826, approaching forty, he sat alone on a bench in the shade of two fine trees, enclosed by a low wall in the garden of the monastery of the Minori Osservanti high above Lake Albano and, with the cane he now generally carried with him, slowly inscribed the initials of his former lovers in the dust, like the enigmatic runes of his life. The initials stand for Virginie Kubly, Angela Pietragrua, Adèle Rebuffel, Mélanie Guilbert, Mina de Griesheim, Alexandrine Petit, Angéline (qui je n'ai jamais aimé) Bereyter, Métilde Dembowski, and for Clémentine, Giulia, and Mme Azur, whose first name he no longer remembered. Just as he no longer understood the names of these stars now unfamiliar to him, as he phrases it, so too it seemed ultimately incomprehensible to him, when he wrote De l'Amour, that whenever he tried to persuade Mme Gherardi to believe in love, she made him replies now of a melancholy sort, and now quite tart. It especially pained Beyle, however, at a time when he was beginning to accept with some reluctance the foundations of her philosophy, to find Mine Gherardi, as occurred often enough, according a certain value after all to the illusions of love he associated with the crystallisation of salt. At such moments he was horrified by a sudden awareness of his own insufficiency and a profound sense of failure. Beyle distinctly recalls that this horror came upon him on one occasion in the autumn of the year in which they had made their journey to the Alps together, when they were riding on the Cascata del Reno and discussing the torments the painter Oldofredi underwent in the name of love, which were then the talk of the town. Beyle had still not abandoned hope of winning the favour of Mme Gherardi, who was usually well disposed to his quick-witted conversation, and when she began to speak of a divine happiness beyond comparison with anything else in life, quite to herself as it seemed to him, a feeling of dread overcame him, and he described Oldofredi, doubtless thinking more of himself than of the painter, as a wretched foreigner. Thereupon he fell back, allowing the gap between his horse and that of Mme Gherardi who, as has been remarked, may have existed only in his imagination to widen steadily, and they rode the remaining three miles to Bologna without exchanging another word.
Beyle wrote his great novels between 1829 and 1842, plagued constantly by the symptoms of syphilis. Difficulties in swallowing, swellings in his armpits, and pains in his atrophying testicles troubled him especially. Having now become a meticulous observer, he kept a minute record of the fluctuating state of his health and in due course noted that his sleeplessness, his giddiness, the roaring in his ears, his palpitating pulse, and the shaking that was at times so bad that he could not use a knife and fork, were related not so much to the disease itself as to the extremely toxic substances with which he had dosed himself for years. His condition improved as little by little he stopped taking quicksilver and iodide of potassium; but he realised that his heart was gradually failing. As had long been his habit, Beyle calculated, with growing frequency, the age to which he might expect to live in cryptographic forms which, in their scrawled, ominous abstraction, seem like harbingers of death. Six years of arduous work still remained to him when he jotted down this impenetrable note. On the evening of the 22nd of March, 1842, with the approach of spring already in the air, he fell to the pavement in rue Neuve-des-Capucines in an apoplectic fit. He was taken to his apartments in what is now rue Danielle-Casanova, and there, in the early hours of the following morning, without regaining consciousness, he died.
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Meet the Author
W. G. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and died in 2001. He is the author of The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz,
After Nature, On the Natural History of Destruction, Unrecounted and Campo Santo.
Michael Hulse is an English translator, critic, and poet. Hulse has translated more than sixty books from the German.
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