WG Sebald’s intricately woven essays on six writers and artists who inspired him engross Jane Shilling.
There is a terrible poignancy to WG Sebald’s introduction to A Place in the Country, his collection of six essays originally published in German in 1998. His affection for his subjects, he wrote, “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late”.
Three years later Sebald died in a car crash at the age of 57. The publication of this book, translated by his former University of East Anglia colleague Jo Catling, is a reminder of what we lost by the silencing of his distinctive voice. Sebald spent his working life as an academic in East Anglia but wrote in German. When his “prose fictions” – Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz – were translated into English, their troubling originality and the contained brilliance of their prose elicited perplexed critical rapture and Sebald’s name was mentioned as a future Nobel laureate.
Sebald’s subjects are five writers – Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser – and an artist, his contemporary and schoolfriend, the realist painter, Jan Peter Tripp.
A tragic-comic leitmotif of these essays, which span a period of almost 200 years, is what Sebald calls the “awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing”.
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