Two reviews of the latest book by W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country.
What unites Sebald’s subjects, besides their shared provenance, is a relationship to writing and to literature that is less expressive than it is compulsive. “There seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature,” writes Sebald in the foreword to Country. “Those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it, even at that critical age when . . . 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.” Sebald casts this devotion to a wholly useless activity as a form of resistance against a society that has no patience for objects without an immediate monetary purpose. By the same token, nature, the perennial Sebald theme, appears in Country as a political and historical alternative—a road not traveled—to the blind self-destruction of industrial capitalism. This idea is spelled out most explicitly in the chapters on Hebel and Rousseau, in a lengthy excurse on the French physiocrats, whose plans for a society based on land agriculture “sought, in the face of the far-reaching changes affecting collective life in the eighteenth century to achieve a lasting basis for a harmonization of society based on natural law,” as well as on Rousseau’s little-read constitution for Corsica, in which Rousseau suggests that the Corsicans avoid urbanization and monetary exchange in favor of agriculture, “as the only possible basis for a true and free life.”
Sebald speaks most directly to this aspect of our present moment in A Place in the Country, the collection only now translated after an unnecessary fifteen-year delay that may yet turn out for the best. Sebald’s English-language readers could certainly be forgiven for thinking we’d reached the bottom of the barrel after the slight Unrecounted (2004) and disappointing Campo Santo (2005), and A Place in the Country seems unpromising, with five essays on five authors and a sixth on the visual artist Jan Peter Tripp. Sadly, the English edition encourages this misconception, adding a dreary introduction, informative but unnecessary notes, and pedantically retained words and phrases in German throughout. A Place in the Country didn’t need this academic treatment any more than Rings of Saturn and Sebald’s other novels; thank goodness they were left to breathe as the living works of art they are. I hope that English-only readers will be able to see, beneath the clutter, that A Place in the Country is Sebald at his best, complete with the unmistakable photographs, the unmistakable tone.