Book Review: A Place In The Country

A Place In The Country, by W.G. Sebald

I must say that for the most part I am not particularly enthusiastic about the writers/artists that W.G. Sebald finds to be particularly inspirational in this book.  That said, I did find it to be deeply interesting.  Sebald, a fantastic poet, happens to also be a literary critic of considerable talent as well, and reading these essays I was reminded about the importance of regional writing.  You see, the author happens to be a German speaker of the Alemmanic variety, of the kind that is spoken in areas like Baden and Switzerland, an area where I have many ancestors myself, and that German is distinct from the German of Austria and Bavaria on the one hand as well as Northern Germany on the other hand.  And so in writing this book the author gives a great deal of credit to mostly obscure writers (and one artist) who hail mostly from this region of Germany and Switzerland and who have some unfortunate similarities.  Given my own fondness for regional writing [1], I can definitely understand where the author is coming from, although his region is not one I happen to be very familiar with in terms of its native literature.

This book consists of six essays where the writer explores the biography of the tormented souls chosen and seeks to find insight into what made their writing and lives so compelling despite their general obscurity.  After a short foreword the author discusses Johann Peter Hebel, a Baden writer whose interest in Jewish matters and general sarcastic attitude towards politics and militarism made him a particularly unfortunate writer to be distorted by the Nazis.  After this the author discusses the only well-known writer in this group, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is way more appealing to the author than he is to me.  After this the author looks at Eduard Mörike, tormented by a novel that he was unable to finish but also unable to quit, a man who has my fullest sympathies at least.  The author then writes about Gottfried Keller, who was a talented writer but nonetheless one who was extremely unlucky at love and another tormented soul of a writer.  After this Sebald turns to write about Robert Walser, a solitary soul who eventually found himself in a santitorium as he lost the will to live in the face of life’s loneliness.  Finally, the author looks at Jan Peter Tripp, a misanthropic and solitary artist from the same part of the Alps as the author himself.

It did not take too long to realize what the author was about in writing as he did.  Not only did the people he wrote about inhabit a fairly constricted geographic area involving the Alemmanic-speaking areas of Germany and Switzerland (even Rousseau, the native Francophone), but they were all immensely tormented souls who wrote or created out of compulsion.  He is not writing about happy people who found a great deal of professional and personal fulfillment in their writing but rather people who found their writing troublesome and difficult but found it impossible to cope with life except as sources of rivers of flowing and melancholy and tormented text.  I can certainly relate to that.  I am not sure that every prolific writer is a tormented and isolated soul simultaneously seeking and drawing back from contact with others, but it is certainly something that is true of many prolific writers.  As is often the case, the author’s discussion of other authors happens to reveal at least as much about himself as it does about the people he is writing about, but that is the way things happen when you write about writers as a writer yourself.  In seeking to uncover the truth of others you reveal the truth about yourself.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: A Place In The Country

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Austerlitz | Edge Induced Cohesion

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