Meandering presences


Slate on Sebald’s A Place in the Country.

Whenever I read the work of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, I get distracted here and there by a preoccupation with the fact that he worked for most of his life as an academic. Probably this is because I’ve spent many of my years in a similar environment, and I often wonder about the formative pressures this has exerted, over time, on my own writing and thinking. His relationship with the academy was not that of the standard contemporary writer, who is typically housed within the disciplinary annex of “creative writing” and who does not concern himself with the business of academia per se. Sebald, although he did also teach creative writing, was a full-blown scholar, a company man of long standing who lectured in the department of German literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001. In ways that are both subtle and pronounced, this shows through in his writing — in his essays and novels (which he preferred to call his “prose narratives”).

Books like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, for instance, are, in much of their content if not their form, works of deep research. The Sebaldian narrator — let’s just go ahead and call him Sebald — is a meandering presence, of course, picking his way across the secluded routes between landscape and subject; but there is always the sense of him emerging into the world after a long tenure in the artificial light of libraries and lecture halls, breathing the fine dust of scholarship. It’s always tempting to compare Sebald to Borges — among other narrative oddities, The Rings of Saturn contains a detailed synopsis of Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius — but where Borges’ fiction tended to use the apparatus and affectations of scholarship in service of a kind of structural irony, Sebald’s art is scholarly in a much more fundamental way. As Adam Phillips has put it, he was “more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist.”

So one of the things that’s always interesting about this writer is how close he seems to come, in his methods, to creating works of scholarship, and how far the books themselves are from the sort of thing typically produced by academics. In Sebald’s essay collection A Place in the Country, originally published in German in 1998 but only now translated into English, there’s a sustained proximity to, and distance from, straight scholarship. Reading it, I kept thinking about how its basic materials might have been incorporated into a more conventional academic text, how its various strands might be tied together into an overall argument about Alemannic literature from the Enlightenment to the prewar era, or the themes of place and exile as they are manifested in same. How it might, in other words, present itself as that most humbly learned of cultural products, a contribution to the literature on some topic or other.

Read Le promeneur solitaire, Sebald’s essay on Robert Walser, and see also, the LA Review of Books review of A Place in the Country.