CIVILISED AND BARBARIC
WG Sebald’s influence in the Anglosphere continues to expand, more than a decade after his death, writes Geordie Williamson
R OBERTO Bolano aside, there has been no figure in recent literature who has enjoyed a posthumous expansion in reputation like WG Sebald. His death in a car accident at the age of 57 has come to seem an even greater loss, a dozen years on. The creative work of Sebald — a respected scholar at the University of East Anglia since 1987 — crept into English translation only slowly. Yet what there was of it — four uncategorisable prose works and a volume of essays at the time of his death — has since reverberated through the Anglosphere. Today his elegantly digressive prose style and elegiac temper informs authors as disparate as English nature writer Robert Macfarlane, New York-based Nigerian novelist Teju Cole and Australia’s Nicolas Rothwell.
But, like Nabokov, one of his touchstone writers, Sebald’s body of work has continued to grow even beyond the grave. There were two volumes of short poems, For Years Now and Unrecounted, the latter a collaboration with artist Jan Peter Tripp (a childhood friend and the subject of the final essay in this new collection) that appeared in 2003; and a selection of his poetry that appeared last year. Then there were the essays that made up
Campo Santo, published a decade ago. That volume, with its appreciations of writers such as Nabokov, Kafka and Bruce Chatwin, and its fragments from an abandoned project on Corsica, shone a retrospective light on preceding works and even furnished an epigram for his work. ‘‘ There are many forms of writing,’’ Sebald announced in a speech in Stuttgart, in 2001. ‘‘ Only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts . . .’’ What the reader could trace in the pages of
Campo Santo was a similar development, away from the brilliant yet academically dense pieces on German literature of his early occupation towards the para-literary innovations of his final years. Like his major contemporary JM Coetzee, Sebald did not reject the theoretical turn of the academy that began in the 1970s so much as redirect it towards creative ends. The essays that make up A Place in the
Country are even more revealing of Sebald’s sources and influences. As the introduction makes clear, they encapsulate ‘‘ the themes and preoccupations’’ of Sebald’s career, from his obsession with islands to his love of the marginal, small-scale, and place-bound. His subjects may range widely in time, from Rousseau and his late-life idyll on the Ile SaintPierre in Switzerland’s Lake Bienne, to Gottfried Keller and Eduard Morike — canonical names in 19th-century German-language letters if largely unknown by us — to Sebald’s coeval Jan Peter Tripp, but each turns out to be linked by geography, language, literary manner or psychological outlook. All of them are
WG Sebald’s work grows even beyond the grave