CIVILISED AND BAR­BARIC

WG Se­bald’s in­flu­ence in the An­glo­sphere con­tin­ues to ex­pand, more than a decade af­ter his death, writes Geordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - A Place in the Coun­try By WG Se­bald Hamish Hamil­ton, 224pp, $39.99 (HB)

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

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