IN 1801, THE GERMAN POET and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, in the throes of what has been called his “Kant crisis,” took a house on an island in the Swiss river Aare, near Thun. A reading of Kant (which particular work has not been established) had led Kleist to conclude that truth was no longer graspable and reason illusory, effectively refuting the Enlightenment values by which he’d conducted his life thus far. As a result, he felt his world fly into a series of irreconcilable fragments, initiating what Nietzsche called a period of “upheaval and despair” from which he would never recover: 10 years later, at the age of 34, Kleist shot himself by the Kleiner Wannsee as part of a suicide pact with a woman named Henriette Vogel, whom an autopsy later revealed to be dying of cancer.
But it is in Thun that the Swiss poet Robert Walser — whose own despair in his art eventually drove him across the border of madness — imagines an encounter with Kleist. There, as Walser writes in the story “Kleist in Thun,” the playwright finds himself “somewhat unwell”:
The fields are thick with flowers, fragrance everywhere, hum of bees, work, sounds fall, one idles about; in the heat of the sun you could go mad. It is as if radiant red stupefying waves rise up in his head whenever he sits at his table and tries to write. He cursed his craft.
At the end of the story Walser turns back to himself, reflecting, seemingly apropos of nothing, of Thun: “I know the region a little, perhaps, because I worked as a clerk in a brewery there.”
The narrator-selves in what W. G. Sebald called his “prose fictions” — Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz — seem often to succumb to Kleist-like ailments brought on by a similar sense (as in The Rings of Saturn) that reality has “shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot.” Like Walser or Kleist, Sebald’s writing subject is an emigrant in life, unsettled even at home and uncannily aware of what, in the introduction to his newly translated essay collection, A Place in the Country, Sebald calls the “pathological aspect of thought.” Composed in large part in 1997 and published in Germany a year later as Logis in einem Landhaus, this revealing collection is titled after a quotation from “Kleist in Thun,” though Kleist is not a subject here, directly. Sebald’s “marginal notes and glosses” focus instead on five mostly obscure 19th-century writers and one contemporary painter, arranged almost, but not quite, chronologically: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. All are artists whose work, as Sebald writes, “bypasses life with such extraordinary precision” and yet who, perhaps because of this “inner emigration,” sometimes succeed in “opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.”
The six subjects are also, as Sebald puts it, his “colleagues,” those with whom he seems to sense what he’d described, in The Rings of Saturn, as an “elective affinity.” Part of this closeness, one might guess, is geographical: Sebald’s pantheon tends to originate in, or to have some relationship to, places like Basel, Württemberg, the Allgäu, Zurich, and the Bielersee, that “Alemannic” region that, united by the Alps, makes up the almost mythical personal map laid over much of Sebald’s fiction. So, for instance, his tender, almost childlike characterization of the German almanac writer Hebel as “the Hausfreund,” or family friend.
Those familiar with his work will recognize the way Sebald’s personal histories fall within the contours of a certain topography, causing quiet cataclysms of sense — or almost-sense — to emerge out of coincidence with the past. In the essay on Hebel, for instance, though Sebald approaches his subject, as usual, from a remove (via a feuilleton of Walter Benjamin’s, in this case), he soon observes that his return to Hebel was prompted by a memory of his own grandfather, “whose use of language was in many ways reminiscent of that of the Hausfreund,” and who
would every year buy a Kempter Calender [Kempten Almanac], in which he would note, in his indelible pencil, the name days of his relatives and friends, the first frost, the first snowfall, the onset of the Föhn, thunderstorms, hailstorms, and suchlike.
Is there a connection between Hebel and Sebald’s grandfather that is more than aesthetic, more than merely proximal? Would it matter at all if there were? Eerier still is the link Sebald senses between this grandfather and Walser, who not only resembled one another physically but who also died in the very same year.
Yet Sebald, unearthed by the essay form from the layered narration of his novels (“he said, said Austerlitz”), seems to admit to an ambivalence toward these intersections that is largely absent from his fiction: “What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” he asks, in the essay on Walser.
Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?
Whether order or — as was the case for the narrator of Vertigo as for his Rousseau here — a sense of conspiracy manufactured by some kind of mental illness, it is unclear. Either way, reality appears in front of him as though flinging off its layers, drawing nearer, each time, to the ultimate darkness beneath: “I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” he writes,
the life of the Prussian writer Kleist with that of a Swiss author who claims to have worked as a clerk in a brewery in Thun, the echo of a pistol shot across the Wannsee with the view from a window of the Herisau asylum, Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune, natural history and the history of our industries, that of Heimat with that of exile.
The best he can do, he writes, is to make a record of such things.
Sebald’s aporias, the connections drawn but not made to mean, suggest a form of appreciation that is sensed as much as grasped, something based as much on proximity as on a clear, intellectual understanding. One is led (and this may be why his work can seem at once so near-tedious and so personal) by the wandering mind, the lapse in attention, or the starling emergence of image, to discover the geometries of thought that occur when one thing, one mind, conjuncts with the next. It is as though one were, midway through a walk in the hills, to pause and look out on a valley below only to see at some distance away another figure standing, taking in the same view. Sebald’s prose gives this feeling of a shared vantage, over which the thoughts of each observer can unfurl, taking their separate courses over rivers, cliffs, or cities, molding themselves to the landscape and playing out in a kind of counterpoint which is its own form of understanding. The boundaries between self and subject grow permeable, and are shared.
In A Place in the Country, likewise, perhaps by way of the closeness Sebald feels with these writers (and painter), the prose becomes oddly transparent, revealing the author behind to the extent that the book should be read more as a sort of aesthetic autobiography than as a series of portraits. “Once one has become aware of the way Hebel accompanies his characters as a faithful compagnon,” Sebald writes, “it is almost possible to read his remarks on the comet which appeared in 1811 as a self-portrait.” And once one has become aware of the way Sebald accompanies his subjects, it’s equally possible to find a literary self-portrait crystallizing in and through these texts. One gets the impression that everything Sebald says about these writers, he also means about himself. On Hebel, for instance:
As one thing follows another, so, very gradually, the narrative unfolds. Nevertheless, the language constantly checks itself, holding itself up in small loops and digressions and molding itself to that which it describes, along the way recuperating as many earthly goods as it possibly can.
Or this, on Keller:
Keller’s prose, so unreservedly committed to earthly life, attains its most astonishing heights at precisely those moments where it reaches out to touch the edge of eternity. Anyone traveling along this path as it is unrolled before us, sentence after lovely sentence, over and over again senses with a shudder how deep is the abyss on either side, how sometimes the daylight seems to fade as the shadows gather from afar and often is almost extinguished by the suggestion of death.
That abyss has always been a salient feature of Sebald’s work, representing his deeply felt awareness of (as he identifies it in Tripp’s painting) the “metaphysical underside of reality, its dark inner lining.” In this awareness, Sebald’s aesthetic is never far from the social, political, and moral. As he put it in a 1992 interview with Piet de Moor:
Old-fashionedness of the diction or of the narrative tone is […] nothing to do with nostalgia for a better age that’s gone past but is simply something that, as it were, heightens the awareness of that which we have managed to engineer in this century.
This type of prose, in other words, can serve as a principled witness to the catastrophes of human history (above all, in Sebald’s case, that of the German Reich) while maintaining itself at a remove from the historical certainties that make such catastrophes possible. For this reason, Sebald, like the writers he addresses here, can be called a member of a minor tradition despite his singular elevation in the literary world; for him, the writer is no more than a “houseguest” in history, the inhabitant of a metaphorical Landhaus, or “house in the country,” in the sense of an inn. There, having exiled himself or been forced into exile, the writer creates a form of surreptitious resistance — to the certitudes of interpretation as much as to those of history. And this proves a central dilemma for the subjects of A Place in the Country: it’s the writer’s marginality, his (and it is always “his”) failure to be relevant to the world, that is the cause of both his hope and of his desperation. So the work of writers like Walser becomes both “pathological” and a system of “defenses and fortifications by means of which the smallest and most innocent things might be saved from destruction in the ‘great times’ then looming on the horizon.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Sebald told Arthur Lubow that the place he felt most at home was on the Île de Saint-Pierre in Switzerland’s Lac de Bienne, “because it is a miniature world [...] it has one of everything, so it is in a sense an ark.” It is no surprise then that Sebald’s essay on Rousseau, whose exile on that island evokes Kleist’s sojourn in Thun, is, in this collection, a notably personal one. Beginning with the author’s move, in 1965, to French-speaking Switzerland to carry on his studies, the first paragraph finds Sebald looking down from above on the Île Saint-Pierre (an echo, in itself, of what he calls Hebel’s “cosmic perspective,” a position allowing for moments of “pure contemplation”). Yet it is not, he writes, until 31 years later that he is able to visit the place, traveling to the island and taking a room directly adjacent to those occupied by Rousseau “exactly 200 years before my first sight of the island from the top of the Schattenrain.” This is an especially characteristic moment: emerging out of the mountains, the observer’s desire is projected forward in time toward its eventual fulfillment, and then immediately spun back (while, strangely, moving forward from the historical past) to its origin, connecting subject and object, past and present, in a curious trigonometry based on the proximity of one thing to the next. On the island, Sebald experiences the “quality of silence” that Rousseau, who found there a measure of relief from his “disease of thought,” must also have felt. It enables a moment in which, in the words of the Rousseau scholar Jean Starobinski, “individual existence dissolves at its limits and is dreamily transformed into thin air.” This is what, for Sebald, all writing seems to aspire to, the “silent embrace of reconciliation and return,” (the italics are his) and what he approaches in these layerings and collapses of time. And yet Sebald appears aware that, however self-contained the miniature world, however great the impression (as he writes of Mörike’s poems) of “a still life preserved under a glass dome,” outside its boundaries there remains “the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control.”
Just so, beneath the almost pathological realism of the painter Jan Peter Tripp — a school friend of his from the Allgäu, as it happens — Sebald glimpses a “terrifying abyss.” In a way, Tripp’s depiction of reality is related to the uncaptioned images that punctuate A Place in the Country itself which, as in Sebald’s fictions, prove less reminders of the reality they’re supposed to support than of its instability. Similarly, while Tripp’s paintings are filled with objects seemingly preserved out of time, Sebald writes, “the aura of memory which surrounds them lends them the quality of mementos: objects in which melancholy is crystallized,” and they become reminders of both eternity and death. One painting in particular seems like a Sebald novel in schematic: it depicts, as he describes it,
a small bunch of dried flowers (it immediately reminded me of the garland which Karoline von Schlieben wove with Heinrich von Kleist on the Bruhlsche Terrasse in Dresden on the sixteenth of May, 1801, a photograph of which has survived) as well as a scrap of paper torn from a diary bearing the date of the fifteenth of May — the painter’s birthday.
As it happens, May was also the date of Kleist’s flight to Thun.
This palimpsestic kinship — Kleist, Walser, Tripp, Sebald — is based, like his affinity for the other artists here, in Sebald’s “unwavering affection” for them. This, Sebald writes, was what “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it is too late.” In a sense, of course, it was already too late: Sebald’s death, 12 years ago on December 14, in a car accident on the Norwich Ring Road (exactly three weeks, incidentally, after the death day of Kleist) only confirmed the impression held by many that he had always written, in some way, “from the other side.” It was as though the figure one had supposed to be taking in the same view had suddenly walked away, leaving a dark hole of unknowing behind. Was his presence meaningful? Accidental? Merely aesthetic? Was there (as I have seen it suggested) something more sinister at work? A love affair gone wrong? An undiagnosed disease?
In a way, to return these things to the known would be to miss half the point. Because as becomes clear for the first time in these essays, Sebald recognized that his experimental gesture, which we answer in interpreting his death, was not unlike Tripp’s use of trompe l’oeil: preserving reality by its very uncertainty, it concealed at the same time the “terrible abyss” to which uncertainty led. If Sebald appears like a revenant in his own prose, it is in part because he can always be glimpsed standing just to one side of his subjects — a little, maybe, like Derrida’s “trace,” “the simulacrum of a presence that dislocates, displaces, and refers beyond itself,” but which “has, properly speaking, no place.” As these essays suggest, though, it may be precisely in having no place, or, at any rate, merely a place in the country, over there, a little apart, that the “minor” writer gains a measure of freedom from the pathologies of his time. And so instead of certainty we are left with the quality of an experience or journey, as is so often the case in Sebald’s work. At the end of the essay on Walser, Sebald recalls Nabokov’s account, in Speak, Memory, of a children’s book in which a group of friends, whose number includes a dwarf, goes for a ride in an airship. “At the immense altitude to which the ship reached, the aeronauts huddled together for warmth,” Nabokov writes. The dwarf, meanwhile, who had been provided with his own, miniature balloon, “drifted into an abyss of frost and stars — alone.”