Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Campo Santo

W.G. Sebald

Random House ($24.95)

by Eric J. Iannelli

“…one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial.”

So writes W.G. Sebald of travel writer Bruce Chatwin in “The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin,” one of the essays in this posthumous bricolage—though as readers familiar with Sebald may note, this passage could just as well apply to the work of the author himself. Indeed, much of the second part of Campo Santo, devoted to essays previously published in German-language periodicals, finds Sebald concentrating on the qualities of other writers' work that came to define his own, stylistically and thematically. Writing long before the publication of his first hybrid novel, Vertigo, he admires the “collection and organization of textual and pictorial material, both historical and fictional” of Alex Kluge's Neue Geschichten in “Between History and Natural History: On the literary description of total destruction” (1982), an essay which echoes his controversial opinions on the reluctance of German postwar literature to acknowledge the suffering of the Germans themselves during the intense morale-defeating Allied bombing raids. (His more detailed Zurich lectures on the subject have been collected in On the Natural History of Destruction.) The following piece, “Constructs of Mourning,” opens with a quotation by Sir Thomas Browne (whose skull sent the narrator on a physical and mental excursion in The Rings of Saturn), and goes on to argue that “literature today, left solely to its own devices, is no longer able to discover the truth,” holding up Günter Grass' Diary as an example.

Truth was an overarching issue for Sebald, though his attempts to arrive at it were never what one might call conclusive, and deliberately so. His erudite narrators are beset by unreliable memories and inexplicable compulsions. His stories have no beginning, middle or end; they are one of infinite possible courses plucked out of the chain of history. This act of groping towards truth, however, was necessary for the sake of history's victims—whether animal, vegetable or man, murdered Jew or exiled writer—and for making some gesture of amends, not to absolve the guilty and ease their collective conscience, but to understand and thereby assuage the suffering of the victims. Sebald perhaps summarizes it best himself in the penultimate piece, “An Attempt at Restitution”: “There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.”

Out of this small but uncannily representative selection emerges a peculiar continuity through which one is able to identify a writer preoccupied with ghosts and doppelgängers, the swift mutability of time versus eternal recurrence, the power of images combined with the power of literature, weightlessness and vertigo, and “the invisible connections that determine our lives”; a writer dubious of technological and industrial progress as panacea, one who viewed the horror “civilized” man continually visits upon himself with the melancholic combination of resignation and despair.

But Campo Santo illustrates change in addition to this continuity. Through these same chronological essays one is able to trace the subtle arc of Sebald's development. The earliest essay included here, “Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis: On Peter Handke's Play Kaspar,” published in 1975, discusses familiar Sebaldian themes such as identity, memory and civilization, but it is notably drier and more academic than the reflective, meandering, semi-autobiographical analytical pieces that appear toward the end of this collection. These later essays are close cousins of the fiction that established Sebald's reputation. His distinctive style is first evident in the 1995 bagatelle “To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland: On Kafka's Travel Diaries,” and by the time one reaches “An Attempt at Restitution,” which dates from shortly before his death in 2001, Sebald is shifting from the Quelle mail order catalogue to the architecture of the Stuttgart train station and from Hölderlin to the question of literature, tracing, as he does so fluidly, the circuitous paths of reminiscence and philosophical thought. Small wonder, then, that he should uncover so much that appeals to him in Nabokov, particularly his memoir Speak, Memory, as is laid out here in “Dream Textures.” “Nabokov also knew,” writes Sebald, “better than most of his fellow writers, that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise revocation of things long overtaken by oblivion.”

The first fifty pages of Campo Santo are relatively short Vertigo-like sections from an unfinished novel—shelved to begin work on the award-winning Austerlitz—occasioned by a 1996 trip to Corsica. Sebald covers as much mental ground as usual: Napoleon, art, deforestation and “unwelcome memories of my distant childhood.” In “The Alps in the Sea,” the plastic trees in English butchers' shop windows reminds him “how strongly we desire absolution and how cheaply we have always bought it,” and he notes the ironies surrounding the persistence of the annual French hunt in the face of dwindling game.

The section from which the book takes its title is about a cemetery in Piana, and it is more than a little eerie that in this posthumous book Sebald should be found brooding on death. “They are still around us, the dead, but there are times when I think that perhaps they will soon be gone… Their significance is visibly decreasing. In the urban societies of the late twentieth century… where everyone is instantly replaceable and is really superfluous from birth, we have to keep throwing ballast overboard, forgetting everything that we might otherwise remember.” This is likely the last book that will ever appear under this author's name. If, as a result of his untimely death and our keenness to unburden ourselves of the dead, his significance should ever decrease, it would be a profound loss to literature and history.

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents