A Place in the Country

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In the course of discussing a writer, Sebald often acknowledges an intermediary, a Brod or Boswell type who played a role in keeping the flame or spreading the word. In the essay on Johann Peter Hebel, a lyric poet and author of almanac stories, this figure is Walter Benjamin, whom Sebald credits with initiating the attack on the “primitive Heideggerrian thesis of Hebel’s rootedness in the native soil of the Heimat”. In the essay on Robert Walser, it is Walser’s friend Carl Seelig who preserved the Swiss writer’s Nachlass (literary remains), and without whom, Sebald argues, his rehabilitation “could never have taken place”. A short preface Sebald wrote for the German edition explains that when he travelled to Manchester in 1966, he packed books by Walser, Hebel and Keller which, 30 years on, would still find a place in his luggage. But A Place in the Country, though idiosyncratic, turns out to be less introvert than Sebald’s fictions, less insistent on a “Sebald” figure who serves as the origin of its impressions and arguments. As it turns out, Sebald is less involved with what the writers mean to him than with what they might be shown to symbolise or represent. The result, written in his customary and not always helpful long paragraphs, and illustrated with plates, photographs and photocopies, is a passionate and provoking attempt to sketch an alternative tradition of Alpine literature starting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau – described as “the inventor of modern autobiography” and “inventor of the bourgeois cult of romantic sensibility” – and culminating, perhaps, in Sebald’s own variant of Romantic autobiography.

more from Leo Robson at The Guardian here.

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