A PLACE IN THE COUNTRY. By W.G. Sebald. Translated by Jo Catling. Illustrated. 208 pages. Random House. $26.
It's tempting to say that "A Place in the Country," lightly connected essays in which W.G. Sebald writes about six artists he admires, will hold interest only for Sebald completists. But then, it's hard to imagine a Sebald reader who isn't an obsessive completist.
Sebald, the German writer who died in 2001 at 57, produced uncategorizable books. He combined fiction, travel writing, thinly veiled autobiography and cryptic uncaptioned photographs in works that tried to rescue the constantly vanishing traces of human experience. His great theme, as the narrator of his 2001 masterpiece "Austerlitz" put it, was "how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion, with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on."
In developing this theme, especially as it applies to World War II and the Holocaust, Sebald's work was comfortable with contradictions. He was a precise impressionist. Though anchored by almost hyper-real detail, his books, because of their drifting engagement with the layers of history, are hard to situate in place and period. They come to feel narrated by something like a timeless, sentient cloud. And their realism is gilded with a sense of fantasy. The books' many quotidian concerns always occur in the context of a larger quest. No one ever just drops off a load of dry cleaning.
So it's no surprise that many of the writers he's drawn to are fabulists in their way. The artists in "A Place in the Country," first published in German in 1998, will most likely be unknown to American readers, except for Jean-Jacques Rousseau and possibly Robert Walser, the Swiss novelist and story writer whose reissued work has attracted a modest-size cult in recent years. The other four are Johann Peter Hebel (born in 1760), Eduard Morike (1804), Gottfried Keller (1819) and the painter Jan Peter Tripp (a friend of Sebald's whose presence in the book feels tacked on).
The essays include the familiar Sebaldian flourish of black-and-white photos, as well as stunning color images in two-page fold-outs, and they lean on the indirect approach used in Sebald's major works.
The book's enthusiasm will likely lead readers to other texts (I've ordered a copy of Hebel's stories), but its most lasting interest may reside in moments when Sebald's analysis hints "at an oblique comment on his own style of writing," as the book's translator, Jo Catling, says in her foreword.
Sebald is humanized and softened in these essays - a face is given to the cloud - but also darkened. He starkly writes of "the pathological aspect of thought," "the disease of thought," "the machinery of thought." He calls writing "a continually self-perpetuating compulsive act," a "rather vicarious vice whose clutches those who have once embarked upon it rarely succeed in escaping."
More surprisingly, in more than one essay, Sebald expresses a preference for prose that is, in a way, disposable. He says of Hebel's "Calendar Stories," "A seal of their perfection is that they are so easy to forget." He writes that Walser's "prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events, and things of which it spoke."
And he approvingly cites Walter Benjamin's belief that "the point of every one of Walser's sentences is to make the reader forget the previous one."
Maybe Sebald wasn't interested in rescue or ultimate remembrance after all. Maybe he just loved most what had disappeared.