Fusing biography and essay, and finding, as ever, inspiration in place, as when he journeys to the Ile St Pierre, the tiny, lonely Swiss island where Jean Jacques Rousseau found solace and inspiration, the author brings his subjects to life in his distinctive, inimitable voice.
A Place in the country is a collection of essays about Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser, with an additional essay about the artist Jan Peter Tripp. Most of these authors are considered marginal, for once, because Hebel wrote in a German dialect which is very hard to understand, and Mörike is considered a minor German author. In almost all essays, Sebald pays more attention to the authors' troubled lives than to their literary production, and in the case of Rousseau Sebald seeks proximity to the author through the experience of the land, the small island and the monastery where Rousseau lived, a place Sebald often visited.
Another feature that binds these authors is that they were all outsiders, particularly in the case of Keller and Walser pathologically. They were introverted people who shied away from contact, which in the case of Walser even found expression in the form of a nearly impossible to deciphre micro script.
Most of the essays are easy to read, as they focus more on biographical detail than on literary features. However, at the beginning of several of the essays, there are cryptic references to historical figures. Thus, the essay about Mörike begins with a reference to Napoleon, "and his precursor, thre trailblazer with the red Phrygian cap" (p. 69). In some of the essays the author uses unnecessary difficult terminology, for instance hinting at "Hebel's particular fondness for the paratactic conjunctions" (p.17). There are several long quotations in "Alemannic" dialect from Hebel and Sebald often uses french quotations or references. For a German author, it would be more logical to use the German place names than the French, but in many places Sebald apparently prefers "Lac de Bienne over "Bieler See. Although they are small details, they lend the essays a somewhat artificial type of erudition, which seems characteristic of Sebald's writing style. In the English edition of A Place in the country most of these difficulties have been smoothed by the translator / editor Jo Catling who has also provided and excellent introduction, translator's notes, and bibliography. The translation is excellent, with dialect passages quoted in full plus translation in brackets, but where needed, essential terminology is retained in German, and explained in notes.
It was the aim of the author to create "a beautiful book", and this aesthetic sense has been retained in the English edition. The text is richly illustrated, containing several large full-colour plates of contemporaries of the authors. The cloth edition of Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) is a gorgeous volume, and the beauty of the book greatly enhances the pleasure of reading it.
Measured and strange. I felt an unexpected peace when reading these essays. There was a shadowed forbearance at play---if only within myself. The careful apprehension in each essay is a point of contemplation, despite the assurances from the author that these are "glosses" from alleged "margins". Aside from the looks at Rousseau and Walser Sebald walks in some strange territory, though with signature estrangement.
There's parenthetical charm in books of authors on other authors, I was exclaiming my joy in such when in the essay on Walser, Sebald notes the similarity of Walser with the Gogol studied by Nabokov. He stole my thunder, I screeched with a bootless cry. I am actually barefoot, its hot as hell outside.