cover image A Place in the Country

A Place in the Country

W.G. Sebald, trans. from the German by Jo Catling. Random, $26 (240p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6771-8

In this posthumous collection of six essays by Sebald (1944–2001), the last of his major works to be translated into English, the author of Austerlitz, among other works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, uses critical appreciations of five writers and one painter to explore the nature of the creative persona. Like his fiction, Sebald’s essays are hybrid constructions, blending literary biography and personal essay, with photos included throughout. Although their careers span some 200 years, his subjects—Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and the contemporary painter Jan Peter Tripp—bear certain resemblances, as all are products of the same Alpine landscape. Sebald wants to understand “that peculiar behavioral disturbance” that makes writers write. In an effort to anatomize “the awful tenacity,” he draws upon biography, history, close reading, analogous works in other art forms, and his memories. He turns repeatedly to the “relentless strain of composition” and the circumstances under which authors, especially late in life, grapple with their artistic compulsion. Walser’s entry into a mental hospital in the 1930s echoes Rousseau’s 1765 retreat to Switzerland’s Île Saint-Pierre after he was banished from France. Given Sebald’s small oeuvre, Catling’s translation will be welcomed by his fans. Catling taught with Sebald in the last decade of his life, and her flowing translation pays crucial attention to the prosody and contours of Sebald’s sentences. Illus. Agent: the Wylie Agency. (Feb.)