- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 28, 2005

CAMPO SANTO

By W.G. Sebald

Random House, $24.95,

221 pages

REVIEWED BY KEVIN DRISCOLL

It is with a certain degree of hesitation that one approaches a book of uncollected or unpublished writings by a recently deceased author. Such collections, after all, have the feel of something taken from the deceased writer without permission. And unlike, say, the artifacts that are casually removed by grown children and grandchildren as they dutifully pack up a dearly departed grandparents’ home, posthumous writings have a way of finding their way onto the shelf at the local bookstore. Any gratitude at the opportunity to encounter once more a now silent voice is tempered by the whiff of the unseemly that attends the publication — and, necessarily, the sale — of such writings.

This sense of trepidation is even more acute when the author of the previously uncollected writings is W.G. Sebald. Sebald, who died in a car accident in 2001, wrote four novels — “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — a triptych of poems, “After Nature,” and a work of nonfiction, “On the Natural History of Destruction.” In each, but in the novels especially, Sebald demonstrates an acute awareness of that which has gone before — people, places, and things of the century immediately past — and how much of it remains paradoxically and persistently present.

Sebald’s historical awareness cannot, and does not, avoid world-altering events: The Holocaust is a looming, if often unspoken of, presence in his work. But it is in the smaller stuff of everyday life that Sebald finds his most compelling material. One of Sebald’s trademarks is the insertion of uncaptioned, but eerily compelling photographs of particular vistas, artifacts or individuals that the narrator — who may or may not be Sebald himself — has encountered.

Given that Sebald’s chosen themes were, as one commentator has written, “destruction, mourning, and memory,” there is something ironic — even Sebaldian — about the very existence of Campo Santo, the new collection of his “last writings.” The book comprises four chapters of an unfinished work about the island of Corsica that Sebald had begun, and a larger selection of critical pieces. Taken individually — and there really is no other way to take these pieces — they resemble a mixed bag of as-yet-unused snapshots like those Sebald put to such good use in his novels.

The four Corsican chapters have their moments — as when the narrator happens upon a nearly abandoned cemetery on that island and, noting the ubiquity of the French funerary inscription, “Regrets eternels,” writes: “[L]ike almost all the phrases in which we express our feelings for those who have gone before, it is not without ambiguity, for not only does the announcement of the everlasting inconsolability of the bereaved confine itself to the absolute minimum, it also sounds, if one stops to consider it, almost like an admission to the dead of guilt, a halfhearted request for forbearance made to those laid in the earth before their time.”

This is classic Sebald: Traveling in a foreign land, the narrator happens upon an otherwise overlooked place, seizes upon a small but significant detail he finds there, and spins it into a profound observation. The observation is at once closely linked to the specific place (the ubiquity of the inscription in this cemetery owes itself to a particularly bloody outburst of revenge killing in Corsica) and at the same time, once pondered, is well-nigh universal in its import.

The true value of this collection, however, lies in the critical essays that form the bulk of the book. While he will ultimately be remembered for his works of fiction, Sebald was for much of his life a professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Despite spending much of his professional life toiling in what he himself derogatorily (and refreshingly) refers to as the “mills of academia,” Sebald — in addition to being a craftsman of compelling fictional, if quasi-autobiographical, prose — was an astute and compelling critic. And his criticism reflects a sensibility that readers of his fiction will quickly recognize.

The essays range widely, and include some genuinely esoteric figures — all but the most devoted Sebald fan could have done without the essay on the schizophrenic poet Ernst Herbeck. But the criticism also covers more familiar writers, including Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, and the travel writer Bruce Chatwin. The essays dealing with the latter three are the most compelling, if only for the affinities one immediately recognizes between the critic and the writers he analyzes.

Sebald, for his part, makes no effort to hide these affinities. Of Chatwin, for example, he writes: “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.”

Indeed this is an apt summation of Chatwin, a writer who spent his too brief life traveling to the far corners of the earth and recounting those travels in prose as haunting as it is vivid. It nevertheless is also an apt, if unintended, summation of Sebald’s own books, which themselves defy classification and are inspired by a kind of affinity for the undiscovered. Chatwin sought his “undiscovered” in the distant landscapes of Patagonia and other remote environs. Sebald, it seems, had no need to venture so far to seek out his undiscovered — finding it as he did buried in plain sight in lands far closer to home: in Corsica, in his adopted home of East Anglia, and other locales.

While geography was important to Sebald, as it was to Chatwin, for each (as Sebald writes in another of the essays collected here) “art … consists in using details to illustrate the main current of the dismal course so far taken by history.” And for Sebald, that art — the art of literature — carried moral weight. Readers eager for an answer to the question, “So what is literature good for?” would do well to read this collection, in which that question is posed and convincingly answered — as it is in the rest of Sebald’s writing.

Kevin Driscoll, a former assistant book editor at The Washington Times, lives in Washington.

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