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“A Balanced and Unobtrusive Beauty” – Sebald’s Travel Guide to East Anglia

The December 2011 issue (volume 41 numbers 3-4) of the Journal of European Studies is a special issue devoted to W.G. Sebald, edited by Dr. Richard Sheppard.  My reviewer’s copy has been here for weeks, competing for my attention with a stack of books and a few too many other projects that I’m trying to balance.  But I’ve finally made it halfway through the issue and so far I’m delighted with the contents.  My intention is to divide my responses over a couple of posts that may take a few weeks to get written.

The good news is that the Sebald issue of JES continues a recent trend of making available previously unpublished or hard-to-find works by Sebald.  Last year,  Saturn’s Moons included a number of ‘rediscovered” pieces by Sebald.  Now, the  JES issue contains his 1966 dissertation for the University of Fribourg on Carl Sternheim (reprinted in German) and “The Carved Wooden Angels of East Anglia,” Sheppard’s English translation of a piece first published in 1974 in Die Zeit as “Die hölzernen Engel von East Anglia” (reprinted in Saturn’s Moons).   In this four-page travelogue intended for German visitors to East Anglia, Sebald offered up an idiosyncratic itinerary to the adopted territory that he had come to love and which he would write about more extensively two decades later in The Rings of Saturn.  It doesn’t take more than a few excerpts to glimpse Sebald’s very dry humor and to grasp that he valued an exceptional degree of authenticity and an utter absence of pretension in the sites that he recommended.

In Sutton Hoo, where 13 centuries ago, a magnificent burial in a long ship was celebrated, you can study the emptiness of transience before you drive through Rendlesham Forest to the little village of Butley.

Either way, you are back in Southwold comfortably by nightfall and here you can spend two days without qualms if you feel like treating yourself to the luxury of the best hotel in town.  You can recognize it most easily by its bar, which offers more than 50 brands of whiskey, and by its waiter, who goes around summoning guests to their tables by means of a little xylophone.

Where Ickworth is more of a monumental curiosity, Melford Hall and its surrounding parkland possess a balanced and unobtrusive beauty and are not to be missed at any price.

In the Middle Ages, Norwich was one of the most important English cities, but later it became something of a backwater and so has suffered relatively little from the depredations of the last 150 years.

Sebald concludes by advising his readers to browse the region’s high-quality antique stores.  Or, in the event of rain,

buy a local newspaper and look among the adverts for details of the next furniture auction.  And if your courage doesn’t fail you when it comes to raising your hand at the right moment, it would not surprise me if you did not take home a piece of furniture on the roof of your car that will ensure that you have positive memories of East Anglia for a long time to come.

Sebald, Sheppard comments, “developed an extremely good eye for elegant stripped pine furniture.”  Sheppard’s footnotes, which extend to nearly twice as long as Sebald’s original piece, are highly informative and spiced with his own brand of understated humor.

 

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