September 1, 2008
In the August 15, 2008 New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio wrote about the business of blurbing, that “tangled mass of friendships, rivalries, favors traded and debts repaid, not always in good faith.” Recently, Fourth Estate, a HarperCollins (UK) imprint, published a book by Philip Hoare called Leviathan – with an approving quote by W.G. Sebald. Since Sebald died in 2001, I was instantly curious.
Hoare has written on subjects as disparate as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and the Pet Shop Boys. In a profile of Hoare in The Telegraph, the unnamed writer says of Hoare that “reading WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn provided the intellectual authorisation to pursue the ghosts of himself through his writing – to translate his “inner text” more openly.” On the HarperCollins website Hoare’s Leviathan is described as “an extraordinary journey into the underwater world of the whale – to tie in with a BBC film-length documentary hosted also by the author,” Below that is the Sebald quote:
‘Philip Hoare’s writing is quite untrammelled by convention and opens up astonishing views at every turn.’ W.G. Sebald
The Sebald “blurb” is obviously not for Leviathan. Instead, HarperCollins describes it as “praise” for Hoare’s earlier book, England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia, which first appeared in 2005, which is still four years after Sebald’s death. So obviously, the sentence from Sebald was not truly “praise” for England’s Lost Eden either.
One possible answer to the confusing posthumous blurb can be found in an obituary of Sebald written by Hoare and posted on the website of The Independent. There, while writing about “the sell-out talk given by W.G. Sebald on 24 September  at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London – his last public event in England”, Hoare mentions how his personal connection to Sebald came about.
Having published a somewhat obscure book on a military hospital earlier this year, I received a letter, out of the blue, in Sebald’s elegant script (I later learnt that his dislike of computers ensured that all his work was done in longhand). In this, and subsequent letters, he expressed the kind of encouragement and complicity underlined when we met that September evening, as I followed him to his reception – he the last to arrive at his own party, surreptitiously drawing on a cigarette. Tall, precise, neat, he evinced professorial gravitas – yet when I had introduced myself, he greeted me with a tangible warmth, and promptly asked if I minded him stealing bits from my book.
The book that intrigued Sebald was Hoare’s Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital published in 2001. At least one reviewer of Spike Island noted the kinship between that book and the writings of Sebald – Andy Beckett at The Guardian. A review by David Vincent on Amazon.co.uk suggests to me why Spike Island would have appealed to Sebald:
Hoare invests his tale with a gothic splendour, from the introductory history of the nearby Cistercian abbey that subsequently inspired operas, prints and tales, to his own pre-occupations, as a youth, with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, David Bowie and then punk. At times he wears a brooding decadence on his sleeve like chevrons, as befits the author of Noel Coward and Wilde’s Last Stand, but by bolstering his narrative with personal ballast, revealing intimate glimpses of growing up in a backwater, and the deaths of his brother and father, he also provides an evocation of the suburbs comparable to Edward Platt’s Leadville. To a rewarding degree a reconciliation of Hoare with his origins and childhood environs, Spike Island speaks of the nature of fear and creeping memory, and lingers in the mind as hauntingly as the ghostly, shadowy presences it so movingly traces. David Vincent
So, it began to look to me as if the source for the Sebald quotes might have been contained in the letters he wrote to Hoare (suggesting that Hoare himself might have provided his publishers with the quotes). But as I kept probing, things got murky again. On the websites of several British booksellers (including Waterstone’s and Foyles) I have located another quote attributed to Sebald on Spike Island and said to be from the Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year.
Spike Island is a book that has everything a passionate reader could possibly want – a subject that far transcends the trivial pursuits of contemporary writing, concerns both public and private, astonishing details, stylistic precision, a unique sense of time and place, and a great depth of vision. W.G.Sebald, Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year
Curiously, though, while The Telegraph website does have a listing that for their Books of the Year for 2001, there is no mention of Hoare’s book, nor is Sebald a contributor to the list. I have failed to connect the dots here. So here are two queries for readers of Vertigo.
First, can anyone shed any light on the suggestion that Sebald nominated Hoare’s Spike Island for the Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year in 2001 (or any other year, for that matter)?
Second, is there actually a Sebald quote printed on the dust jacket of any of Hoare’s books? (If so, I’ll want to get first editions for my Sebald collection.)
NOTE: just as I finished this post I saw that Attic Fantasist has written a couple of posts about Hoare and Sebald in the last few days. Look for two posts on August 29 and another on August 24, 2008
April 12, 2007
One of the ways that I find books I am looking for is to post want lists on sites such as Abebooks.com and Biblio.com. This generates daily emails to me with lists of books, most of which I don’t want or already own. Every once in a while, however, one of these notification emails leads me somewhere completely new and unexpected. Earlier this week, for instance, Biblio.com sent me a list of books by or about W.G. Sebald that had just been added to their website by some of their many member booksellers. Halfway down the list was this brief and abbreviated bookseller’s listing for a used paperback:
“Solomon, Andrew. Noonday Demon, The. London, United Kingdom: Vintage, 2002. ‘As wide-ranging as it is incisive, this astonishing work is a testimony both to the mute …”
What did this book have to do with Sebald? Clicking on the link took me to the offering by an Australian bookseller, where I learned that Sebald had provided a blurb for the “Advance Praise” page at the front of the book.
Andrew Solomon is a widely respected writer and novelist, whose work I had seen in the New York Times Magazine. His book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (NY: Scribner, 2001) won a 2001 National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist the following year.
The blurb provided by Sebald riffs on the title of Freud’s 1930 book Civilization and its Discontents: “The Noonday Demon explores the subterranean realms of an illness which is on the point of becoming endemic, and which more than anything else mirrors the present state of our civilization and its profound discontents. As wide-ranging as it is incisive, this astonishing work is a testimony both to the muted suffering of millions and to the great courage it must have taken the author to set his mind against it.”
– W.G. Sebald, author of The Emigrants
The title phrase, by the way, originates in Psalms 91:5-6 (“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.”) When Solomon mentions earlier ways by which depression was referred to, including melancholia, a possible link to Sebald came to mind. Since the appearance of The Emigrants in 1996, Sebald had been the one contemporary writer inextricably linked with the arcane term melancholia. (Note that the only work attributed to Sebald in this blurb is The Emigrants, even though he had published several other important works by 2001.) I can imagine that the mere use of the world melancholy triggered the connection to Sebald as a candidate to provide “advance praise” for Solomon’s book. The two authors shared one other connection, as well: the Wylie Agency, a prominent New York and London literary agency.
March 7, 2007
One of the challenges for a completist book collector like me has been to figure out how to keep collecting Sebald after I had every one of his books (or at least every one that I could afford). Some directions were obvious and thus I started adding books about Sebald, books that anthologized Sebald, magazines in which his work had appeared… But when I came across Norbert Gstrein’s The English Years, I saw yet another subset within my Sebald collection – books with jacket blurbs written by Sebald. I thought that, if nothing else, these books might shed light on Sebald’s reading tastes or on the network of literary friendships that often lead to requests for blurbs.
In Sebald’s own case, I think book jacket blurbs played a critical role in helping expand international awareness of his writing. And it was all because of of one book review – Susan Sontag’s “A Mind in Mourning” (Times Literary Supplement February 25, 2000) – and the resulting blurbs by Sontag that appeared on some of Sebald’s subsequent editions in English.I know that I picked up my first book by Sebald because of her imprimatur on the cover.
Sebald’s first published blurb seems to have been for Foreign Brides by Moscow-born journalist and author Elena Lappin, which was first published in London in a hard cover edition by Picador in 1999, to be closely followed that year followed by an American edition from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Both contained the somewhat ambivalent jacket blurb by Sebald: “A wonderful story collection set between one place and another and shaped by a fearless sense of comedy.” When the British-based Lappin’s next book The Nose came out in 2001, Picador simply trimmed down and recycled the crux of Sebald’s earlier blurb on the front cover: “A fearless sense of comedy.”
The next occasion for a blurb seems to have been for the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance (NY: New Directions, 2000). Appropriately, the two blurbs on the back cover are from Sebald and Susan Sontag.Sebald’s blurb reads: “[The Melancholy of Resistance] is a book about a world into which the Leviathan has returned. The universality of its vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.” The book was first published in English as a paperback by Quartet in London in 1998, apparently with the same blurb by Sebald although I have not seen a copy myself.The connection between Sebald and Krasznahorkai was made by Sebald’s friend the poet and translator George Szirtes (born 1948), who has written in the Hungarian Quarterly of his experiences translating The Melancholy of Resistance and other books from the original Hungarian: “Asked by Quartet as to who might provide a suitable endorsement of the book, I gave the name of W.G. Sebald, then forgot to mention it to the man himself; so when he rang up one day to announce he had received the typescript I was full of apologies. He was not at all put out: he thought it was a marvellous book and was pleased to provide a few sentences.” (George Szirtes, “Foreign Laughter.” Hungarian Quarterly XLVI, No. 180 Winter 2005.)
Most likely Sebald’s last true blurb was written for Norbert Gstrein’s novel The English Years, which was published shortly after Sebald died (London: Harvill, 2002). Sebald is quoted on the front cover of the dust jacket: “An exceptional work of prose fiction: carefully crafted, unpretentious, and accomplished at the same time.” The connection between the Austrian writer (born 1961) Gstrein and Sebald may well have been the translator they shared during 2001, Anthea Bell.
With the rediscovery of the writings of the German Gert Ledig (1921-1999), instigated in part by Sebald’s discussion of his “unjustly forgotten” books in On the Natural History of Destruction, blurbs by Sebald have become standard issue as Ledig’s books are translated into English and released on both sides of the Atlantic. By comparison with his brief earlier blurbs, the quotation on the back cover of Gert Ledig’s Payback is a generous fifty words or so in length. In this case, however, the blurb is actually a patchwork quotation carefully extracted (and ever so slightly massaged for clarity) from a three-page span of Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (see pps. 94-6 in the Random House edition). In addition, the top of the book’s front cover is emblazoned with the two word quote from Sebald: “Intense, uncompromising.”Payback (London:Granta, 2003), issued as a paperback original, was the first English-language appearance of Ledig’s Vergeltung (1956).
Ledig’s The Stalin Organ, also released as a paperback original (Granta, 2004), reduced Sebald’s contribution to two words – “Intense, uncompromising” – but left them dramatically at the top of the front cover. This was the first English translation of Ledig’s Der Stalinorgel (1955).When the New York Review of Books released this in America in 2005, the title was changed to The Stalin Front and the publishers reverted to a lengthier, albeit significantly different, quotation from On the Natural History of Destruction - and once again the transcription from Sebald’s original book into blurb was rather loosely but strategically massaged.
Undoubtedly there are more blurbs by Sebald to be found and more to come as publishers mine his critical writings and his fame.