Collecting W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo
Campo Santo is a hybrid volume, a posthumous act of packaging by W.G. Sebald’s German publisher Hanser.When Sebald died December 14, 2001, very shortly after the appearance of his fourth work of prose, Austerlitz, he apparently had not begun a new prose project. So, in 2003, Hanser dipped into his past and assembled Campo Santo, a gathering of eighteen previously published short pieces that represent both of Sebald’s distinct types of writing – his prose and his essays.
The crucial part of this book is the first section, which contains the four prose four pieces.After finishing The Rings of Saturn in the mid 1990s, Sebald, we are told, began a book on Corsica, which he eventually set aside in favor of Austerlitz. Three of the four prose pieces on Corsica were published during Sebald’s lifetime, albeit in separate German language sources between 1996 and 2001. The piece selected as the title piece for this new volume, Campo Santo, did not appear until 2003 in the German magazine Akzente: Zeitschrift fur Literatur.According to the editor of Campo Santo Sven Meyer, the Corsican fragments form the only new prose pieces by Sebald we are likely to see.Quoting his Editorial Note from the English-language editions:“Sebald’s literary estate, which has not yet been studied and edited, contains no other recent literary works.”(It does make one wonder how that conclusion was reached if the estate had not been, in fact, sorted through.) At any rate, the main achievement of Campo Santo is to bring together the Corsican fragments for the first time.
To round out the contents of Campo Santo, Hanser added fourteen previously published essays, mostly on literary subjects, including several on Sebald’s perennial favorite – Kafka.In the English-language editions of Campo Santo, by the way, the essays on Peter Weiss and Jean Améry are omitted.They had been already been translated in the process of repackaging and adding material to Sebald’s 1999 book Luftkrieg und Literatur when it appeared in English as On the Natural History of Destruction in 2003.
The Corsican prose pieces in Campo Santo pose interesting questions for the reader of Sebald.The most obvious issue to me concerns the lack of images in the three main pieces. All four of Sebald’s full-length prose works employ images as an essential part of the “text.”But, with one exception that I’ll mention momentarily, the Corsican pieces are devoid of images.Was this going to be an unillustrated work or would Sebald have added images before finishing the manuscript?I vote for the latter. (I confess that I have not seen the original German publications in which A Little Excursion to Ajaccio, Campo Santo, and The Alps in the Sea first appeared as distinct writings, but I am assuming they were not accompanied by illustrations.)
As I mentioned, there is one exception.One of the four prose pieces includes a single image.It occurs in a fragment called La Cour de l’ancienne école (The Courtyard of the Old School) that is less than two pages long and only tangentially deals with Corsica. The image reproduced is a pen and colored ink drawing by artist Quint Buchholz depicting a wall and a gate and an indeterminate view beyond.As it turns out, this was not an image selected by Sebald, it was an image sent to Sebald in hopes his response could be included in anthology of writers’ responses to Buchholz’s images.In the prose fragment, Sebald explains that the image was sent to him “with a friendly request for me to think of something appropriate to say about it.”Sebald writes that he agonized over his response until this picture of an unknown subject suddenly disappeared one day, permitting him to abandon his assignment.Eventually, however, one of his regular correspondents mailed the picture back to him asking why he had sent her a picture of her childhood schoolyard in one of his recent letters.The school yard, coincidentally, turned out to be in Corsica. Sebald’s response, in the form of this small fragment with its French title, was published in Buchholz’s BuchBilderBuch (Zurich: Sanssouci, 1997).
The German edition of Campo Santo (Munich: Hanser, 2003) is a compact octavo bound in gray boards with a simple silver-stamped black sticker on the spine. On the front of the slightly textured, matte dust jacket is a superb portrait of Sebald, looking as serious as ever and holding his eyeglasses in his hand.
The British edition (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005 is bound in navy blue cloth with a gold-stamped spine. Its cover design is based on a dramatic 1932 photograph by André Kertesz. The title is embossed across the front of the just jacket in gold lettering with a faint black outline, giving the volume a very elegant touch.
When Campo Santo came out later that year in the U.S. (New York: Random House, 2005) the first edition was bound in gray paper-covered boards with silver-stamped black paper spine. Random House chose a different direction in their dust jacket design, opting for a misty landscape image (presumably Corsica) by the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon. In some ways, I think the American cover with its image of a path winding down a hillside is truer to Sebald’s Corsican texts, but it strikes me as less dramatic and arresting than the British cover. Random House also issued an unknown number of “Advance uncorrected proofs”in their standard decorative blue wrappers that simply repeat the Random House logo