The Case of the Posthumous Blurb
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. [As of 2022, this does not seem to be posted anymore, unfortunately.] 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.)
There’s certainly a Sebald quote on the paperback edition of Spike Island as I have it at home. I can’t vouch for the hardback, however. I can unreservedly recommend the book as well. Whilst covering the history of the Netley Military Hospital from Florence Nightingale to RD Laing it also interweaves fragments of Hoare’s life and upbringing in and around Southampton.
I know I’m much too late to the party at this point — it’s now mid-July 2009, almost a year after you originally wrote this post — but I wonder if you (or anyone reading this) would be inclined to look a little deeper into the connection between Sebald and Hoare.
Two things spur this comment…
First: Hoare’s book Leviathan recently won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the largest and most respect prize awarded to a non-fiction book anywhere in the world. So the book has been very much in the news lately.
Second: after finally seeing the dust jacket for Leviathan — http://leonickolls.co.uk/work/philip-hoare-leviathan — I am struck not only by the Sebald quote under the heading “Praise for England’s Lost Eden,” but also by the fact that it is easily the longest, most verbose, and thus most eye-catching quote on the entire dust-jacket, absolutely dwarfing the four quotes from book reviews that appear above it. So I get the feeling that Hoare’s publishers are deliberately and rather conspicuously trying to appeal to devoted Sebald readers with this book, and I wonder exactly what the nature of the Sebald-Hoare kinship might be.