A Place in the Country feels more intimately autobiographical than any other book by Sebald. As I have suggested in my previous posts on Sebald’s essays on Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, and Robert Walser, Sebald disclosed much about himself in the process of writing about others. He lets us see the nature of his own curiosities and passions and prejudices. We see him developing a theory of the history of Europe for the two centuries following the French Revolution and the empire of Napoleon. And in disclosing his own pursuits as a consumer and producer of literature, Sebald constructs an ethic of writing that will likely be a very important part of his legacy.
The final essay, “Day and Night: On the Paintings of Jan Peter Tripp,” breaks the mold of the first five, in that Tripp is a visual artist, not a writer. Tripp is also the only essay subject of the six that Sebald knew personally (they were good friends for many years) and he wrote this essay specifically for a 1993 exhibition catalog of Tripp’s work. Sebald spends a portion of the piece explaining why he believes Tripp has been overlooked by critics and art historians who, he argues, are trained to dismiss contemporary art that appears overly illusionistic. Sebald, on the other hand, finds much to recommend in his friend’s paintings and lithographs. Tripp’s style, Sebald notes approvingly, changed after he spent some time teaching at a psychiatric hospital. (Two of Sebald’s favorite writers – Robert Walser and Ernst Herbeck – spent a good portion of their lives in such hospitals.) The experience brought a more “radical objectivity” to Tripp’s work, especially the portraits, which Sebald describes as “pathography.” Tripp’s portrait often show us “the human individual as an aberrant creature, forcibly removed from its natural and social environment.” Sebald also found common cause with Tripp in their love for objects and how objects speak to us. “The aura of memory which surrounds [objects] lends them the quality of mementos: objects in which melancholy is crystallized.”
If comparing translations happens to be your thing, I’ll point out that this essay has been previously published in 2004 in a competing translation by Michael Hamburger in Unrecounted, the book of poems by Sebald with accompanying etchings by Tripp. Hamburger’s version “Day and Night, Chalk and Cheese: On the Pictures of Jan Peter Tripp” (with Hamburger’s odd addition to Sebald’s title) is, to my eyes, more stiff and formal than Jo Catling’s smoothly flowing rendition. Here’s a link to all my my posts relating to Tripp.
A Place in the Country (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013) is Jo Catling’s new translation of W.G. Sebald’s Logis in einem Landhaus. Coming to America (via Random House) in 2014.