A Place in [this] Country
We had to wait fifteen years for an English translation of W.G. Sebald’s terribly important 1998 book Logis in einem Landhaus, but last year British publisher Hamish Hamilton gave us Jo Catling’s excellent translation under the title of A Place in the Country. We American readers have had to wait another nine months for an edition of our own from Random House, which is, like Hamish Hamilton, a division of the enormous Penguin Group. The content of the American edition hasn’t changed significantly; the footnotes are tracked differently, a typo has been corrected, and Random House, having some spare pages at the end, added very brief sections called “About the Author,” “About the Translator,” and “About the Type.” So it would hardly seem like it was worth the wait, except that Random House has actually made a more handsome book on several counts.
“Sepia photograph of the Kleist house on the island in the river Aare.”
[From the chapter on Robert Walser in the Random House edition.]
When the British edition came out last July, I wrote extensive individual posts on each of Sebald’s six essays, so I am not going to say anything further about them here. Instead, I refer you to my individual posts on Johann Peter Hebel, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller and Jan Peter Tripp. But in discussing the British edition I was disappointed in the handling of the color plates:
The only time that A Place in the Country comes up short is the way the publisher has dealt with the color illustrations that Sebald included with each essay, a decision undoubtedly based on economics. In Logis in einem Landhaus, the color plates are all on fold-out pages, permitting the reader to view the entire image with only the ghost of a crease in the middle. In A Place in the Country, the images are done as double-page spreads, forcing the center portion of each image into the binding. Hamilton’s choice of glossy paper probably results in more accurate reproductions, but I think this also causes the images to shout out their presence rather than be one with Sebald’s text, as is the case with the German version by Hanser.
So it’s a real pleasure to report that Random House has gone the extra mile and made its six color plates as true fold-outs. They have also used a matte paper that works much better with the images, all of which have a rather antique feel to them. I also have to say that I greatly prefer the tactile green cloth covers and the binding of the American edition. Random House made the book slightly more squat in size and the binding is sewn, rather than glued. These physical changes are, on the whole, minor but appreciated. On examining the copyright page, we can see that Hamish Hamilton had their edition typeset and printed locally in England, while Random House had the American edition done in China, where lower costs still permit small luxuries. So perhaps Hamish Hamilton ought to be congratulated for producing a greener book by not requiring that every copy be shipped halfway round the world. At a cost of £20.00, the Hamish Hamilton version costs the equivalent of $33 (at current rates), so the better-produced American edition is a real bargain at $26.
For me, it was also a great pleasure to reread Catling’s intelligent, clarifying introduction. Her insights reflect her multifaceted relationship to Sebald – as colleague at the University of East Anglia, as a Sebald and German literature scholar, and now as one of his translators. As Catling says, “It is first and foremost as a fellow writer, rather than as a scholar and critic, that the author of these essays addresses their subjects.
It is in this awareness of the “inherent contradiction between this nostalgic utopia and the inexorable march of progress toward s the brink of the abyss,”of the storm clouds always gathering on the historical and mental horizon, which renders so poignant and so precarious the perverse perseverance, the “awful tenacity” as Sebald says in the Foreword, of those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words,” who, in spite of everything nevertheless “sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.”