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Posts from the ‘Blurbs’ Category

Hell on Earth

Winkler When the Time Comes

If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes  is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”

All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted  the viscous pandapigl.

The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.

As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note.

The entire village seems adrift in time. With the exception of a half dozen mentions of a modern vehicle or television set and several references to World War II, everything in the book might be occurring in the middle ages. In a community “engulfed in spite, slander, and litigation,” the villagers are filled with superstition, motivated by suspicion and religious intolerance, and embroiled in endless family quarrels. One group of old men, some of whom are veterans of the SS, annually reminisce on All Saint’s Day about the old days when there were no “Turks or Yugos,” no Jews or blacks, no vagrants or beggars, and no unemployment. “We need a little Hitler to bring back peace & quiet to the country. Someone needs to crack down!”

And yet, not everything is bleak and ugly. Winkler lovingly describes the rituals of childhood: decorating a Christmas tree, eating gooseberries and sweets, or getting a new book by Karl May (1842-1912), the German author of fanciful tales of far-away places like the American West.

After lighting the colored Christmas tree candles and the sparklers that hung in every corner the tree, throwing sparks over the branches and down onto the presents and deepening the pervading scent of spruce, they began to pray for their dead grandfather, and for their mother’s three brothers who had fallen in the war, and tears drained from their eyes and snot from their noses, until their father, who led the prayers, began an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Aunt Waltraud, who had died two days before, still lay exposed in the Annabichler funeral home in Klagenfurt, and would not be buried until after Christmas. While the father, a little shortsighted, raised his trimmed eyebrows & wrinkled his forehead to read the nametags and pass out the presents, the children continued mourning Aunt Waltraud – she had come to visit one summer day & had brought the children their first ice creams, lemon, and vanilla, in an insulated box from her pastry shop. Their tears, tickling their cheeks & dripping down onto the boxes, softened the wrapping paper covering a flannel shirt, a pair of wool socks, or long underwear. Each one of them could take some sweets down from the Christmas tree, the children also gave the maid and the farmhand chocolate pine-cones and varicolored gelatin stars coated in sugar. Nor did Maximilian’s sister neglect to give the stammering farmhand a chocolate half-moon and a pair of chocolate pliers. With their fingers, the children smoothed out the colored wrappings, printed with pine cones, chimney-sweeps, lucky clovers, rocking horses, frogs, and butterflies, and slid them as book marks into their storybooks and Karl May novels.

As this excerpt shows, Winkler’s writing is delicious and exact and deeply rooted in the visible world. Winkler writes with the authority and conviction of an insider who once saw the world through a child’s eye and who still might harbor thoughts of being capable of loving his fellow Austrians, but who simply no longer can. The hypocrisy he sees runs too deep. When the Time Comes is an indictment of a brutal and boorish society and an utter rejection of the cynicism of Catholicism, if not of all Christianity. The book is laced with quotations from two very different textual sources. The first set of quotations are ones that Winkler has apparently culled from Catholic songbooks. They represent some of the more bitter verses which serve as a reminder that sin, violence, and death are at the core of Catholicism (“She saw Jesus tied & pierced with a thousand wounds for the iniquity of man. She saw the son she had once nourished disgraced and abandoned, pale and thirsting on the cross.”). The other set of quotations come from Baudelaire’s poem “Les Litanies de Satan” (The Litanies of Satan) from Les Fleurs du Mal, a poem that, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, is a blasphemous “renunciation of religion, and Catholicism in particular.”

In a review of When the Time Comes in The Guardian, Alberto Manguel briefly recounts a lunch he had with W.G. Sebald in 2000, during which he asked Sebald to recommend some Austrian writers. “Immediately he mentioned Josef Winkler, whose work he considered a counterweight to what he saw as Austria’s moral infamy.” Contra Mundum’s publication of When the Time Comes, with a translation by Adrian West, has a blurb from Sebald planted on the back cover that originates in an essay published in 1990 on the Grazer Gruppe of writers, which includes Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Handke, and Gert Jonke, among others.

Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre…is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.


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 [2001] 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 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.)

English, English Everywhere


The inspiration for this book came from reading W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, an atmospheric semi-fictional account of a walking tour throughout East Anglia, in which personal reflections, historical allusions, and traveller observations randomly combine into a mesmerizing novel about change, memory, oblivion, and survival…I was frequently reminded of the serendipitous nature of language study, when reading that book.

So begins By Hook or By Crook: A Journey in Search of English (London: HarperCollins, 2007) by the eminent linguist David Crystal. Crystal leads the reader on a much-too-fun-to-be-educational meander across the highways and byways of the UK (with a brief stopover in the US), letting us in on his thoughts as he ponders the use, mis-use and history of the English language. Like Sebald, Crystal moves seamlessly between a multitude of subjects and disciplines, including English history, famous film locations, the cult TV series The Prisoner, 19th century bridge building techniques, pub signs, the dialects of bee language, absent-mindedness, elocution, place names, Lewis Carroll – well, you get it. Booklovers will enjoy his visit to the great book town of Hay.

Because I am a compulsive deconstructionist of blurbs, I was grateful that Crystal clued me in on the origin of the term. According to him a publisher proposed (unsuccessfully, apparently) to make the 1907 book Are You a Bromide? more appealing by putting an image of an attractive female on the front cover. His name for this female? Miss Belinda Bromide. And speaking of blurbs, HarperCollins took the easy way out on By Hook or By Crook by plastering the back cover with blurbs to one of Crystal’s earlier books.I suppose they were thinking that with blurbs by Philip Pullman and J.M. Coetzee, why work any harder?


I do hope HarperCollins decides to release By Hook or By Crook in the US, but I suggest adding a roadmap…

I had to make a decision after Trawsfynydd. Should I turn east and cut across through Bala toward Welshpool? Or should I keep going on the A-470 south through Dolgellau and on toward Builth Wells?

Time for a coin toss.

One other point of inspiration that Crystal seems to have absorbed from Sebald is the use of photographs. By Hook of By Crook is peppered with two dozen snapshots that add to the sensation that the reader is sitting in the passenger seat while Crystal steers and rattles on. Most of the time I didn’t know or care where we were, but it was always a pleasure to be at Crystal’s side.


“Intense, uncompromising” – Blurbs by Sebald

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.