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Posts from the ‘Campo Santo’ Category

Elina Brotherus: Photographs of Sebald’s Corsica

Plage de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Beach 2 (diptych), 2019

W.G. Sebald’s posthumously published book Campo Santo (Hamish Hamilton, 2003) opens with a series of short pieces he wrote about the trip he took to Corsica around 1990. In the title piece “Campo Santo,” he described one of his days on the island: “My first walk the day after my arrival in Piana took me out on a road that soon begins falling away steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, leading past almost vertical rocky precipices densely overgrown with green scrub, and so down to the bottom of a ravine opening out into the Bay of Ficajola several hundred meters below.” After a swim in the bay, during which he had a terrifying moment of vertigo, Sebald climbed the steep path back up to the village of Piana where he visited a graveyard, which resulted in what I think is one of his most evocative pieces of writing. As he carefully picked his way through the “rather desolate graveyard” with its “untidy rows” of gravestones, he thought about death and about the complicated, fraught relationship between the dead and the living. For seventeen pages he ruminated about such things as the weeds that had grown up around the graves “to form actual herbariums,” the “oval sepia portraits” of the dead that were embedded in some of the gravestones, the inscriptions and the names on the gravestones, and the history of Corsican burial rites and superstitions surrounding death. It’s obvious to the reader that Sebald had studied this subject with more than just a tourist’s interest.

In 2019, the Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus, one of the finest photographers working today, went to Corsica with “Campo Santo” in mind. There she created a project called “Sebaldiana. Memento mori,” which consists of thirty-six large color photographs and a group of fifty-seven cyanotypes that form her own “Herbarium Pianense.” She has generously given me permission to reproduce eight of the photographs from that series, along with her artist’s statement about the project, which can be read after the photographs.

A number of photographers and artists have created artworks that speak in conversation with Sebald’s books, but Brotherus has done so in an especially rich and complex manner. Brotherus herself always appears in her photographs, giving a strong element of performance to her art. In other projects she dances, acts, and more clearly “performs,” but in “Sebaldiana. Memento Mori,” she strikes more simple, contemplative poses. Her clothing is all black, with the exception of a scarf that matches the color of her bangs. (“Campo Santo” is, after all, largely about death and mourning.) I particularly like the way in which she breaks the fourth wall in several images in this series. We don’t often think of the fourth wall in photography. With the general exception of portrait photography, the subjects in the photography we find in art galleries and museums rarely acknowledge any awareness that they are being photographed or that they will ever be seen by an audience. By staring at us and eyeing us, Brotherus invites her viewers to share more personally in her exploration of Sebald’s Corsica, to imagine becoming participants, not just observers.

Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, by the way, might remind readers of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), 1818, the classic German Romantic painting of a man in a dark overcoat standing on a crag overlooking mountaintops wrapped in clouds and fog.

Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald's Hotel 1
Hôtel de Sebald 1 / Sebald’s Hotel 1, 2019
Hôtel de Sebald 2 / Sebald’s Hotel 2, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 7 / Imaginary Burial Place 7, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 14 / Imaginary Burial Place 14, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 18 / Imaginary Burial Place 18, 2019
Tombeau imaginaire 23 / Imaginary Burial Place 23 (diptych), 2019
Herbarium Pianense 55, 2019

Sebaldiana. Memento mori (2019), by Elina Brotherus

Before I first visited Corsica, I read a collection of text fragments by W. G. Sebald, building blocks for a book about Corsica that was left unfinished at his premature death. Sebald as a writer is highly unusual and difficult to classify: between essayist, novelist and historian, he is scholarly without being dry, poetic without sentimentality, touching on deeply humane topics of post-war Europe with a great sense of historicity. His use of photographs within his books has inspired many artists.

Sebald writes about a certain hotel on the steep red cliffs overlooking the village of Piana on the Western coast of Corsica. His narrator goes to swim from a close-by secluded beach and nearly doesn’t make it back to shore. In the village cemetery he observes the small weeds that grow between the tombstones, nature’s modest ones, unplanted and unplanned, in stark contrast with the looked-after but austere cemetery plantations of Sebald’s native Germany. He then talks about the relatively recent use of cemeteries in Corsica. The old habit was to bury the dead in a beautiful spot in their own land, perhaps under a particular tree, or on the slope behind the house where they could continue to contemplate the view on their ancestral territory. The poorest ones who had no land were simply put in a common grave or in ravine in the mountains.

Sebald became my guide to Corsica. I went to places he mentions: the forest of Aitone and the massif of Bavella, the hotel, the beach and the cemetery in Piana and its backcountry with sculptural rock formations. I was remembering my dead. I looked for places so beautiful that I would like to bury them there, were I Corsican. I collected humble weeds at the cemetery of Piana to make a herbarium.

My father was a hobby photographer and gave me my first camera. When my mother was widowed at the age of 37, she went to art school and had four years of fulfillment. I’m a photographer because of my father, but because of my mother I’m an artist.

My mother died four years later at the age of 41. She was born the same year as Sebald but died 16 years before him. Recently I found some aquarelle paper that she hadn’t had time to use. The sheets had suffered from humidity, were spotted, partly moldy. It is this paper that I used to create my Herbarium Pianense, the cyanotype herbarium of the cemetery. Thus this work became an homage not only to the Island of Beauty and to my favorite writer, but also to my mother, Ulla Brita Brotherus, née Sommar (1944-1985).

All photographs by Elina Brotherus are courtesy of the artist and gb agency, Paris. She gives special thanks to the Centre méditerranéen de la photographie. I urge you to visit her extensive website and view all of her photographic projects.

Sebald, Kluge & Competing Translations

Kluge Air Raid

Alexander Kluge’s writings clearly exerted a great influence on W.G. Sebald, especially Kluge’s important 1977 book Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1–18: “Unheimlichkeit der Zeit” (which roughly translates as “New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: ‘The Uncanniness of Time’) . Neue Geschicten is written in a flat, non-literary prose that becomes a montage of voices, photographs, drawings, and charts. Last year, Seagull Books released Kluge’s book Air Raid, which includes what I believe to be the first English translation of a section from Neue Geschichten. The bulk of Air Raid, which is translated by Martin Chalmers, consists the the text titled “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945,” which appears in Neue Geschicten as the second of the eighteen notebooks ,”Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945.”About a third of Air Raid consists of related pieces by Kluge drawn from several of his other books. Air Raid then concludes with Sebald’s “essay” on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.”

Kluge Neue Geschichten

Kluge Neue Geschichten Page

[Front cover and page spread from Alexander Kluge, Neue Geschichten, 1977.]

In addition to his innovative inclusion of photographs and other types of visual material, Kluge, I suspect, gave Sebald a strategy for writing about traumatic, historic events that he himself had not experienced. In his remarks on Kluge, Sebald wrote: “The reader may learn [from Neue Geschichten] how personal involvement in the collectively experienced course of events…can only be meaningfully condensed, at least heuristically, through analytical historical investigations, through reference to the prehistory of the events as well as to later developments up to the present day and to possible future perspectives.” In other words, carefully researched hindsight can be more meaningful than an eyewitness account.

So far, there has not been much opportunity for competing English-language translations of Sebald’s work to appear. About ten of the poems that appeared in For Years Now (2001) – a book that was apparently translated into English by Sebald himself – also appeared in Unrecounted (2004) in translations provided by Michael Hamburger. And then there is Sebald’s essay on his close friend, the artist Jan Peter Tripp,translated for Unrecounted by Hamburger and for the essay anthology A Place in the Country by Jo Catling. At first glance, I thought that the Sebald essay in Air Raid corresponded with a section of Sebald’s longer essay “Air War and Literature,” which appears in both Campo Santo and On the Natural History of Destruction,both translated by Anthea Bell, thus letting us compare two translators approaches to a full essay by Sebald.

Alas, in a footnote, translator Martin Chalmers traces the complicated history of this excerpt from Sebald’s piece on Kluge.

Kluge Air Raid Footnote

Nevertheless, Chalmer’s translation of Sebald’s piece in Air Raid is pretty comparable to Anthea Bell’s version on pages 84-95 of the American edition of Campo Santo.So, just for fun, here is a comparison of  page 85 of Bell’s version (top) and page 126 of Chalmers’ version (bottom).

Anthea Bell translation

Martin Chalmers translation





Literaturhaus Stuttgart to Celebrate Sebald’s 70th

Sebald at Literaturhaus Stuttgart

Sebald at Literaturhaus Stuttgart © Heiner Wittmann

The 70th anniversary of the birth of W.G. Sebald is coming up on May 18, 2014. To mark this date, the Literaturhaus in Stuttgart has planned an event for Tuesday May 20, featuring Sebald scholar Uwe Schütte. Schütte is scheduled to give a talk called “Das Land das man nur barfuß betreten darf: W.G. Sebalds Lyrik” (“the land one may only enter barefoot”), based on his recent study Figurationen. He will talk about the development of Sebald’s poetry from his first attempts at writing literary texts to the final micro-poems that were evolved just before his premature death. Florian Höllerer, who was the director of the Literaturhaus from its inception until the end of 2013, will serve as moderator for the evening.

Sebald and the Literaturhaus had a very special connection. He was invited to speak at its opening ceremonies on November 17, 2001. This important speech – “Ein Versuch der Restitution” – turned out to be Sebald’s last public appearance before his death on December 14, 2001. “An Attempt at Restitution,” the English version, first appeared in The New Yorker (December 20-27, 2004) and then was reprinted in the posthumous anthology Campo Santo. In 2008, Verlag Ulrich Keicher in Warmbronn, Germany issued a booklet containing Sebald’s speech called Zerstreute Reminiszenzen in a small edition of 800 copies. This publication included illustrations of many of the things mentioned in the speech, from the Quelle mail-order catalog that his father showed him for Christmas 1949 to newspaper clippings and photographs drawn from the Sebald archive in Marbach.  A few sections of Sebald’s own typescript of the speech are also reproduced.


If a Tree Falls in a Forest…

In Campo Santo, W.G. Sebald writes about a hike he made – a sort of pilgrimmage, really – in Corsica, the site of some of the last great forests in Europe.  Although the truly ancient forests were already gone, Sebald quoted witnesses and momentarily imagined that the forests had never been cut down.

The English landscape painter and writer Edward Lear, who traveled in Corsica in the summer of 1876, wrote of the immense forests that then rose high from the blue twilight of the Solenzara valley and clambered up the steepest slopes, all the way to the vertical cliffs and precipices with their overhangs, cornices, and upper terraces where smaller groups of trees stood like plumes on a helmet.  On the more level surfaces at the head of the pass, the soft ground on which you walked was densely overgrown with all kinds of different bushes and herbs, Arbutus grew here, a great many ferns, heathers and juniper bushes, grasses, asphodels, and dwarf clyclamen, and from all these low-growing plants rose the gray trunks of Laricio pines, their green parasols seeming to float free far, far above in the crystal-clear air.

By an odd coincidence, two recent museum visits led me to two very dissimilar artworks, both based on creating something new out of a large tree trunk.  At the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, I visited Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium, 2006, a wonderful stand-alone greenhouse that holds a sixty-foot long section of a real Western hemlock that has been moved from the site where it fell in the Duwamish/Green River watershed.   This tree had fallen in 1996 and had become a nurse log, developing the unique ecosystem of plant and animal species that would help it eventually decompose.  For its new home in Seattle, Dion, an artist who has created many installations based on museums and natural history, has tried to recreate an environment nearly identical to the one where the tree originally lay.  The visitor experience, then, is to be able to “observe the teeming life forms that make the log their home” and to demonstrate “how difficult, indeed how futile, it is for humans to attempt to replicate what nature does by itself even in this age of high-tech science,” writes Lisa Graziose Corrin in the Field Guide to the Wildlife of Mark Dion’s Seattle Vivarium.  While the green house environment is exceptionally high-tech, Dion’s project is deliberately history bound.  The interior of the building is decorated in blue Delft-like tiles (too green in my photograph) that illustrate the insects, plants, and animals found in the tree’s ecosystem.  Furthermore, the artist has stipulated that the greenhouse cannot open without the human presence of one of the trained docents who serve as “park rangers.”  Here’s Dion talking about his piece.

Mark Dion Neukom Vivarium

“Dion creates artworks that question the distinctions between “objective” (“rational”) scientific methods and “subjective” (“irrational”) influences.” (Art21 Blog)

More recently, I have made several visits to the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago where one gallery is dedicated to a single artwork – a large log.  Charles Ray’s 2007 sculpture Hinoki is an elaborate replica made of wood by Japanese craftsmen who copied a fallen tree trunk that Ray found in California.  Here is Ray’s explanation of the piece, from the Art Institute website:

Ten years ago, while driving up the central coast of California, I spotted a fallen tree in a meadow just off the highway. I was instantly drawn to it. It was not only a beautiful log, but to my eyes, it was perfectly embedded in the meadow where it had fallen decades earlier. Pressure from the weather, insects, ultraviolet radiation, and gravity were evident. Total collapse appeared to be no more than a handful of years away. I was inspired to make a sculpture and studied many other logs, but I realized that I was only interested in this particular one.

At one point, I determined that its armature could be its pneuma, the Greek word for breath, wind, or life. Later, I considered making an inflatable sculpture but realized that the tailoring of the form would bring an unwanted complexity to the surface. It then struck me that the breath or life of the sculpture could be manifested in the very act of sculpting. Making a wood carving of the log by starting from the inside and working my way out would bring a trajectory of life and intentionality to this great fallen tree. With several friends, I transported the tree, cut apart by a chainsaw, back to my Los Angeles studio. Silicone molds were taken and a fiberglass version of the log was reconstructed. This was sent to Osaka, Japan, where master woodworker Yuboku Mukoyoshi and his apprentices carved my vision into reality using Japanese cypress (hinoki). I was drawn to the woodworkers because of their tradition of copying work that is beyond restoration. In Japan, when an old temple or Buddha can no longer be maintained, it is remade. I visited Japan often and had a difficult time bringing this work to completion and allowing it to go out into the world. When I asked Mr. Mukoyoshi about the wood and how it would behave over time, he told me that the wood would be fine for 400 years and then it would go into a crisis; after two hundred years of splitting and cracking, it would go into slow decline for another 400 years. I realized then that the wood, like the original log, had a life of its own, and I was finally able to let my project go and hopefully breathe life into the world that surrounds it.

Hinoki, it seems, could almost have been created as a direct challenge the idea articulated above by Corrin about the futility “for humans to attempt to replicate what nature does by itself.”  (See Hinoki arrive at the Art Institute and get installed on the second floor.)  It’s a tour-de-force act of mimicry that ends up existing (like so much of Ray’s work) more on the cerebral level than the sensual.

As I walked around and around Hinoki last week, I found myself remembering Mark Dion’s piece and playing a little parlor game: Which artwork is more in the spirit of W.G. Sebald?  My initial inclination was that Dion’s piece, with its loving references to old natural history museums and its devotion to the everchanging cycle of  nature, was clearly the Sebaldian artwork of the two.  But then I was reminded of Sebald’s fascination with the obsessive skill of silk weavers and other artisans and of the interest he showed in The Rings of Saturn for a character he calls Thomas Abrams, who spent decades painstakingly creating an exact scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem.  So in the end, my parlor game came to a draw.  Both works led me think anew about Sebald’s beliefs in nature and in the man-made.

An Illustrated “Restitution”


Verlag Ulrich Keicher in Warmbronn, Germany has recently issued a wonderful edition of W.G. Sebald’s Zerstreute Reminiszenzen, the speech he gave on November 17, 2001 at the opening of the Stuttgarter literaturhauses.  This was published as An Attempt at Restitution in The New Yorker (December 20-27, 2004) and was anthologized in Campo Santo. What makes this publication is fun are the illustrations and the loose inserts.


The illustrations include many of the things mentioned by Sebald, from the Quelle mail-order catalog that his father showed him for Christmas 1949 to newspaper clippings (above) and photographs from the Sebald archive in Marbach.  A few sections of Sebald’s own typescript of the speech are reproduced.


To add to the fun, two facsimiles are tucked into a small pocket on the final page.  The first is a postcard of from Sebald’s collection referred to when Sebald recounts his memories of the “angular brutalist architecture” of Stuttgart Central Station (designed by Paul Bonatz).  Sebald mentions a postcard he owns

written by an English schoolgirl of about fifteen (judging from the clumsy handwriting) on holiday in Stuttgart to a Mrs. J. Winn in Saltburn in the county of Yorkshire on the back of a picture postcard, which came into my hands at the end of the 1960s in a Salvation Army junk shop in Manchester, and which shows three other tall buildings and Bonatz’s railway station…

The second inserted facsimile is Sebald’s very first entry in the literary world – a 1961 student literary magazine called Der Wecker, co-edited by Sebald and his friend Jan-Peter Tripp.  (Cover photograph below by Tripp.)  All sixteen pages are reproduced including articles on Algeria and Albert Camus and ads for beer and Coca Cola.


This small pamphlet was issued in September in an edition of 800.

Speak, Memory

To some extent, every artist creates his or her own artistic predecessors, and in doing so resequences the artistic DNA of their precursors to be a bit more in alignment with their own. Vladimir Nabokov’s photograph-laden memoir Speak, Memory is frequently mentioned as an important source for the memoir-like prose fictions of W.G. Sebald. As has been pointed out many times, Nabokov hovers as a ghostly presence throughout The Emigrants, even appearing in a photograph.

Nabokov with Butterfly Net

It’s a little hard to imagine two writers as different as Nabokov and Sebald. Raised amongst wealth and privilege in a close-knit family, Nabokov recalls his life in pre-Revolutionary Russia with nearly unbroken nostalgic pleasure. Whatever nostalgia Sebald might have had for his youthful years in a remote Bavarian village becomes largely tainted for him by the facts of German history. Nabokov’s father was an anti-Tsarist, imprisoned, exiled, and ultimately killed for his fearless activism. Sebald’s father served in the German military before and during World War II.

Early in Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells of two encounters his father had fifteen years apart with a man named Kuropatkin, both stories involving matches.

What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme…The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

This is how Speak, Memory, operates then – thematically rather than chronologically. In each chapter Nabokov returns anew to his early childhood and reels in, as it were, the memories associated with certain themes. Then he turns, faces a new direction, and casts his line again. But, it must be said, the pleasure that the thematic approach gives Nabokov seems largely poetic, as if the highest ecstasy arises from making a great rhyme.

I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past. I like to imagine, in consummation and resolution of those jangling chords, something as enduring, in retrospect, as the long table that on summer birthdays and namedays used to be laid for afternoon chocolate out of doors…Through a tremulous prism, I distinguish the features of relatives and familiars, mute lips serenely moving in forgotten speech.

Sebald, too, enjoyed the harmonies of memory and of history, but more often than not he used them to find the underlying horror. For Nabokov, childhood in Russia was a Garden of Eden. For Sebald, the Garden of Eden was a lie. In many ways, reading Speak, Memory serves as a reminder of what themes are not to be found in Sebald’s writing: innocence, romance, sexuality, and familial love, amongst others.

When Sebald himself wrote about Speak, Memory, as he did in Dream Textures, published in Campo Santo, he extracted a theme of spirits, of ghosts, of seances.

Nabokov repeatedly tries…to cast a little light into the darkness lying on both sides of our lives… [on the spirits who] tread the border between life and the world beyond.

Dream Textures is a remarkable piece of writing, a single paragraph ten pages long in which Sebald goes about the task of creating the Nabokov that he absorbed when Nabokov’s memories spoke to him.

Bruce and Max

One never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession – they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.

W.G. Sebald could have been describing his own books, but his article The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin was about Bruce Chatwin. In their own ways, both Bruce Chatwin and Max Sebald were fascinated by history, by travel, by walking, and their books tore down the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. Both perfected the art of wildly digressing, forcing the reader’s attention to careen from topic to topic down their pages like a pinball.

I went back to re-read Chatwin’s In Patagonia in the Penguin Classics edition with Nicholas Shakespeare’s Introduction and fell under the spell again. As with Sebald’s books, the attraction to In Patagonia is slightly sinister because the book is a horrific tale of self-delusion, dishonesty, madness, suicide, and death – all conducted in one of the most dismal climates on the planet. Sebald greatly admired the way in which Chatwin’s obsession for a piece of ancient skin from in his grandmother’s cupboard – skin reputedly, but falsely, attributed to be mastodon flesh – propelled Chatwin on his fabulous quest for its source at the tail end of South America. (It was, in Hitchcockian terms, Chatwin’s MacGuffin.)

As many have remarked, In Patagonia is not even close to being a traditional travel book. Chatwin, in fact, wanted his agent to make sure it wouldn’t be placed in the Travel section of bookstores. Chatwin described In Patagonia as “a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile.” He scarcely describes the landscape at all, telling, instead, a series of loosely connected stories about the people he meets. His chapters tend to start like this: “Anselmo told me to go and see the poet. ‘The Maestro,’ he said.” And: “A man I met in Rio Grande passed me on to his cousins who farmed close to the Chilean border.” Chatwin was profoundly attracted to those exiles for whom the home country had become a myth, a myth as powerful as it is indistinct and incorrect. Chatwin’s brilliance, it seems to me, was to be able to nail the personalities in a handful of sentences, and by the end of the book we begin to see the many facets of the colonial mind as it disintegrates during the post-colonial world. For this is what In Patagonia is really about, the pathological kinship between colonialism and self-deception, which we witness through the inability and unwillingness of so many in this book to disentangle themselves from the past. Throughout all of In Patagonia, I think there is only one soul who has “gone native” and come to terms with his adopted country.

Just as the ever-present undercurrent to Sebald’s books was the Nazi-led Holocaust, the recurring theme to In Patagonia is the holocaust that led to the near-extermination of South America’s indigenous peoples – the Alakaluf, the Yaghan, the Onas, the Haush. (Collector that he was, Chatwin specialized in rare words.) In one example Chatwin describes the 1593 voyage of the Desire up the coast of Brazil, and the resulting slaughter of warriors from the Tehuelches and other tribes. During the respite between fighting the natives, the men of the well-named ship Desire take time to club to death 20,000 penguins, determined to return with a hold full of penguin meat. But on shipboard, the penguins carcasses took their revenge, breeding worms that nearly killed every sailor during the return voyage.

As craftsmen, though, Chatwin and Sebald could hardly be more dissimilar. Chatwin’s color-infused, perfunctory sentences are the polar opposite of Sebald’s meandering prose.

As we drove into Esquel, a bush fire was burning on one of the tight brown hills that hemmed in the town. I ate at a green restaurant on the main street. A zinc counter ran the length of the room. At one end a glass vitrine displayed steaks and kidneys and racks of lamb and sausages. The wine was acid and came in pottery penguins. There were hard black hats at every table. The gauchos wore boots creased like concertinas and black bombachas.

The style that Chatwin uses, seemingly straight off the pages of noir, tough-guy writers like Raymond Chandler, is perfectly suited to this book in which the threat of crime and murder lurks continually.

Nicholas Shakespeare writes about the influence of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his idea of “the decisive moment” on Chatwin, not on Chatwin’s photographs, which are static, overly scenic images of Patagonia safely tucked into a clump of glossy pages in the middle of the book, but on Chatwin’s writing. With razor-sharp incisiveness, Chatwin can drop a decisive image onto the page when one least expects it. In Chapter 84, which is only two paragraphs long, Chatwin attends church in Puntas Arenas, where the minister asks the congregation to pray for General Pinochet, then the head of Chile’s repressive military junta. Here is the second and final paragraph of the chapter in its entirety.

I also met an American lady ornithologist, down here to study the fighting behavior of Darwin’s Rheas. She said the two males locked necks and whirled round in circles: the one who got dizzy first was the loser.


W.G. Sebald’s review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Chatwin was first published in German in 2000 in Literaturen, and is translated in Sebald’s anthology Campo Santo.

Women, Discrete Messengers of the Past

musee-maison-bonaparte.jpg [Léonard-Alexis Daligé de Fontenay, Maison natale de Napoléon Ier à Ajaccio (détail)]

In W.G. Sebald’s short prose piece A Little Excursion to Ajaccio, the narrator purchases an admission ticket to Casa Napoleon (Napoleon’s birthplace museum) from a cashier of “very stately proportions.” He imagines her on an operatic stage singing “Lasciate mi morire or some such aria.”

Lasciatemi morire, also known as Ariadne’s Lament, comes from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Arianna of 1608. This aria is the only surviving remnant of the opera, and it is only known because Monteverdi later published it separately as a madrigal, which is how it is usually found on recordings today.L’Arianna is the story of Ariadne, who has been left behind on the island Naxos by Theseus (the same event which inspired Richard Strauss’ wonderful opera Ariadne auf Naxos).As Ariadne sees her lover sail away, the aria Lasciate mi morire conveys her conviction that death is her only option.

Let me die!
And who do you think can comfort me
in such harsh misfortune,
in such great torment?

Sebald’s conflation of the cashier and Ariadne, who had been abandoned by the warrior-king of Athens, subtly reinforces a gender dichotomy that exists in the three longer pieces that comprise his uncompleted Corsican prose work (I’m ignoring the brief piece called La coeur de l’ancienne ecole, which appears to bear only a tangential relation to Sebald’s larger purpose in this work). In this gender dichotomy, to be brief, men destroy and women are left behind to hold the flame of remembrance alight and the household together.

birthplace-of-napoleon.jpg [The alcove where Napoleon was born in 1769]

Wandering through Casa Napoleon, Sebald’s narrator encounters another woman, a museum docent or caretaker, dressed in the colors of the tricolor, who also strikes him as being “of Napoleonic descent.”She brings to his attention an extraordinary piece of folk art, an elaborate Napoleonic family tree in the form of a giant oak, created at the end of the 19th century by the daughter of a local notary. “Whether out of love for the Emperor or for her father [another admirer of Napoleon], she must have devoted endless hours to her work.” The notary’s daughter is one of those obsessive characters that Sebald found fascinating (not all of whom, admittedly, were women), but here Sebald implies she is part of a long line of women from Napoleon’s era to our day who maintain and venerate the memory of the Emperor. Women serve as “discrete messengers of the past.”

By contrast, the only men that the narrator meets in Corsica “were participating in a ritual of destruction which long ago became pointless” – hunting. In his Corsican story The Alps in the Sea, Sebald’s narrator observes “the fever of the chase” that consumes the men of Corsica every September, as they attempt to hunt the animals that long ago were hunted nearly out of existence by their ancestors. Driving jeeps, dressed in paramilitary gear, bearing rifles and ammunition, “the Corsican hunters are not to be trifled with if you happen to stray into their territory.”

In the Corsican newspapers, the so-called ouverture de la chasses (the start of the hunting season) is one of the main subjects of reporting in September, together with the never-ending accounts of the bombing of police stations, local authority tax offices, and other public institutions.

All of this violence against animals and authority leads the narrator to recall Flaubert’s story Saint Julien l’hospitalier, an “utterly perverse tale of the despicable nature of human violence.”

We must remember that the Corsican texts posthumously assembled and published in the anthology titled Campo Santo are just the fragments of an uncompleted work that might have resembled Vertigo or The Rings of Saturn. Nevertheless the male/female roles seem so deliberately laid out that I would venture to say this was a theme that would have been developed further. In fact, there really isn’t an episode in the Corsican texts when men and women appear together except for the anonymous hordes of tourists the narrator encounters in Ajaccio or in the cemetery at Pliana, where the genders are intermingled indiscriminately.

Finally, here is an excerpt from the narrator’s description of a painting in the Musée Fesch in Ajaccio, a double portrait by Pietro Paolini of a woman with melancholy eyes and a dress “the color of the night” and her daughter.

Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter, who stands in front of her turning sideways, toward the edge of the picture, but with her grave face, upon which the tears have only just dried, turned toward the observer in a kind of silent challenge. The little girl wears a brick-red dress, and the soldier doll hardly three inches high which she is holding out to us, whether in memory of her father who has gone to war or to ward off the evil eye we may be casting on her, also wears red. I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life.

It is my sense that the word “annulment” is a miscue in the translation. Here is the original German:

Lange habe ich vor diesem Doppelporträit gestanden und in ihm, wie ich damals glaubte, das ganze unergründliche Unglück des Lebens aufgehoben gesehen. [Campo Santo, Hanser, page 9]

I think Sebald’s intention was more along the lines of ” an abandonment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life”. Would anyone care to weigh in with a better translation of this sentence?

Guest Appearances: Kath Trevelyan Reads Campo Santo

The appearance of a long quote from W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo gave me the excuse to read Jeremy Cooper’s new novel Kath Trevelyan (London: Serpent’s Tail 2007). Cooper, an art historian who has worked for Sotheby’s and now, according to his brief book bio, owns a gallery in Bloomsbury, has created a portrait of seventy-something Kath Trevelyan and, to a lesser extent, her rural neighbor and friend John. Kath is a letterpress printer who draws, makes prints, and produces small edition fine press books.For reasons that are often obscure to her and to this reader, Kath is drawn to John, a fifty-something retired London gallerist who is moody and inarticulate about personal relationships. Kath’s daughter Esther also makes frequent appearances, effectively giving Kath a real person to talk to now and then.

The handful of characters that populate Kath Trevelyan lead unhurried, contemplative lives in rural England, with periodic travels around the countryside and into London. They seem to devote a considerable portion of their day observing and appreciating their natural surroundings. In addition, Kath and John live amidst a veritable Antiques Roadshow of objects: treasured collectibles, beautiful books, memory-laden memorabilia, works of art, hand-crafted furniture. Now and then Cooper’s background results in passages that read as if they were snipped from an auction catalog or a museum wall label, but most of the time his descriptive passages are engaging, recalling that other one-time employee of Sotheby’s – Bruce Chatwin. Did I mention that Kath hasn’t owned a television set since her last child moved out, which, by my calculations, is the 1950s?All of this tends to give Kath Trevelyan the aura of a Merchant/Ivory production of an E.M. Forster novel.

The principal plot line is the budding romance between Kath and John, two largely mis-matched people who just may or may not have something to offer the other. After more than 275 pages of Will it happen? and Could it possibly work?, Kath and John are suddenly, without warning or fanfare, in bed. Did we miss something? Apparently so. Oh those Brits, one is tempted to mutter.

Fortunately, Cooper is after something more than nostalgia. By temperament, John has been a devoted follower of the very latest on the London art scene for decades. As a gallery owner he started with artists Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, and Hamish Fulton, then kept up with the changing times and he now follows a trend that is decidedly cutting edge. His current passion is Gavin Turk, one of the notorious Young British Artists originally collected and made famous by Charles Saatchi. John has just written a short essay about Turk. This provides Kath with a solution to her late-life crisis. Kath, it seems, has begun to feel that her current project, an expensive limited edition book on the theme of trees, replete with metaphors for longevity and strength, is too conservative. She craves something more “experimental” and, as a cure, proposes to create a kind of anti-book using John’s essay on Gavin Turk. Within the tradition-bound world of collectible fine press editions, this project, which she will finally title Notabook probably does strike an avant-guard note, but it doesn’t seem to bridge the huge gap between her world and that of Gavin Turk.

Much of the novel is delightfully observational, rounding out the portraits of Kath, John, and, to a lesser extent, Esther. Cooper is a very visual writer, a skill matched by his difficulty with conversation. Nearly everything that his characters speak comes out a little stilted. Here’s John in a crucial scene, calling on the phone early in the novel to break it all off with Kath:

I’m stopping our contact. We’re too different. It’s for the best. We’ll both be able to get on with things now. You’ve got your book, with William. And I’m writing this article. About the performance art of Gavin Turk. You”ll get over it. Don’t worry. It was a mistake. We can never be proper friends.

The real pleasure of Kath Trevelyan, it seems to me, is being airlifted into a territory where every conversation is literate, where every object is beautiful, and everyone lives at the highest level of alertness to the world around them. Gavin Turk notwithstanding, it’s still Merchant/Ivory-land, but it’s a very pleasant way to spend a few hours.

I mustn’t forget about Sebald, whose writing makes a guest appearance on pages 156-158. As part of the research for her book about trees, Kath reads Campo Santo and quotes a lengthy segment about the forests of Corsica from the prose piece The Alps in the Sea. Curiously, as Kath plots out the text and images that will go in her book, she herself sounds distinctly Sebaldian:

text and image shouldn’t explain, let alone illustrate each other. Maybe enter into a sort of dialogue, reverberating back and forth. (page. 129)

The first edition of Kath Trevelyan is a compact 5 by 7 inch paperback with a cover image by artist Peter Doig, an enigmatic etching called White Out, 1996, which depicts one of his awkwardly formal figures standing in front of a ragged line of trees in winter.

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.

Sebald Campo Santo German edition

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.

Sebald Campo Santo British edition

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.

Sebald Campo Santo American edition

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