“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.