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Sporadically Powerful, But Falls Short of His Novels
on March 8, 2014
Sebald is one of the most compelling writers of the last fifty years, and as Susan Sontag remarked, his novels achieve something that is increasingly rare: originality. "The Rings of Saturn," "Austerlitz," "Vertigo," and "The Emigrants" all swept me up in beautiful, haunting, horrifying dream-sequences. I think I'll reread one of his novels yearly or bi-yearly until the day I die. They evade description, which is why I'm falling short here.
The essays do not achieve the same feat. "A Place in the Country" is composed of six essays, each a sort of profile of a different artist Sebald admires. Three of the essays I enjoyed very much, the ones on Tripp, Walser, and especially the essay on Rousseau. In these three it seems that Sebald approaches the best of abilities as written into his novels, yet the other three for me seemed less compelling and more reliant on synopsis and criticism, rather than the dissolution of narrator, subject, and history he's so darn good at.
Part of my disliking of the "other" three essays, as I have called them, is probably due to the dearth of German history in my education and reading. So if you know quite a bit on that subject, maybe you'll find them more interesting.
Alas, Sebald remains Sebald: Each essay brings surprise, each brings pleasure, each brings fear. For those who haven't read Sebald yet, I'd point you to his novels. But for those who read and enjoyed his novels, this collection of essays, while it fails to match the quality of his fiction, nonetheless is worth reading.