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Essays that both mourn and make restitution

Campo Santo
By W. G. Sebald
Translated, from the German, by Anthea Bell
Random House, 221 pp., illustrated, $24.95

W. G. Sebald, novelist, essayist, critic, and teacher, died in December 2001 at the age of 57 in an automobile accident in his adopted homeland of Great Britain. ''Campo Santo," a collection of prose pieces billed by his publishers as his final work, reminds us what a significant loss his early passing was to the literary world.

''Campo Santo" is a brilliant if somewhat uneven book. Most of the pieces here were published previously in German-language publications, some intended exclusively for academic audiences, so gathering them under one title, in Anthea Bell's wonderfully mellifluous translation, is a service both to the English-language reading public and to Sebald's posthumous reputation.

Slim but dense, ''Campo Santo" reaches the reader as a sort of small sandwich bursting with flavors. The meaty middle section showcases Sebald's more cerebral side, and includes slices of criticism on the dramatist Peter Handke, the poet Ernst Herbeck, the painter Jan Peter Tripp, and writers like Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Hans Nossack, and Hermann Kasack -- not exactly household names to most Americans. And yet, largely but not only because of the more personal pieces near the book's beginning and end, ''Campo Santo" has a great deal to offer the inquisitive reader who doesn't know Hildesheimer from Orel Hershiser. Sebald's travel essays on Corsica are absolute gems, but even the sometimes abstruse discussions of Nabokov, Kafka, Günter Grass, and the schizophrenic poet Herbeck, freckled as they are with the author's fascination with human behavior, provide a satisfaction as rare as a perfect meal.

In his deft piece on Nabokov, Sebald notes: ''Nabokov repeatedly tried, as he himself has said, to cast a little light into the darkness lying on both sides of our life, and thus to illuminate our incomprehensible existence." Sebald might have been writing of himself. In unusually structured novels like ''Austerlitz" and ''Vertigo," he plumbed the dark, jazzy mystery of ''our severely disturbed species" from what almost seems an otherworldly perspective. An exile himself -- he left his native Bavaria at the age of 21 for a life of study and teaching in Great Britain -- Sebald often writes as though he is standing on the banks watching the mainstream of humanity as if it were an unfamiliar form of life. Not so rare a point of view for an artist, and yet there is a freshness and sly humor to Sebald's sense of existential displacement.

Another of his fascinations was the German people's emotional reaction -- or lack of it -- to World War II. He was born, literally, in the rubble of the fire-bombing of German cities, and his literary essays veer back and forth between the works of the authors under discussion and the psychological scars inflicted by those bombings, and by Germans' inability to undertake any kind of national soul-searching in the decades immediately following the collapse of the Third Reich.

Prancing through Napoleon, Kafka, Bruce Chatwin, and Grass with prose that is at once precise and luscious, Sebald gets in a smack or two at the excesses of capitalism, the ''chaff ground in the mills of academia," the ruin of Europe's great forests, the human penchant for violence, Bavarian folk music, the Viennese people's welcome of Hitler. He fits in unexpected anecdotes: Some Nazi soldiers were so taken with the beauty of the Ukrainian wheat fields that they dreamed of settling there once the war was finished; the citizens of Milan, knowing that Verdi was on his deathbed, laid straw in the street outside his house to muffle the sound of horses' hooves; Kafka and Beethoven died during thunderstorms.

Even Sebald's one-page acceptance speech to the Collegium of the German Academy, and his two-page musing about a mysterious photograph, contain sparkling shards of prose and glimpses of the greater questions.

But the best-of-show award must go to ''The Alps in the Sea," a rollicking, sorrowful essay that moves from the loss of the great forests, to the Corsicans' mad penchant for hunting what is left of the island's wildlife, then through the legend of St. Julian, all of this culminating in a novelist's touch, a ghostlike image of a white ship hovering near the coast, like some vision of paradise or human possibility that never quite makes landfall. Near the end of the piece, the author observes: ''The monstrous rock formations of Les Calanques, carved from granite over millions of years by wind, salt mist, and rain, and towering up three hundred meters from the depths, shone in fiery copper red as if the stone itself were in flames, glowing from within. Sometimes I thought I saw the outlines of plants and animals burning in that flickering light, or the shapes of a whole race of people stacked into a great pyre. Even the water below seemed to be aflame."

In the last essay, ''An Attempt at Restitution," Sebald asks, ''So what is literature good for?" and then, a page later, offers this answer: ''There are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship."

The restitution he is speaking of is the offering of some kind of apology for the ''great pyre" we have made: the genocide and carpet-bombing, the cutting down of thousand-year-old trees, the hunting of the Tyrrhenian red deer into extinction, the half-lies and propaganda that accompany war's slaughter and, of course, that slaughter itself. To all that, and to the question about literature's purpose, ''Campo Santo" stands as an oblique, shimmering response.

Roland Merullo's fifth novel, ''A Little Love Story," will be published in August.

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