Campo Santo

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783

Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald was born in Allgäu in the southern region of Bavaria in Germany. He grew up in Wertach, a Alpine village which was predominately Roman Catholic. His father, Georg Sebald was a professional soldier, having joined the army prior to 1933 when Adolf Hitler took power. Because of his military profession he was away from home a great deal, fought in World War II, and was interned in France for some time after the war. He rejoined the military when the new German army was established in 1953. In later years Sebald said that his maternal grandfather, Josef Engelhofer, largely brought him up.

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Sebald went to school in Immenstadt and Obersdorf and attended the University of Freiburg, where he concentrated on German literature and earned a Licence des Lettres in 1966. Also, he studied French literature in Switzerland. He later taught both subjects. Following his graduation from Freiburg he accepted a position at the University of Manchester in England, beginning his long residence in the United Kingdom. For a year, after receiving a master’s degree in German literature in 1968, he taught elementary school in St. Gallen in Switzerland. In 1969 he returned to Manchester, and, except for a year at the Goethe Institute in Munich in 1975 to 1976, he remained in England for the rest of his life, teaching French and German literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where he became a professor in 1987.

Although he eventually became best known as a novelist and essayist, his literary career began with the prose poem Nach der Natur: Ein Elementargedicht (1988; After Nature, 2002), published in Germany. The poem won the Fedor-Malchow Prize for lyric poetry in 1991 and established Sebald’s literary reputation. Although he spent most of his adult life living and working in England, Sebald wrote his literary works in German, and they were subsequently translated into English. His first novel, Schwindel: Gefühle (1990; Vertigo, 1999) was also well received and was followed during the next ten years by three more. His final novel, Austerlitz (2001), won a number of literary prizes both in England and in the United States. He also continued to write poetry. His last collection, For Years Now, a book of twenty-three poems in English, was published in 2001.

Although Sebald became an accomplished novelist and poet, his first published work was a critical study of a German writer, Carl Sternheim: Kritiker und Opfer der Wilhelminischen Ära (Carl Sternheim: critic and victim of the Wilhelminian era) in 1969. Sebald went on to write or edit six more books of literary and social essays.

Sebald’s reputation has been largely confined to the literary privileged. Although he did gain a wider audience as his works were translated into English, they have remained an acquired taste. However, his place in modern letters is a substantial one, and the critics have uniformly praised him as one of the masters of contemporary prose. His novels are now seen as reflecting a major development in European literature, and he has been credited with the invention of what has been described as a field of “documentary fiction.” His critical works are landmark efforts in experimental prose.

Sebald’s writing has been praised for his scope of cultural and historical knowledge, for his exacting power of its description, for his skill at unifying multiple narrative threads, and for his ability to relate the subjective expression with objective representation. Among his more prominent themes are the human struggle with nature, the burden of personal depression, the relationship between individual talent and society, and the unreliable and autonomous nature of memory. He has developed these ideas by crossing the boundaries in his prose among various types of writing, documentary, fiction, dream diaries, historical record, travelogue, elegy, and case studies. His writing frequently is organized around a series of oppositions: the surreal and the realistic, the melancholy and the hopeful, and the beautiful and the destructive. This all leads to a style that is both disquieting and reassuring.

Sebald’s writing comes out of his experience in postwar Germany, a country devastated by the war and wracked by guilt, although often unacknowledged, over the havoc originating from the expansionist and racial policies of National Socialism. Sebald left his native country because of its failure to come to grips with its responsibility for the sufferingincluding its owncaused by World War II and its destruction of European civilization which caused the deaths of millions. The effects of this experience are evident in his writings in the intertwining of the past and present, the interplay of memory, and the autumnal and elegiac tone of much of his work.

Campo Santo is a posthumous collection of essays, chronologically arranged, including several pieces that had been previously published in a larger work on the island of Corsica. The second part of the collection includes critical pieces primarily on literary topics. The earliest is on Peter Handke’s play Kaspar (1968) from 1975, which is followed by essays from the 1990’s on Ernst Herbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Jan Peter Tripp, and Bruce Chatwin. There are two speeches on the opening of the Munich Opera Festival and on the Stuttgart House of Literature. Finally, there is also the speech Sebald gave accepting membership in the German Academy for Language and Literature.

The first section of the book contains four essays from Sebald’s unfinished work on Corsica: “A Little Excursion to Ajaccio,” “Campo Santo,” “The Alps in the Sea,” and “La cour de l’ancienne école.” In one way or another, all these essays compare the island’s past with its present. Ajaccio was the birthplace of the emperor Napoleon, and Sebald visited the town and the Musée Fesch. Joseph Fesch was Napoleon’s step-uncle, an ecclesiastic, and art collector. The museum contains both his art collection and some Napoleon mementos. Finally, Sebald went to the Casa Napoleon. The essay provides an occasion for Sebald to reflect not only on Napoleon and on Gustave Flaubert, who wrote about his visit to Corsica, but also to reflect on history itself.

“Campo Santo” details his meditations on death and the effects it has on the survivors during his walk through one of the island’s cemeteries. “The Alps in the Sea” is a reflective piece on the once-forested hills of Corsica and the hunting that took place there, both now much diminished by time and human destruction. The final essay contains a brief discourse on a photo of an old school of Porto Vecchio sent to Sebald by one of his correspondents from a previous stay on Corsica.

The second part of Campo Santo contains a dozen essays mostly on literary figures who have interested Sebald or influenced him in various ways. “Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis” is on Handke’s play Kaspar and about human communication and the function of language in the definition of self. Sebald was interested in the effects of World War II on the German people, and his themes of destruction, memory, and mourning arose largely from this interest. “Between History and Natural History: On the Literary Description of Total Destruction” offers a good summary of these ideas through his analysis of the writers, Hans Erich Nossack, Hermann Kasack, and Alexander Kluge, the postwar Germans who most forcefully addressed, in different ways, what Sebald calls the murder of memory experienced after the war.

“Constructs of Mourning” continues this examination through a discussion of Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s theory of the inability to mourn and the writers Heinrich Böll and Günther Grass. Sebald writes movingly in this essay about the issues of guilt, responsibility, and conscience. Ernst Herbeck spent most of his life in a mental hospital writing strange poetry which Sebald found especially evocative of the times. “Das Häschens Kind, der kleine Has (The Little Hare, Child of the Hare)” contains his meditations on this odd poet’s work.

There are two essays on modernist writer Franz Kafka: “To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland” and “Kafka Goes to the Movies.” The former is on a trip Kafka made with his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, from Prague to Paris via Switzerland and northern Italy during August and September, 1911. The latter essay is a book review of and commentary on Hanns Zischler’s Kafka geht ins Kino (1996; Kafka Goes to the Movies, 2003), a study of the influence of films on Kafka’s work. Sebald describes most academic criticism of Kafka as tedious and unhelpful to understanding the work and the man. Zischler’s book is an exception. Rather than a plodding study of literary theorists, Kafka Goes to the Movies is well written and engagingly speculative about Kafka’s interest in, and literary debt to, films.

Sebald’s chapter “Dream Textures” discusses Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory (1966) and provides Sebald an occasion to talk about Nabokov’s style and his position as an exile from his native Russia. Exile became one of Sebald’s often recurring themes, one that he felt keenly, being an exile himself. The literary essays are rounded out by a short piece on the photographs of Jan Peter Tripp, “Scomber scombrus, or the Common Mackerel” which contains two pictures by Tripp, which Sebald dissects. The use of illustrative material often is featured in Sebald’s writing, and he used such material as a jumping-off point for his speculations on a variety of issues.

“The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin,” subtitled “An Approach to Bruce Chatwin,” explores an author who appealed to Sebald’s fascination with unconventional prose writing, especially that which combines the autobiographical with the historical in new and startling ways. In Chatwin’s writing Sebald found a kindred soul, a writer who traveled widely, made copious use of his own biography, and experimented in his prose.

Campo Santo is rounded out with three short occasional speeches: “Moments musicaux” on the opening of the Munich Opera Festival, “An Attempt at Restitution” written for the opening of the Stuttgart House of Literature, and “Acceptance Speech to the Collegium of the German Academy,” occasioned by Sebald’s joining that institution.

Sebald is not well known in the United States, and this collection of his essays, speeches, and excerpts from his work on Corsica offers a good introduction. Most of his recurring themes are presented here: his sense of exile, his conflicting feelings about his native country and its amnesia about its recent past, his interest in language and its uses, and his preoccupation with memory and history as filtered through the writer’s autobiography. Here, too, is a fine selection from which to glean something of Sebald’s lucid but challenging style as an essayist. For readers unfamiliar with his work, Campo Santo is a good place to start.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 50

Booklist 101, no. 11 (February 1, 2005): 931.

The Economist 374 (March 5, 2005): 81-82.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 1 (January 1, 2005): 44.

Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 130.

The New Republic 233, no. 4 (July 25, 2005): 32-37.

The New York Review of Books 52, no. 13 (August 11, 2005): 30-32.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (April 3, 2005): 12.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 7 (February 14, 2005): 68.

The Spectator 297 (February 26, 2005): 40-42.

The Wilson Quarterly 29, no. 2 (Spring, 2005): 120.

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