J Cohen on Sebald

It’s not that easy to review books well, I know. Novelist Joshua Cohen probably does too, as he’s been at it for a while now reviewing for Harper’s and now the New York Times. 

In any case, there’s a few things that rankle in his review of W.G. Sebald’s latest posthumous publication, A Place in the Country (2014). I wouldn’t comment on this, except that I’ve read all of Sebald’s novels (and After Nature) twice and wrote a thesis on The Emigrants. Cohen:

W. G. Sebald was born in 1944 in Wer­tach im Allgäu in the Bavarian Alps, educated in Germany and Switzerland, taught literature in England for three decades, and between 1990 and 2001 became world famous for “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn” and “Austerlitz” — four novels about Jews, set variously in Vienna, Venice, Verona, Riva, Antwerp, Prague, Paris, Suffolk, Manchester and Long Island.

My lord, “four novels about Jews” just won’t work. Austerlitz and The Emigrants, yes, but the focus in Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn is hardly Jewry. My only guess is that he hasn’t read these novels, and so is relaying the commonly touted affiliation of Sebald with Jews and the Holocaust. Then he says

“A Place in the Country,” which contains profiles of five writers and one painter, is the third volume of nonfiction Sebaldiana to appear in English, and the most casually generous, not least because it’s the last.

“Sebaldiana”–I cringe, and ask, why? why invent this clumsy-ass word? Don’t other words work? Sebaldian, fine, but… ugh. This, and a few strange stylistic tics/flourishes, make this review rather inelegant. See that weird, smart aside concluding the opening paragraph:

Shortly after “Austerlitz” was published in English, Sebald died in a car crash. Mortal: the universal identity.

Anyways, we all err. Anyways.

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  • I understand your frustration. Just as another example of an irritation, this book is definitely not “the last.” Catling says at the end that she is translating Sebald’s book of essays on Austrian writers.

    I had not known about your website. Glad to make its and your acquaintance. Glad someone is reading Ronald Firbank.


    • Thanks for your note, Tom, which is very encouraging to me – this site, all the articles I write are for adventurous readers like yourself.

      I took a gander at your site & saw an article mentioning Keller’s Green Henry and Stifter’s Indian Summer… Have you read these two titles? I was considering both of these, but after having skimmed passages in Indian Summer I think I’ve ruled it out, at least for this year. Did you read Green Henry? I’ve re-read the first pages several times, the beauty is staggering. It’s not at the top of my list, but I may get to it in late summer or fall (or next winter – yes, it looks like a good winter book…)

  • Green Henry and Indian Summer are both wonderful books, although at times, especially with the Stifter, what I wonder at is the disregard for good fiction writing. The tradition of German-language fiction was just so different. Stifter’s complete disregard for depth of character, for example. Or plot. Simultaneously boring and strange.

    Keller’s book is much friendlier. Less boring, maybe at the cost of some strangeness, although in places it is quite strange and often surprising. Both novels have long, flat portions; both have unique passages of real beauty.

    I did find the novellas of both authors helpful in figuring out what the heck they were up to, especially for Stifiter.


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