‘Campo Santo’: Hanging Out With Kafka

Jennifer Shuessler write in the New York Times:      

Sebald184 AFTER the German writer W. G. Sebald’s book ”The Emigrants” appeared in English in 1996, its previously obscure author was hailed as a writer whose work belonged on the high shelf alongside that of Kafka, Borges and Proust. A collection of portraits of four Central Europeans living in England and the United States, ”The Emigrants” was a mesmerizing but hard-to-classify combination of biography, fiction, memoir, travel sketch and antiquarian essay, accompanied by grainy black-and-white photographs of uncertain origin and often mysterious relationship to the text. Sebald’s themes, which deepened in the equally idiosyncratic and haunting books that were translated in the years to come, were nothing less than the persistence and fragility of memory and the terrifyingly random nature of history, as exemplified by its darkest 20th-century chapters. When Sebald — who spent most of his adult life teaching in British universities — was killed in a car accident in December 2001 at the age of 57, just after his novel ”Austerlitz” appeared in English, the ghastly event cut short a late-blooming career that seemed to be building toward an unusual greatness.

Still, the books have kept coming. ”Campo Santo,” Anthea Bell’s translation of 16 literary and critical essays published in newspapers and journals between 1975 and 2003, is just the latest Sebald work to appear since his death. But unlike such offerings as ”After Nature” and ”On the Natural History of Destruction,” it is very much a miscellany, and an often frustrating one. The early essays, on Peter Handke, Günter Grass and others, are written in a dense academic style and will be rough going for those who haven’t kept up with the authors in question. By the mid-1990’s, however, the familiar Sebald approach emerges. In these later essays, he doesn’t so much analyze his subjects — Kafka, Nabokov, Bruce Chatwin — as accompany them, turning them into Sebald characters: melancholy men living in a real or metaphorical exile, haunted by the past and the inevitability of their own dissolution.

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