W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country

Ehrenreich_singleluminescence_ba_img_0Ben Ehrenreich at The Nation:

The book is structured in roughly chronological order, beginning with an essay on Johann Peter Hebel (born 1760, died 1826: forgive yourself if you’ve never heard of him) and ending with the contemporary German painter Jan Peter Tripp. Rousseau was Hebel’s elder by nearly half a century, but starting with Hebel allows Sebald to open by juxtaposing an already anachronistic prelapsarian notion of a “world in perfect equilibrium”—the lapse in this case being the French Revolution, and the beginning of the modern era—against an “eschatological vision unparalleled in German literature.” From that vantage point—“the doom-laden glimmering of a new age which, even as it dreams of humanity’s greatest possible happiness, begins to set in train its greatest possible misfortune”—the essays that follow trace the downward spiral of modernity, which is, seen from another angle, the confident ascendancy of the European bourgeoisie.

Via the Romantic poet Eduard Mörike, we witness the taming of the radical aspirations of the late eighteenth century in “the becalmed waters” of the post-Napoleonic years. Via the Swiss novelist and poet Gottfried Keller, we read of the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 and the growing “havoc which the proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.” The grand cataclysms of the twentieth century remain outside the frame, bracketed by Tripp and Walser, whose descent into madness Sebald reads as an act of “inner emigration,” a flight from Europe’s looming implosion.

more here.