Campo Santo by W.G. SebaldLiterary stardom, like almost all forms of celebrity, is often a fleeting game. Amongst the one-hitters, wunderkinds and industry created stars there is scarce room for the author who hones his writing over time and grows into an accomplished master. Yet W.G. Sebald was beginning to reach both commercial success and critical acclaim at the time of his unfortunate death in 2001.
While read widely in Germany and many other portions of Europe for decades, it was only a few years before his death that this multi-talented writer began to earn his due in the United States. His novels took on the concepts of memory and place using photographs interspersed with a prose style that became all his own. Now Campo Santo, his third posthumous collection of essays, will certainly cement his place as one of the finest and most broadly talented artists of the late twentieth century.
Posthumous works are a dicey enterprise. Too easily they can become must-reads for only the most rabid of fans and even then the collections often seem uneven or scattershot. Campo Santo avoids these traps in a couple ways and maintains the feel of a fluid and well-intentioned work. The essays were written in between 1975 and 2001 and are arranged chronologically. This gives the reader, whether a newcomer or long-time fan, the opportunity to witness Sebald as journalist, literary critic and memoirist.
The first four (out of sixteen) essays all take place in or are about Corsica. It becomes clear early on that this Mediterranean locale enthralled Sebald. He visits the birthplace of Napoleon and marvels at the art collections that remain basically unchanged since Flaubert had described many of the same pieces in his own visit to Corsica. One of his greatest gifts as novelist, that of taking history and winding it around itself, are clearly on display in his personal travels and writings. The piece regarding cemeteries and where the dead must physically go in already cramped places is a wonderful example of the best of creative nonfiction as it ends with the reader wanting more and having learned much.
The middle portions of the book all loosely center around Germany at the end of the World War II and the inability of writers to encapsulate the true suffering that occurred. His criticisms of noted German writers are complex and well considered. One of the finest lines in the entire collection, “The realization that democracy is concerned with more than a healthy economy,” drives home a societies difficulty in processing such horror and dealing with guilt on so many levels. To solidify his argument beyond personal opinions he offers Alexander and Margaret Mitscherlich’s theory of, “the inability to mourn.” This theory was first published in 1967 and gives proof, although not mathematical, to Sebald’s own ideas.
The book closes with pieces on Kafka, Nabokov and Bruce Chatwin. In each we begin to sense more and more the themes that dominated Sebald’s later and most popular writings. His own influences came from these very writers and it is a proper send-off to witness his admiration for each in dissimilar and shared ways. Again, readers must sense how much more could have come from Sebald if not for the car accident that ended his life in December of 2001. What he left behind is grand in scope and limited only by his death.
Campo Santo by W.G. Sebald