Campo santo, p.1
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       Campo Santo, p.1

           W. G. Sebald
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Campo Santo

  Praise for Campo Santo

  “Brilliant … bursting with flavors … at once precise and luscious … [Campo Santo] reminds us what a significant loss [Sebald’s] early passing was to the literary world.… [The] travel essays on Corsica are absolute gems.… [D]iscussions of Nabokov, Kafka, Günter Grass, and the schizophrenic poet Herbeck … provide a satisfaction as rare as a perfect meal.”

  —The Boston Globe

  “[A] darkly companionable voice … This magnificent writer may have left abruptly, but his own shadow lingers.”

  —The New York Times Book Review

  “Max Sebald has begun to be widely recognized as one of the most important prose writers of the past 20 years.”

  —The Economist

  “Nuanced … multidimensional … Ruminative and elegiac, the late W. G. Sebald wove threads of timelessness connecting past and present.”

  —The Dallas Morning News

  “All of Sebald’s books are about journeys … [and he] is an entertaining guide.”

  —The New York Review of Books

  “Sebald exemplified the best kind of cosmopolitan literary intelligence—humane, digressive, deeply erudite, unassuming and tinged with melancholy.… His themes are … marked by the seriousness of middle age. Yet Sebald’s spirit remains that of a philosophical gypsy.”

  —The Washington Post Book World

  “[Sebald] is prone to visions, hallucinations, and premonitions, usually induced by a confrontation with a personal memory or a historical site. These are the source of the subdued horror of much of Sebald’s work, and also of its very dry humor.… Four fragments of a literary work about a trip to Corsica … have the virtues of Sebald’s best work, with its odd blend of fiction, memoir, history, and travelogue.”

  —The New York Sun

  “Stunning … intensely observant, erudite, lyrical, and provocative … Detailed descriptions of Sebald’s wanderings on [Corsica] turn into musings of astonishing beauty and insight into history, environmental decimation, and our feelings about death. These arresting meditations, brilliant syntheses of thought and feeling, are followed by masterful, passionate critical essays expressing Sebald’s belief in the healing power of literature and our obligation to remember the past and respect life in all its wonders and mysteries


  “[A] masterful translation … Sebald was a beautiful and intelligent writer.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “If you thought literary modernism was dead, guess again. The spirit of such masters as Kafka and Borges lives on in the [work] of W. G. Sebald.”

  —The Wall Street Journal

  2006 Modern Library Trade Paperback Edition

  Translation copyright © 2005 by Anthea Bell

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Modern Library, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

  MODERN LIBRARY and the TORCHBEARER Design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  This edition was published in hardcover in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2005.

  Published in the United Kingdom by Hamish Hamilton, a publishing division of Penguin Books Ltd., in 2005.

  This work was originally published in German by Carl Hanser Verlag, München, in 2003. Copyright © 2003 by The Estate of W. G. Sebald. Copyright © 2003 Carl Hanser München Wien. This English language translation by Anthea Bell is published here by arrangement with Hamish Hamilton, a publishing division of Penguin Books Ltd.


  Sebald, Winfried Georg

  [Campo Santo. English]

  Campo Santo/W. G. Sebald;

  translated by Anthea Bell.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-0-307-43303-9

  I. Bell, Anthea. II. Title.

  PT2681.E18C36 2005

  834′.914—dc22 2004050311




  Title Page


  Editorial Note


  A Little Excursion to Ajaccio

  Campo Santo

  The Alps in the Sea

  La cour de l’ancienne école


  Strangeness, Integration, and Crisis:

  On Peter Handke’s Play Kaspar

  Between History and Natural History:

  On the Literary Description of Total Destruction

  Constructs of Mourning: Günter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer

  Des Häschens Kind, der kleine Has

  (The Little Hare, Child of the Hare):

  On the Poet Ernst Herbeck’s Totem Animal

  To the Brothel by Way of Switzerland:

  On Kafka’s Travel Diaries

  Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov

  Kafka Goes to the Movies

  Scomber scombrus, or the Common Mackerel:

  On Pictures by Jan Peter Tripp

  The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin:

  An Approach to Bruce Chatwin

  Moments musicaux

  An Attempt at Restitution

  Acceptance Speech to the Collegium of the German Academy


  Sources of the Text

  About the Pictures

  About the Author

  About the Translator


  Campo Santo is a collection of prose by W. G. Sebald, who died in a road accident on December 14, 2001. His novel Austerlitz had been published shortly before, and Sebald had not yet begun working on a new book since finishing it. However, there was a work that was never finished: in the middle of the 1990s, after the publication of The Rings of Saturn (1995), Sebald began writing a book about Corsica, but then set it aside and turned to writing essays and working on Austerlitz. Parts of this Corsica project were published from 1996 onward as separate texts, in various places; Sebald also used a long section in 2000 as a text for his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Düsseldorf Heine Prize. These texts are collected together for the first time and arranged, in the order of their composition, in the opening section of the present volume: “A Little Excursion to Ajaccio” (“In September last year, during a two-week holiday on the island of Corsica”), “Campo Santo” (“My first walk the day after my arrival in Piana”), “The Alps in the Sea” (“Once upon a time Corsica was entirely covered by forest”), and finally the miniature “La cour de l’ancienne école.” Together, the four Corsican texts, each self-contained, make up admittedly only an incomplete spectrum, which cannot show exactly what the abandoned book would have been like; however, collecting the separate parts makes them appear in a new light, and they also cast light on each other. Sebald’s literary estate, which has not yet been studied and edited, contains no other recent literary works. The Corsican project is the last and unfinished work of a writer’s life that came to a premature end.

  The second part of this volume illustrates Sebald’s other side, as essayist and critic. Two collections of essays on Austrian literature, Die Beschreibung des Unglücks (1985) and Unheimiche Heimat (1991), have already been published in German. In addition, there are the later volumes Logis in einem Landhaus (1998) and Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999), including an essay on Alfred Andersch that has provoked much controversy.* The development shown in these volumes is also reflected in the essays in the present collection, which are chronologically arranged. They have previously appeared in scholarly journals, literary magazines, and the arts sections of newspapers, but are now published in book form for the first time. There are early works of lite
rary criticism—the first, on Peter Handke’s play Kaspar, dates from 1975—which already show Sebald’s concern with such subjects as destruction, mourning, and memory, themes around which his literary work would continue to revolve, and they show the development of his stylistic individuality. The later essays—on Ernst Herbeck, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, Jan Peter Tripp, and Bruce Chatwin—written from the early 1990s on, at the same time as the narratives Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz, finally dispense with footnotes, throw the ballast of scholarly references overboard and instead strike the typically Sebaldian note. In “Moments musicaux” and “An Attempt at Restitution,” Sebald’s speeches at the opening of the Munich Opera Festival and the Stuttgart House of Literature in the year of his death, the essayist can no longer be distinguished from the writer. In his final works Sebald practiced the principle to which he had confessed in an interview with Sigrid Löffler in 1993: “My medium is prose, not the novel.” At the end of the volume is Sebald’s speech accepting membership in the German Academy for Language and Literature. Here he tells us of a dream in which he, like Johann Peter Hebel before him, is “unmasked as a traitor to his country and a fraud”—in view of such fears, he says, he regards admission to the Academy as an “unhoped-for form of justification.” Another, perhaps less unanticipated and certainly no less honorable form of justification is the wide acceptance of Sebald’s books by the general reader and the serious discussion of his ideas.

  Sven Meyer

  * Published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction, and also including the essays on Jean Améry and Peter Weiss, which in the original German are part of the present volume published by Hanser.

  [ Prose ]

  A Little Excursion to Ajaccio

  In September last year, during a two-week holiday on the island of Corsica, I took a blue bus one day down the west coast to Ajaccio to spend a little time looking around the town, of which I knew nothing except that it was the birthplace of the Emperor Napoleon. It was a beautiful, sunlit day, the branches of the palms in the Place Maréchal-Foch moved gently in a breeze coming in off the sea, a snow-white cruise ship lay in the harbor like a great iceberg, and I wandered through the streets feeling carefree and at ease, now and then going into one of the dark, tunnel-like entrances of buildings to read the names of their unknown inhabitants on the metal letter boxes with a certain rapt attention, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these stone citadels, occupied to my life’s end solely with the study of time past and passing. But since we can none of us really live entirely withdrawn into ourselves, and must all have some more or less significant design in view, my wishful thinking about a few last years with no duties of any kind soon gave way to a need to fill the present afternoon somehow, and so I found myself, hardly knowing how I came there, in the entrance hall of the Musée Fesch, with notebook and pencil and a ticket in my hand.

  Joseph Fesch, as I later read on looking him up in my old Guide Bleu, was the son of the late second marriage of Letizia Bonaparte’s mother to a Swiss military officer in Genoese service, and was thus Napoleon’s step-uncle. At the beginning of his career in the church he held a minor ecclesiastical position in Ajaccio. After his nephew had appointed him archbishop of Lyon and envoy to the Holy See, however, he became one of the most insatiable art collectors of his day, a time when the market was positively flooded with paintings and artifacts taken from churches, monasteries, and palaces during the French Revolution, bought from émigrés, and looted in the plundering of Dutch and Italian cities.

  Fesch’s aim was no less than to document the entire course of European art history in his private collection. No one knows for certain just how many pictures he actually owned, but the number is thought to be around thirty thousand. Among those that, after his death in 1838, and some devious maneuvers on the part of Joseph Bonaparte as executor of the Cardinal’s will, found their way into the museum especially built for them in Ajaccio are a Madonna by Cosimo Tura, Botticelli’s Virgin Under a Garland, Pier Francesco Cittadini’s Still Life with Turkish Carpet, Spadino’s Garden Fruits with Parrot, Titian’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Glove, and a number of other wonderful paintings.

  The finest of all, it seemed to me that afternoon, was a picture by Pietro Paolini, who lived and worked in Lucca in the seventeenth century. It shows a woman of perhaps thirty against a deep black background which lightens to a very dark brown only toward the left-hand side of the painting. She has large, melancholy eyes and wears a dress the color of the night, which does not stand out from the surrounding darkness even by suggestion and is thus really invisible, and yet it is present in every fold and drape of its fabric. She wears a string of pearls around her neck. Her right arm protectively embraces her small daughter, who stands in front of her turning sideways, toward the edge of the picture, but with her grave face, upon which the tears have only just dried, turned toward the observer in a kind of silent challenge. The little girl wears a brick-red dress, and the soldier doll hardly three inches high which she is holding out to us, whether in memory of her father who has gone to war or to ward off the evil eye we may be casting on her, also wears red. I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life.

  Before leaving the museum I went down to the basement, where there is a collection of Napoleonic mementos and devotional items on display. It includes objects adorned with the head and initials of Napoleon—letter openers, seals, penknives, and boxes for tobacco and snuff—miniatures of the entire clan and most of their descendants, silhouettes and biscuit medallions, an ostrich egg painted with an Egyptian scene, brightly colored faïence plates, porcelain cups, plaster busts, alabaster figures, a bronze of Bonaparte mounted on a dromedary, and also, beneath a glass dome almost as tall as a man, a moth-eaten uniform tunic cut like a tailcoat, edged with red braid and bearing twelve brass buttons: l’habit d’un colonel des Chasseurs de la Garde, que porta Napoléon Ier (The uniform of a colonel in the Chasseurs de la Garde, worn by Napoleon I).

  There are also many statuettes of the Emperor carved from soapstone and ivory and showing him in familiar poses, the tallest about ten centimeters high and each of the others smaller than the last until the smallest seems almost nothing but a white speck, perhaps representing the vanishing point of human history. One of these diminutive figures depicts Napoleon after his abdication sur le rocher de l’île de Sainte-Hélène (on the rock of the island of St. Helena). Scarcely larger than a pea, he sits in cloak and three-cornered hat astride a tiny chair set on a fragment of tuff which really does come from his place of exile, and he is gazing out into the distance with furrowed brow. He cannot have felt at ease there in the middle of the bleak Atlantic, and he must have missed the excitement of his past life, particularly as it seems that he could not really depend even on the few faithful souls who still surrounded him in his isolation.

  Or so, at least, we might conclude from an article in Corse-Matin published on the day of my visit to the Musée Fesch, in which a certain Professor René Maury claimed that a study of several hairs from the Emperor’s head undertaken in the FBI laboratories established beyond any doubt que Napoléon a lentement été empoisonné à l’arsenic à Sainte-Hélène, entre 1817 et 1821, par l’un de ses compagnons d’exil, le comte de Montholon, sur l’instigation de sa femme Albine qui était devenue la maîtresse de l’empereur et s’est trouvée enceinte de lui (“that Napoleon was slowly poisoned with arsenic on St. Helena, between 1817 and 1821, by one of his companions in exile, the comte de Montholon, at the urging of his wife, Albine, who had become the Emperor’s mistress and was pregnant by him”). I do not really know what we should think of such stories. The Napoleonic myth has, after all, given rise to the most astonishing tales, always said to be based on incontrovertible fact. Kafka, for instance, tells us that on November 11, 1911, he attended a conférence in the Rudolfinum on the subject of La
Légende de Napoléon, at which one Richepin, a sturdy man of fifty with a fine figure, his hair arranged in stiff whorls in the Daudet style and at the same time lying close to his scalp, said among other things that in the past Napoleon’s tomb used to be opened once a year so that old soldiers filing past could set eyes on their embalmed Emperor. But later the custom of the annual opening of the tomb was discontinued, because his face was becoming rather green and bloated. Richepin himself as a child, however, says Kafka, had seen the dead Emperor in the arms of his great-uncle, who had served in Africa and for whom the commandant had the tomb specially opened. Moreover, Kafka’s diary entry continues, the conférence concluded with the speaker swearing that even in a thousand years’ time every mote of the dust of his own corpse, should it have consciousness, would still be ready to follow the call of Napoleon.

  After I had left the Musée Fesch I sat for a while on a stone bench in the Place Letizia, which is really just a small garden set among tall buildings and containing some trees, with eucalyptus and oleanders, fan palms, laurels, and myrtles forming an oasis in the middle of the town. This garden is separated from the street by iron railings, and the whitewashed façade of the Casa Bonaparte stands on the other side of the road. The flag of the Republic hung over the gateway through which a more or less steady stream of visitors was going in and coming out: Dutch and Germans, Belgians and French, Austrians and Italians, and once a whole group of elderly Japanese of very distinguished appearance. Most of them had left, and the afternoon was already drawing to an end, when I finally entered the building. The dimly lit entrance hall was deserted, and there seemed to be no one at the ticket desk either. Only when I was right in front of the counter, and was just putting out my hand to one of the picture postcards displayed there, did I see a young woman sitting, or I could almost have said lying behind it, in a black leather office armchair tipped backward.

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