A Place in the Country, 2015
Lately, I have found myself copying passage after passage of W.G. Sebald's work into my notebooks. First, from his novel, The Rings of Saturn, and most recently from his book of essays about place, memory, and creativity, A Place in the Country. Some of the passages I've copied from A Place in the Country are Sebald's own writing and some are the words of the creative minds that helped shape his work.
He drags me down and through what sometimes seems the worst of human existence and then lifts me up into some of the most beautiful writing I've ever read, leaving me feeling as Sally felt about Harry in the end of When Harry Met Sally, during that final New Year's Eve scene. Just when Sebald carries me to the point of feeling I must put the book down for a while, if not for good, he'll throw something like this out there.
There can scarcely be a brighter eulogy than Heinrich’s funeral oration for his young cousin Anna, who passed away long before her time. When the carpenter is rubbing down her newly finished coffin with pumice, Heinrich recalls, it becomes “as white as snow, and only the very faintest reddish touch of the fir shone through, giving the tint of apple blossom. It looked far more beautiful and dignified than if it had been painted, gilded, or even brass-bound. At the head, the carpenter had according to custom constructed an opening with a sliding cover through which the face could be seen until the coffin was lowered into the grave; now there still had to be set in a pane of glass which had been forgotten, and I rowed home to get one. I knew that on top of a cupboard there lay a small old picture frame from which the picture had long since disappeared. I took the glass that had been forgotten, placed it carefully in the boat, and rowed back. The carpenter was roaming about a little in the woods looking for hazelnuts; meanwhile, I tested the pane of glass, and when I found that it fitted the opening, I dipped it in the clear stream, for it was covered with dust, and clouded, and with care I succeeded in washing it without breaking it on the stones. Then I lifted it and let the clear water run off it, and when I held up the shining glass high against the sun and looked through it, I saw three boy-angels making music; the middle one was holding a sheet of music and singing, the other two were playing old-fashioned violins, and they were all looking upward in joy and devotion; but the vision was so thinly and delicately transparent that I did not know whether it was hovering in the rays of the sun, in the glass, or merely in my imagination. When I moved the glass, the angels instantly vanished, until suddenly, turning the glass another way, I saw them again. Since then I have been told that copperplate engravings or drawings which have lain undisturbed for a great many years behind glass communicate themselves to the glass during these years, in the dark nights, and leave behind upon it something like a reflected image.”
And he makes it impossible for me to put the book down and leaves me wondering if I will ever find another who sees the world quite the way he does.
In the passage above, from A Place in the Country, Sebald quotes a character Gottfried Keller created for his 1855 novel, Der grüne Heinrich.