WG Sebald: A review of his collection “Campo Santo”.

Campo Santo is a posthumously published selection of works by the German writer WG Sebald. It would be unfair to say this book is for completists only, but it would help if you’ve read at least a couple of his major works before you come to this book, because I would not recommend it for people who are new to his writing. This collection stands as a companion to his longer works, since it amplifies some of the themes and concerns dealt with in those books.
“Campo Santo” actually refers to a few chapters of an aborted work about Corsica from the mid 90’s. These passages are full of Sebaldian atmosphere and observation and as such are worth reading. I’m guessing, too, that reading them is as close to looking into his notebooks as we are going to get: you can enjoy them as stand alone pieces, and there are some memorable passages of description, which as usual are leavened by interesting and quirky facts.  However, to my mind Sebald was clearly still finding his way through this material, trying to find the right perspective to bring to bear, and overall it lacks some of the focus and drive of a ‘finished’ work.

The rest of the book contains essays, reviews and speeches made over three decades. Again, they all help give us more perspective on the other books and may well send you off to re-read them. They also reveal much about Sebald’s views on his own writing and literature in general. There are two pieces on Kafka, several on the relationship between German writers and recent German history, and a review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin which, unlike most British reviews of anything by/ about Chatwin, doesn’t fall into the trap of either praising him to the skies on the one hand, or slamming him as overrated and repeating the more outlandish gossip about his life on the other. Sebald sticks to Chatwin’s writing itself, and confirms himself as a generous, perceptive and above all shrewd critic once again.

Overall this book overall exhibits a quality I really value in Sebald, which is how he tackles extremely important and fundamental questions about european culture in an engaging and original way.


Fog on the Thames: A review of “Offshore” by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The chief virtues of Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1979 (and set in 1962 ) novel Offshore are that it is elegantly written, perceptive, and relatively short.

I am not being glib in adding the final point about the book’s length, because had it been any longer it would seriously have started to grate on the nerves. I say this not because the book is in danger of being capsized by its weaknesses, but because the kind of lives the characters live are not the kind of thing that should be examined for too long.

The book concerns a small community of neighbours who live on old Thames barges moored up in Chelsea. I am not sure if there are any houseboats moored on the Chelsea side of the River now. near where I live further upriver there are houseboats, but they are generally pretty desirable properties, and, London being London, at current 2014 prices your average houseboat within the M25 would be worth as much as, and frequently more than, your average house elsewhere in the UK.

However, back in 1960’s, to live on a houseboat was seen as a sign of being eccentric, poor, an arty type, being down on your uppers, up to no good, or a combination of all five. Predictably Fitzgerald gives us representative types from all categories. One character (male prostitute Maurice) gives us an idea on page 54 of who the main ones are:

It’s right for us to live where we do, between land and water. You, my dear [addressing Nenna, a separated Canadian who lies with her two daughters on a barge] you’re half in love with your husband, then there’s Martha [Nenna’s daughter] who’s half a child and half a girl, Richard [a neighbour] who can’t give up being half in the navy, Willis [another neighbour] who’s half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who’s half alive and half dead…”

Characters like Maurice are convenient in novels like this, which are loosely plotted, and full of the characters’ interior thoughts. They allow Fitzgerald to get to her main objective here, which I think is to explore the characters of these people who don’t conform to the norms of society at the time, but who are also in their way a breed apart. Take Nenna, one of the central characters. She’s married to her husband and thinks she’s in love with him. He went away to work in Panama for a while, then came back to the UK but did not settle with his family again. Nenna knows where he is, is desperate to see him, but it seems that it takes here many, many months to actually go and see him. When the final confrontation does occur it tens out that the man is an utter drip. In other words, a weak loser (and no, I’m not being hard on the bloke, because had their been say a psychological or psychiatric reason for his ineffectual nature then Fitzgerald would have said).

This book won Penelope Fitzgerlad the 1979 Booker Prize, a year when there were a number of ‘big-hitters’ on the list. Famously, the BBC interviewer Robert Robinson put it to Fitzgerald that “the wrong book won”, a cruel if honest refection of the sense of bathos many must have felt when the winner was announced. Make no mistake: this is the the kind of book that many people would read and instantly say “What was the point of that?”

What redeems this book is Fitzgerald’s mastery of that kind of third person narration which presents and occasionally comments upon the respective natures and personalities of her characters. It’s an idea of the novel which has been very popular in the UK for many years. One of the chief drawbacks is that it places fine writing and psychological insight above plot. This book isn’t really a ‘story’ in that sense: it’s more of a series of representative episodes in the lives of a fairly desultory bunch of people, and those people are themselves quite obviously dean as ‘types’. But as I said earlier, Fitzgerald is canny enough to take things are far as she can, which  is exactly enough space to say to us and to show us what she wants to.  From my point of view, it’s better to think of this book as more of a mood piece.

So in summary, this is a novel for people who like things to be well written and full of insight. In terms of plot and direction, however, the book is a good reflection of the main character’s lives, in that there’s not much of either.