Campo Santo

Michael Hayward

When W. G. Sebald died in an automobile accident in December 21, just four of his books were available in English translation. Those four books had earned him considerable praise (Michael Ondaatje called him “the most interesting and ambitious writer working in Britain today”) and critical attention (Austerlitz won a National Book Critics Circle Award). Four more books by Sebald have been published since his death, and with the latest, Campo Santo, translated by Anthea Bell (Hamish Hamilton), there are signs that the well of previously unpublished (or untranslated) material is finally beginning to run dry. Campo Santo—“sacred ground” in Italian—refers to a Corsican cemetery that Sebald visited in 1996, and the piece that was inspired by that visit is a wonderfully discursive exploration of many of Sebald’s favourite themes: the way the dead linger among the living and the way history lies everywhere upon the present landscape like a series of veils. This and three other fragments that focus on the island of Corsica and form the heart of this book are its most successful parts; I wish that Sebald had lived to complete the book as the novel he’d planned. The rest of Campo Santo consists of literary essays on writers that Sebald felt a kinship with: Bruce Chatwin, Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass and others, and as a result the book feels more like a collection of excavated bits than a cohesive whole. Fragmentary or not, though, Campo Santo will please those who want just one more taste of Sebald. To experience him at his best, start with one of his earlier novels—especially The Rings of Saturn.

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