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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Campo Santo


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To purchase Campo Santo

Title: Campo Santo
Author: W.G.Sebald
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2003) (Eng. 2005)
Length: 209 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Campo Santo - US
Campo Santo - UK
Campo Santo - Canada
Campo Santo - Deutschland
  • Pieces written and originally published between 1975 and 2003
  • With an Editorial Note by Sven Mayer
  • Two of the pieces included in the German edition -- "Against the Irreversible: On Jean Améry" and "The Renorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Works of Peter Weiss" -- were instead published in the English edition of On the Natural History of Destruction and are not included herein.

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Our Assessment:

B : appealing enough, but odd mix of pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 3/3/2005 .
The Guardian . 9/4/2005 Steven Poole
The Independent . 11/2/2005 Carole Angier
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 7/10/2003 Andrea Köhler
The New Republic . 25/7/2005 M.A.Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/4/2005 Jennifer Schuessler
The Observer . 27/2/2005 Jason Cowley
San Francisco Chronicle . 20/3/2005 David Hellman
The Spectator . 26/2/2005 Ferdinand Mount
Sunday Times . 6/2/2005 Robert MacFarlane
The Telegraph . 21/2/2005 Ian Thomson
Voice Literary Supplement . Spring/2005 Brandon Stosuy
The Washington Post . 13/3/2005 Michael Dirda
Die Zeit . 13/11/2003 Andreas Isenschmidt

  Review Consensus:

  Most prefer to dwell on his better-known (and -- they say -- better) work

  From the Reviews:
  • "The essays are especially interesting in that they help to show a gradual loosening and release of Sebald's talent as a writer, a progression from strict footnoted argumentation to the almost recklessly fluid and digressive style that characterises his prose fiction." - The Economist

  • "There are some fine passages in this latter miscellany, especially on Nabokov and Kafka, all done in Sebald's trademark fastidious murmur. Best is the Corsica material, alternating sun-saturated walks with gloomy museum interiors; descriptions of the least promising material are exquisitely dramatised, and one is also reminded that Sebald could be very funny" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Following this fragment of fiction with a selection of essays shows how similar the genres are in Sebald, equally scholarly and imaginative." - Carole Angier, The Independent

  • "(T)he decision to gather a ragbag of disparate texts -- some of them, like the title piece, not written to stand alone, others from so early in his career as to belong almost to a different writer -- in order to publish them as a book seems less a tribute than a trivializing imitation of Sebald's own procedure." - Michael André Bernstein, The New Republic

  • "(V)ery much a miscellany, and an often frustrating one. (...) And read on the heels of that masterpiece, the Corsican material seems less a full-scale work waiting to be realized than a ghostly afterimage." - Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) compelling overview of the development of many of the central themes that would emerge from Sebald's novels. The pieces dwell on how capricious associations between our personal memories and events from history collide at certain moments to create a joined memory as process to personal and societal reconciliation. (...) These prose works are intriguing and important, but the bulk of the collection consists of a separate section of essays, which are always informative but range in quality and impact." - David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Certainly it would be unfair to judge Sebald on the strength of Campo Santo, which is a collection of posthumous leavings (.....) At the same time, precisely because these are scraps and sketches, not fully finished, something worrying does begin to show through the thin, unvarnished texture. And that something is banality." - Ferdinand Mount, The Spectator

  • "Campo Santo adds to the asteroid belt of fragments that now encircles Sebald’s completed books. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it will come to be seen as indispensable to an understanding of his work." - Robert MacFarlane, Sunday Times

  • "(A) ragbag of essays and eccentric notebook jottings (.....) Though the collection is distinctly minor Sebald, it contains some weighty themes. The silence and moral amnesia that descended on post-war Germany is one of them." - Ian Thomson, The Telegraph

  • "Campo Santo's 16 pieces are an exhilarating exeunt, adding to an understanding of oblivion, mourning, photography as doppelgänger, and the power of nontraditional literary methods to identify with victims." - Brandon Stosuy, Voice Literary Supplement

  • "By and large Sebald's dense essays on the political convictions of writers Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Hildesheimer won't carry much resonance for non-Germans. Those patient enough to stick with them will, however, be rewarded with unexpected illuminations." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Einmal mehr darf man freilich auch in diesem Band staunen über die riskanten Übergänge und waghalsigen Zusammenstellungen, die Sebald sich erlaubt." - Andreas Isenschmidt, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Campo Santo is a collection of prose pieces and essays by Sebald, posthumously collected and published. It's a very mixed bag (in contrast to his focussed literary essay collections which have not yet been translated into English), and includes pieces written as far back as 1975. (Confusingly, also, two essays included in the English (but not German) edition of On the Natural History of Destruction were included only in the German (but not English) edition of Campo Santo.)
       In part, Campo Santo is a companion volume to On the Natural History of Destruction: the 1982 essay Between History and Natural History: On the Literary Description of Total Destruction is essentially an early version of the later work, while several of the other essays also treat the same subject matter (i.e. what Sebald perceives to be the failure of German writers to tackle and deal with especially the widespread destruction of Germany in World War II). In focussing on different aspects of the subject, these are welcome additional discussions of the topic, but more usefully belong beside the central essay in On the Natural History of Destruction (though the considerable overlap would have made for some redundancy, which is presumably why they are included here instead).
       Sebald's position on this subject is debatable (see our review of On the Natural History of Destruction), but in some ways he actually makes a better case in these pieces. An essay ostensibly about Günter Grass and Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Constructs of Mourning, adds a useful dimension to his argument, for example.
       Most of the other essays are stray pieces, making for an odd mix. Sebald jumps entertainingly about (and proves he's well-read) in literary-critical pieces on Peter Handke's Kaspar or a discussion (sort of) of Kafka's travel diaries, and there are some quirky subjects -- poet Ernst Herbeck, Jan Peter Tripp's pictures, Kafka at the movies -- but often Sebald's musings don't very satisfactorily lead anywhere. There's a sense of profundity, but little tangible evidence.
       The first section of the book collects several pieces Sebald wrote on and about Corsica; editor Sven Mayer mentions Sebald had begun writing a book on Corsica, but set it aside (though several of these pieces were published during his lifetime). Here, too, one finds appealing descriptions and musings, but again they don't really add up to very much. For some readers this might be enough, but others might find this rather disappointing.

       Sebald writes:

Tripp gave me a present of one of his engravings, showing the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull -- what can there be more terrible than ideas always scurrying around our minds ? -- and much of what I have written later derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life.
       Unfortunately, Sebald focusses on technique rather than imagination: the marvellous-sounding Tripp-engraving offers a tremendous leap of the imagination (the addition of the spider to an otherwise realist rendering), but Sebald seems unable to do this in his work. Many of the pieces collected in Campo Santo are still life-like -- but whereas even the realist still life allows the observer to be involved in interpreting the picture, in letting imagination add to the work (in how one sees it), a written work is much more of a set piece, and Sebald doesn't allow his reader nearly as great a role in the appreciation and shaping of the work. (Matters aren't helped by the fact that Sebald is a man of firm opinions: there's little doubt or vacillation in these writings.) Too often, also, it is Sebald that links the "disparate things" -- work that might better be left to the reader.
       The writing in Campo Santo is competent and, in the detail, often appealing, but the larger whole does not impress greatly. The arguments -- and Sebald's irritating certainty -- are often frustrating, but there are enough interesting (as well as provocative) thoughts to make the collection worthwhile.

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Campo Santo: Reviews: W.G.Sebald: Other books by W.G.Sebald under review: Books about W.G.Sebald under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German author Winfried Georg Sebald was born in 1944 and spent most of his life teaching at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. He died in 2001.

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© 2005-2009 the complete review

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