“WG Sebald, who died in a car crash in 2001, was an inspired essayist, quite as much as he was a novelist; indeed, I often think of his most achieved fictions – Austerlitz, and The Emigrants – as writing that tests the limits of both forms, blending them together at their margins with a kind of vaporous diffusion of their creator’s lucidity, so entirely are the invented and the real fused together. This essay on the last years of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s life exhibits all of Sebald’s strengths as a writer – and all of his strange, gnomic, secretive foibles. Ostensibly a straightforward account of Rousseau’s exiled wanderings, it begins with his first glimpse, in 1965, of the Ile Saint Pierre in Switzerland, where Rousseau spent the first period of his stateless exile, and where he claimed – in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker – that he was happier than he had been anywhere else.
“Sebald goes on to recount his own eventual landfall on the island in 1996, then employs this – the parenthetic of his own life – to consider the strange denouement and afterlife of the pre-eminent ideologue of the French revolution. It is a technique we are familiar with in Sebald’s fiction: the author is very much present in these lines, and yet simultaneously absent. This is in keeping with Sebald’s themes of exile and misappropriation, because, while he may be writing about another speculative thinker who lived 200 years before, as ever he is attempting to discover the hidden connections that bind human thought both to itself, and to the wider world.
“Of course, what occurred between 1965 and 1996 for Sebald was his own exile: it was following the revelations of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the summer of the year that Sebald visited the island (trials he witnessed firsthand, and which revealed to him the extent of his parents’ generation’s complicity in the Holocaust), and it was following this visit that the young academic took steps that led to his eventual domicile on another island, Britain, where he spent the next three decades at the University of East Anglia. Sebald allows this to lie beneath the text – a discoverable and psychic subtext; and just as he neglects to inform us of why Rousseau’s paranoid and haunted final years should have had such a resonance for him, so this compulsively peripatetic and ambulatory writer also leaves off the list of distinguished writerly pilgrims to Rousseau’s happy isle the greatest British walker-writer of them all, Worsdworth, who tramped all the way there in 1788, en route to his own liaison with revolutionary apotheosis.”
To read James Woods, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane on Sebald, visit Guardian Review here.