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A Tristram Shandy for the Twentieth Century
on 15 April 2003
Ostensibly an account of a walk but in reality a dark journey to the bottom of the soul. Sebald's knowledge of local, European and world history and literature is unsurpassed. He leads us through a landscape of dilapidated coastal resorts, decadent country houses, disused seaports, closed branch lines and towns that have literally fallen into the sea. He uses these surroundings as the catalyst for a broad, fascinating discourse on the loss brought about by man's destructive nature and the ineluctable passing of time. He brings his acute, perceptive intelligence to bear on subjects as diverse as the European silk industry, the books of Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, Rembrandt, Dutch Elm Disease, the Great Storm of 1987, the Rape of the Summer Palace in Peking and his dim recollections of childhood in Nazi Germany and the propaganda films he was shown at school.
In each case, our past sins come back to haunt us in this elegiac, cerebral odyssey. Sebald's sense of collective guilt is so acute, we can only hope that in tribute to this genius's tragic passing, the world mourns him with equal sensitivity and intensity, to that with which he lamented the decline of his adoptive East Anglia and the punishing vicissitudes of nature.