After Nature (Modern Library)
by Winfried Georg Sebald
Rings of Smoke
A review by Ruth Franklin
If there is an underworld where the darkest nightmares of the twentieth century
dwell, W.G. Sebald could be its Charon. Starting with Vertigo, which combines
sketches of Kafka and Stendhal with a fictionalized record of travels in Italy
and elsewhere, and ending with Austerlitz, the story of a boy sent to England
via Kindertransport in 1939 and brought up under a false name, all of Sebald's
books have been about bridging gaps, and about the impossibility of bridging gaps
-- between memory and forgetting, between art and reality, between the living
and the dead. These extraordinary works are different on each reading, constantly
in flux. Sebald's sudden death in a car accident last December was tragic for
many reasons, but for his readers foremost because his books, all of them variations
on a small group of themes, seemed parts of a whole that had not yet been brought
to completion but had already broken new literary ground.
Like the origami figures that open and close with a twist of the fingers, Sebald's prose moves simultaneously inward and outward. The opening of Austerlitz is exemplary:
In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat, and many other streets and alleyways, until at last, plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo by the Astridplein, next to the Centraal Station, waiting for the pain to subside. I sat there on a bench in dappled shade, beside an aviary full of brightly feathered finches and siskins fluttering about. As the afternoon drew to a close I walked through the park, and finally went to see the Nocturama, which had first been opened only a few months earlier. It was some time before my eyes became used to its artificial dusk and I could make out different animals leading their sombrous lives behind the glass by the light of a pale moon. I cannot now recall exactly what creatures I saw on that visit to the Antwerp Nocturama, but there were probably bats and jerboas from Egypt and the Gobi Desert, native European hedgehogs and owls, Australian opossums, pine martens, dormice, and lemurs, leaping from branch to branch, darting back and forth over the grayish-yellow sandy ground, or disappearing into a bamboo thicket. The only animal which has remained lingering in my memory is the raccoon. I watched it for a long time as it sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.
The single-mindedness with which this passage proceeds is Sebald's signature. Each sentence, bizarre or mundane, contributes another piece to the overall structure until that structure seems unable to sustain any more weight. The straightforward remark that opens the book, about the trips to and from Belgium, is immediately complicated. What are these reasons that were never clear to the speaker? How can these "excursions," all within the country, take him "further and further abroad"? The next sentences deepen the mystery: the narrator's sudden illness, the fantastic street names -- Jerusalem, Nightingale, Pelican, Paradise, and, most evocatively, Eternal Soul -- and finally the Nocturama itself, a symbol so potent that, like all of Sebald's symbols, it stops just this side of parody. And here, too, we get a final shrug of contradiction: Sebald claims to have difficulty remembering which animals he saw in the Nocturama, but at the same time he offers an almost comically specific series of examples. The tug-of-war between what is and what cannot be never stops.
The world of Sebald's books is its own Nocturama, inhabited by creatures at home in the dark. Like the raccoon that he describes so plaintively, Sebald's characters emerge with sudden clarity from the haze of their surroundings, obsessively repeating whatever action they have chosen, though it will not bring them the escape for which they so desperately yearn. They are destroyed souls, fractured under the burden of the pain that they bear. There is the tortured Kafka in Vertigo, sick and disoriented while traveling in Austria and Italy, tormented by dreams "in which everything was forever splitting and multiplying, over and again, in the most terrifying manner." There is the painter Max Ferber in The Emigrants, a Jew sent to England as a child during the war, whose parents died in Dachau: "that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years." There is the Ashbury family in The Rings of Saturn, who embroider cloth all day and undo their work each night, and feel that "we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing incomprehensible blunder." And there is Jacques Austerlitz, whose life journey is driven by a blind and unsatisfiable longing to recapture the childhood memories he has entirely, unwillingly suppressed.
The strangest thing about Sebald's incomparably strange work is that upon first reading it gives us no reason to think that it is fiction. Though Austerlitz was largely taken as a novel, Sebald himself refused to designate it as such; in an interview he called it "a prose book of indefinite form." Indeed, why must the passage above be anything other than notes from an idiosyncratic travel journal? The street names, improbable though they may be, are easily verified with a map of Antwerp, and the zoo, located near the central train station just as he says, does in fact have a Nocturama. But though the books are marked by an extraordinary profusion of facts -- snippets from Kafka's letters, notes on the mating practices of herrings, even reproductions of train tickets and restaurant receipts that appear to document the narrator's journeys -- fiction pulls at them with the force of gravity. The four stories that constitute The Emigrants are connected by a single image that flits through each of them: the figure of Nabokov with his butterfly net, sometimes a grown man, sometimes a boy. And the four sketches of Vertigo each contain a line from a story by Kafka, slightly rephrased on each repetition, describing a corpse lying beneath a cloth on a bier. The improbability of all four characters in The Emigrants crossing paths with Nabokov, and the impossibility of a manifestation of Kafka's image appearing in all four parts of Vertigo, is but one signal of the turn into fiction. As one reads more deeply into Sebald's work, its fictionality becomes utterly essential.
But while fiction tugs at one sleeve, reality tugs at the other with nearly equal force, most dramatically in the black-and-white photographs that Sebald has strewn about all his prose books. The photographs have neither captions nor credits to give a clue to their provenance; the text describes the taking of some of them, while others seem to be more generally illustrative, and still others entirely random. In the last chapter of Vertigo, for instance, the narrator, visiting his hometown after many years of absence, mentions a photo album that his father gave his mother as a Christmas present during the first year of the war. "In it are pictures of the Polish campaign, all neatly captioned in white ink. Some of these photographs show gypsies who had been rounded up and put into detention. They are looking out, smiling, from behind the barbed wire, somewhere in a far corner of Slovakia where my father and his vehicle repairs unit had been stationed for several weeks before the outbreak of war." We are then shown a photograph of a woman carrying a baby in a bundle, dressed in gypsy-like clothes, behind a wire fence, with the caption "Zigeuner" (the German word for gypsy) in white ink. But for every photograph such as this one, there is another that firmly denies any easy correspondence with the text. Several pages earlier Sebald mentions an iron memorial cross that stands in the town graveyard to commemorate four young soldiers who died in a "last skirmish" in April 1945, and he lists their names. When we turn the page there is the cross; but it looks as if there are five names on it, not four, and the photograph is too blurry to make out any names.
The conflict between fact and fiction reaches its epitome in the voice that narrates all these stories of loss. Sebald seems to encourage us to think of this persona as something like his own. His narrator (the books share a single voice) occasionally offers biographical details that are identical with Sebald's own life: he is married, he lives in East Anglia, he was born toward the end of World War II in an Alpine German town, and came to England in the 1960s. Yet these details, like the photographs, obscure as much as they reveal. There are moments of startling intimacy, but even as Sebald's narrator seems to bare his soul, he tells us nothing about himself. And he favors a particularly disorienting narrative device: most of Sebald's characters tell their stories through direct encounters with the narrator, in monologues. At a crucial moment in some of the monologues, Sebald will switch from third person to first person, so that the narrator vanishes, leaving the character behind. Since he does not use quotation marks, the shift is seamless. This is not an "unreliable narrator," it is an unreliable narrative.
But even as Sebald builds layer upon layer of disguise, his books stumble over their own sentences in their desire to explain themselves to the reader, as the crushing pile of symbols in the opening to Austerlitz illustrates. The books search for patterns in nature and in human life, and as they do so they obsessively repeat themselves. To take one instance: The Rings of Saturn begins with a quotation from an encyclopedia that describes the planet's rings as "consist[ing] of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect." The circular motif is repeated throughout the book, in everything from the déjà vu the narrator experiences visiting a friend's apartment to an extraordinary vision that is one of Sebald's most beautiful and mystical moments: "At earlier times, in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light ... I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air." The momentum created by the piling of image upon image, of figure upon figure, is so powerful that when one reaches the end of the book -- I have experienced this with all of Sebald's books, and others have mentioned it as well -- one feels an irresistible compulsion to turn it over and begin again.
Yet there is something unsettling about the spell that Sebald's books weave; and it is not only the disequilibrium that is constantly evoked by the differences between fact and fiction, art and life -- a state in which Sebald's narrator continually finds himself, and that Sebald seeks to induce in the reader as well. It is a deeper paradox. In the first chapter of Vertigo, Sebald traces the adventures of the young Stendhal (then known as Marie Henri Beyle) in Napoleon's army, and comments on the writer's own difficulty in recollecting them: "at times his view of the past consists of nothing but grey patches, then at others images appear of such extraordinary clarity he feels he can scarce credit them." He finds also that "even when the images supplied by memory are true to life, one can place little confidence in them" -- years later Beyle will discover that he had replaced his own mental image of Ivrea with that of an engraving of the town. "This being so," Sebald concludes, "Beyle's advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one's travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them."
Art is the preserver of memory, but it is also the destroyer of memory: this is the final tug-of-war in Sebald's work, and the most fundamental one. As he searches for patterns in the constellation of grief that his books record, he runs the risk that the patterns themselves, by virtue of their very beauty, will extinguish the grief that they seek to contain. Sebald's peculiar alchemy of aestheticism and sorrow unwittingly underscores its own insubstantiality. Even as he investigates the roots of memory, Sebald, like the weavers whom he finds so emblematic, continually unravels his own creations.
For English readers, Sebald's books have an extra layer of circularity, because they have appeared in translation out of order. Vertigo, his first prose book, was published in the United States after The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn; and Austerlitz followed last year. Now Sebald's first literary work to be published in German, After Nature, is his last to appear in English. (He also published two books of essays on Austrian literature and a collection of lectures on the subject of the Allied bombing campaign in postwar German literature, none of which has yet been translated.) This displacement is actually a boon to English readers, because After Nature benefits immensely from being read after Sebald's other work. It is a panorama of many of his great themes, but they appear in embryonic form.
Like Sebald's other books, After Nature confounds genre: it has been called a prose poem, but while the language in places has the feel of prose, technically it is free verse. Each of the three sections has its own title and can be read as a distinct poem, but Sebald seems to have thought of them as a single entity. (In German the book is subtitled Ein Elementargedicht, "an elemental poem.") The volume's title refers to the practice of creating a work of art from a living subject (the poem mentions painting "after nature"), and the subject who is patiently submitting is Sebald himself: each of the three characters presented is a self-portrait of the writer. The first section is a biographical meditation on Mathias Grünewald, the sixteenth-century painter known for altarpieces that depict the crucifixion and other torments of the flesh and the soul with harrowing fidelity. (Max Ferber, the painter of The Emigrants, seems to speak for Sebald when he says that "the extreme vision of that strange man, which was lodged in every detail, distorted every limb, and infected the colours like an illness, was one I had always felt in tune with.") The second section follows eighteenth-century explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller (who shares Sebald's initials) on an Arctic journey led by Vitus Bering. And in the third Sebald investigates his own family history and early memories, much of which will prove fertile ground for later works as well.
The suggestion of self-portraiture is evident from the opening lines of After Nature, which depict a person closing one of Grünewald's altar panels. As the panel folds in upon itself, the face of St. George becomes visible on the outside, "about to step over the frame's/threshold." George's "silver/feminine features" are those of Grünewald himself, whose face "emerges again and again/in his work." We are reminded of Sebald's own face and voice appearing over and over in his characters; and it heightens the analogy that the shape of the closed altar panel is reminiscent of a book, with the face of St. George -- that is, of Grünewald -- in the spot where the author's name should be.
Grünewald's face, Sebald continues, displays "always the same/gentleness, the same burden of grief,/the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled/and sliding sideways down into loneliness." Holbein the Younger, too, has depicted him in a painting of a female saint:
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other's
image where their paths had crossed.
One could hardly ask for a better description of Sebald's own enterprise. Starting with this book, he would practice a somber cartography, mapping out in his own works of art the crossing paths, real or imagined, of Stendhal, Kafka, Nabokov, and the countless others whose suffering is stenciled on his work: "the marks of pain," as he put it in Austerlitz, "which ... trace countless fine lines through history."
As the glancing reference above to "the fascists" shows, even when the events of World War II are not front and center in Sebald's books, they never recede far into the background. "We know there is a long tradition/of persecuting the Jews," the poem declares a bit later in this section, and goes on to describe the torments suffered by the Jews of Frankfurt in the Middle Ages: a fiery massacre, the wearing of yellow rings, their confinement to a ghetto in which they were locked each night, and "on Sundays at four in the/ afternoon." Grünewald would have witnessed this persecution, Sebald continues, because his future wife was reared in the ghetto, though she later converted to Christianity. But the persecution of the Jews is just a tile in the mosaic of human suffering, a mosaic that in this poem includes Grünewald's personal torments -- his marriage was unhappy, possibly because "he had an eye for men" -- as well as those of the patients in the hospital at Isenheim, the site of Grünewald's masterpiece, whose horrible disfigurements may have inspired some of the artist's work; and the massacre of five thousand peasants in the battle of Frankenhausen in 1525, which Grünewald learns of after meeting two painters who are brothers, Barthel and (yes) Sebald Beham. In Sebald's account, Grünewald refused to leave his house after hearing of this, but
he could hear the gouging out
of eyes that long continued
between Lake Constance and
the Thuringian forest.
For weeks at that time he wore
a dark bandage over his face.
But the dominant event is the solar eclipse of 1502, a "catastrophic incursion of darkness":
On the first of October the moon's shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Grünewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy bLuís of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter's memory.
These colours unfold as the reverse of
the spectrum in a different consistency
of the air, whose deoxygenated void
in the gasping breath of the figures
on the central Isenheim panel is enough
to portend our death by asphyxiation; after which
comes the mountain landscape of weeping
in which Grünewald with a pathetic gaze
into the future has prefigured
a planet utterly strange, chalk-coloured
behind the blackish-blue river.
Despite what the medievals may have thought, it is impossible now to see an eclipse as "catastrophic": the event simply does not merit the implication of horror. Sebald understands the eclipse, however, not as a single dreadful incident, but as part of a plumb line that descends through history, linking all the horrors that would take place in the same physical location, up to and including the Holocaust.
Later in the poem, similarly, Sebald discusses Altdorfer's painting of Lot and his daughters fleeing Sodom, in reference to the sight of Nuremberg in flames under the Allied bombs; and the epigraph to this section, from Virgil's Eclogues, draws the reader back even further: "and now far-off smoke pearls from homestead rooftops/and from high mountains the greater shadows fall." Though the conflagrations are distant from one another in every way -- temporally, geographically -- they are aesthetically part of a greater universal pattern of fiery massacre, a pattern that circles around infinitely, changed slightly upon each recurrence but not fundamentally altered. In later works Sebald has accomplished this kind of pattern-tracing more effectively -- here the layers can feel a bit slapped together -- but the fundamental idea is the same: that when great suffering takes place somewhere, generation after generation, the sorrows are trodden into the soil.
But there is a crucial difference between the self-portrait and the artist: by witnessing one of the horrors that took place in this locale (the eclipse), Grünewald becomes a witness to them all. Sebald, on the other hand, witnessed none of World War II; and he feels this gap in his experience as painfully as most people feel the experience of trauma. "I grew up,/despite the dreadful course/of events elsewhere, on the northern/edge of the Alps, so it seems/to me now, without any/idea of destruction," he writes in the poem's final, autobiographical section. Born in the penultimate year of the war in a remote German village, he was shielded from the destruction by virtue of his youth; but still as a child he imagined within him "a silent catastrophe that occurs almost unperceived/ ... this/I have never got over."
Like Jacques Austerlitz and Max Ferber, Sebald sees himself as a child brought up unaware of his own identity, a Kaspar Hauser-like figure. The poem never fully reveals the source of the "silent catastrophe," the absent memory, but each part of this last autobiographical section sifts through a different time period in Sebald's life in search of cLuís. "For it is hard to discover/the winged vertebrates of prehistory/embedded in tablets of slate," the section begins, as if continuing a conversation, which in a way it is.
But if I see before me
the nervature of past life
in one image, I always think
that this has something to do
"How far, in any case, must one go back/to find the beginning?" Sebald asks. And the "beginning" for which he searches is that of his own prehistory. After passing over the day his grandparents were married and a few other potential "beginnings," he settles on the day before his father left to serve in Dresden, "of whose beauty his memory, as he/remarks when I question him,/retains no trace." The next night Nuremberg was attacked, and his mother, on her way back to the Allgau, was stuck at a friend's house in the town of Windsheim, where she discovered that she was pregnant. The narrator's life, then, is indelibly intertwined with the last days of the war. And yet he can retain no memory of it; he was too young.
"I nearly went out of my mind," Sebald says of his reaction to seeing Altdorfer's painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Austerlitz will use exactly the same words to describe revisiting sites in Prague that he had not seen since childhood. Mourning the loss of a memory that he never had, Sebald turns to Altdorfer as a surrogate. When memory is lacking, art will suffice; but art is a shorthand, not a substitute. Sebald aestheticizes history, but he never mistakes history for art.
After Nature, the first of Sebald's literary works, inaugurates the search for "the nervature of past life" that would form the subtext of all his books. The character obsessively driven by a quest for knowledge -- a quest rooted in his or her personal life -- is a constantly recurring figure. Janine, a French professor in The Rings of Saturn, studies Flaubert's novels with "an intense personal interest" that is never explained. Jacques Austerlitz, a retired art history professor, has spent much of his life working on an investigation into the "family likeness" between various monuments of Europe, a topic that he feels compelled to pursue by an "impulse which he himself ... did not really understand." Sebald's narrator can also be included in this category: though we encounter him at various points along his wanderings through Europe and America, we are never told why he makes his journeys.
But Sebald did write a book in which he explained what it was that possessed him so; and in doing so he ignited a controversy in Germany that one critic compared to the storm about Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. Invited in 1997 to give a series of lectures at the University of Zurich, Sebald boldly put forth the thesis that postwar German literature had failed adequately to represent the devastating effects of the Allied bombing campaign for the German nation. The lectures were extensively covered in the Swiss and German media, and Sebald published them in book form in 1999 under the title Luftkrieg und Literatur.
The scale of the destruction caused by the bombings, Sebald argues, is difficult "to even halfway comprehend," but they "appear to have left hardly a trace of pain in the collective consciousness." Not only did few German novelists concern themselves with the air war against Germany, Sebald says, but there exist almost no testimonies of the war written by Germans; the majority of the information about the destruction comes from foreign journalists reporting from the bombed-out nation. Trummerliteratur, the "rubble literature" movement that emerged in the years immediately following World War II, is most notable for what Sebald calls its "collective amnesia." Even now that historians have begun to document the destruction of the German cities, "the images of this harrowing chapter of our history have not truly crossed the threshold of the national consciousness." Sebald describes a "tacit but universally valid agreement" among writers not to record the "true state of material and moral annihilation" in which the nation found itself -- in other words, a conspiracy in German culture, the effects of which have lasted to this day.
What is needed to counteract this tendency, Sebald argues, is a "natural history of the destruction." (Random House has borrowed this phrase for the title of the English version of the book, which will appear next year.) He is generous with statistics: 1 million tons of bombs dropped, 131 cities hit, 600,000 civilians dead, 3.5 million homes destroyed, 7.5 million Germans left homeless. He cites Hans Erich Nossack on the streams of refugees that "noiselessly and incessantly flooded everything," bringing the chaos of the urban bombing into the quiet villages of the countryside. He devotes pages to the sudden flourishing of the parasites that feed off corpses: the rats, "bold and fat," that "cavorted in the streets"; the flies, "huge, iridescent green, as had never been seen before." And he remarks mordantly that "the striking paucity of observations and commentary on this matter can be explained by an unspoken taboo that is more understandable when one considers that the Germans, who had taken upon themselves the cleansing and hygienization of all of Europe, must have had to shield themselves from the mounting fear that they themselves were in fact the `rat nation' [Rattenvolk]."
Though he is generally sympathetic to the German civilians who suffered so greatly, Sebald has harsh words for the way they closed their eyes to the destruction around them. Alfred Doblin remarked that people "walk around as if nothing had happened and ... the city had always looked like this." The Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman, reporting from Hamburg, recalled traveling on a train that passed through the "moonscape" of that city; though the train was full, not a single person looked out the window. "And because he looked out the window," Sebald writes, "people recognized him as a foreigner." Nossack reported seeing a woman cleaning the windows of a house that "stands alone, undamaged, in the middle of the wasteland of ruins." Sebald finds something ghastly in this: we are unsurprised when the inhabitants of an insect colony do not weep over the destruction of a construction nearby, but "from humankind one expects a certain amount of empathy."
This is really beside the point, though, because the question concerns the responsibility of writers to respond to incidents in their culture, not the responsibility of the average citizen to open his eyes when confronted with the uglinesses of humanity. (The German "amnesia" about the Allied bombing would hardly have been the Germans' first cognitive failure in those terrible years.) Sebald is correct about the profound absence of the bombing campaign in postwar German literature, but it is not as if German writers had chosen to ignore the war. They overwhelmingly concerned themselves with the war -- I am thinking of Grass, Boll, Koeppen, Mann, Bachmann, Frisch, Lenz, Hofmann -- but not with the Luftkrieg aspect of it. Indeed, in postwar German writing one finds almost an obsession with Nazism: its beginnings, its rise to power, its lingerings in German society long after the war, and not least its crimes. Based on the literary evidence, National Socialism may have been as earth-shaking for German society as the million tons of bombs that fell on German soil. If German writers did not begin to write about the destruction of their cities until the 1990s, this may be because it was simply not as important to them; and that is to their credit, a sign of historical conscience. It is hardly a moral delinquence to worry more about what you have done to others than about what others have done to you.
One could also ask, as many German critics did, whether it actually is the responsibility of literature to register the impact of contemporary events. And there were other criticisms of Sebald's argument as well. Kurt Oesterle, writing in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, pointed out that Sebald may have overestimated the eyewitness reports that make up so much of the basis for his arguments, reports that "shock before they explain." And Dieter Forte published a long and very personal article in Der Spiegel in which he argued that "there exists horror that is beyond language," and cited the Polish writer Andrzej Szczypiorski's comment that after he was released from a concentration camp he needed to "switch off his head" so that his body would survive. "Sebald prefers the indirect method, the clear reports, the clarity of calm observation; he remains distant from the actual horror, as if he were on the trail of one of his collages," Forte wrote. "He overlooks my generation, the generation of the children in the big cities, who can remember, when they are able, when they can find the words for it -- and for that one must wait an entire lifetime."
But these criticisms all overlook the aspect of Sebald's book that, for a non-German reader, is the most obvious, and the most shocking: the utterly ahistorical way in which Sebald discusses the bombing campaign, without giving even a hint of moral or political context. One could argue that everyone knows the context already and so it does not need to be reiterated. But in fact Sebald was misinterpreted by some as implicitly arguing that the sufferings of the Germans could be seen as compensatory for the crimes of the Nazis, as the letters from readers that he discusses in the third chapter of the book reveal. He tries to correct this, quoting from such letters and giving his responses, and ending with the comment that "the majority of Germans today know -- at least so one hopes -- that we directly provoked the destruction of the cities in which we lived." But in the first two chapters of his book -- that is, the portion delivered as lectures -- Sebald mentions the Holocaust only obliquely, and no other form of German aggression during World War II at all.
I do not mean in any way to suggest that Sebald was insensitive to the victims of the Holocaust. His literary work, especially The Emigrants and Austerlitz, shows him to be unique among German writers in his understanding of the catastrophe that befell the European Jews. Indeed, only a writer with Sebald's moral standing with regard to the Holocaust could have dared write a book such as this one. And yet parts of Luftkrieg und Literatur are weirdly lacking in this sensitivity. One hesitates to accuse Sebald of something so crass as "moral equivalency," but the suspicion of such a confusion cannot be avoided. On the very first page of the book Sebald calls the Allied bombings of Germany during the war "an act of extermination [Vernichtungsaktion] unique in history up to that point." Later he refers to the "incineration" [Einäscherung] of the city of Hamburg. He knows as well as anyone what those words imply.
In Sebald's defense, one could argue that the Holocaust is simply not his subject here, that he is writing about an entirely different aspect of the war, and that to do justice to the Holocaust as well would have required an entirely different book. But the book makes it hard to sustain such a defense. For Luftkrieg und Literatur goes even further. Most remarkable is the passage in which Sebald discusses the important role of music in Germany, even at the time of the bombings. He quotes an English journalist who said that "in the midst of such shambles only the Germans could produce a magnificent full orchestra and a crowded house of music lovers," and he rightly takes umbrage with this "double-edged" remark. And then he continues:
Who would deny the audiences, who were listening then with glistening eyes to the music rising throughout the nation once again, the right to be moved by feelings of gratitude for their rescue? And the question must also be permitted as to whether their breasts did not swell with the perverse pride that no one in the history of mankind on earth had been so played upon and had withstood so much as the Germans.
"The history of mankind on earth"? This grandiose and categorical suggestion would be incredible even if it came from a mediocre German writer eager to come to terms with the past (say, Bernhard Schlink); but it is even more incredible coming from Sebald.
And yet in a way it is not so incredible. For Sebald's work has always presented suffering without its cause, as merely a part of the great pattern of pain that defines the human condition. We see this in the unique brand of melancholy that afflicts his characters, a melancholy that always seems to exist outside their comprehension. ("What was it that so darkened our world?" laments one character in Austerlitz on her deathbed.) Sebald's narrator, too, often makes remarks that summon the very depths of grief and then asserts that he "has no idea" why a particular image or anecdote affects him so. For all the empathy that Sebald seems to feel for the people in his books, this willful lack of understanding, this pretense to historical ignorance, is evidence of the "distance from actual horror" that Forte detects in his work. In order to trace the pattern of human suffering, one must have a certain disengagement from it -- but at such a height things can begin to blur. And so Jews, Germans, and countless others are all equal elements of the design, equal parts of the mosaic.
Sebald's patterning amounts to an aestheticizing of catastrophe, and thus it annihilates causality. We appreciate the beauty of the image that the writer discerns, but it adds nothing to our understanding of why things happened as they did. And this is the great problem with a "natural history" of the bombings. The air war over Hitler's Germany was not a natural disaster, like the eclipse of 1502. It was not random in its causes or its effects; and so, morally speaking, it was worse than a natural disaster. The bombings may have had the physical impact of an earthquake, but they cannot be understood in the same way, because to do so is to ignore the fact that this catastrophe was man-made, a human action, and thus more complicated and more terrible than another inevitable repetition of nature's rich but meaningless pattern of disaster. We must grieve for the terrible loss of innocent life that occurred in every arena in which World War II was fought, but we must also recognize that Hitler's aggression needed to be stopped.
In light of Sebald's views regarding art and memory, his arguments about the absence of German literature on the Luftkrieg read a bit ironically. For this time the impairment is not a gap in memory, it is a gap in literature. But as we have seen, Sebald looks to art to fill gaps in memory, and the air war is his own biggest gap.
I grew up with the feeling that something had been withheld from me -- at home, in school, and also by the German writers whose books I read in the hope of being able to find out more about the enormity in the background of my own life. I spent my childhood and youth in a region on the northern edge of the Alps that was largely protected from the immediate effects of the so-called hostilities. At the end of the war I was just one year old and thus can hardly have retained impressions based on real experiences from that time of destruction. But even today, when I see photographs or documentaries of the war, I feel as if I stemmed from it, so to speak, and as if a shadow of these horrors, which I did not experience at all, had been cast over me from which I would never escape.
I sympathize deeply with Sebald's desire to resurrect a memory never experienced. I have a similar desire to "remember" the Holocaust, which casts a shadow (to borrow his phrase) over my own life and that of my family. But gaps in memory are experience that is forever lost; and art cannot take its place. At the end of The Emigrants, the narrator visits an exhibition of photographs from the Lodz ghetto, and among them he sees a photograph of three women around the age of twenty behind a loom.
The light falls on them from the window in the background, so I cannot make out their eyes clearly, but I sense that all three of them are looking across at me, since I am standing on the very spot where Genewein the accountant stood with his camera. The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her....I wonder what the three women's names were -- Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.
I am strangely moved by this passage each time I read it, because the young woman in the photograph could have been my own grandmother, who was blonde and whose family owned a textile factory in Lodz. I imagine her behind the loom, spinning out my own fate: to pace the same ground over and over, looking for the source of the shadow that still darkens my world. Yet such a connection is dangerous, because it illustrates the illusory workings of art against memory. My grandmother is not a quasi-mythological figure peering out from behind a loom; she is a real person whose experiences during the Holocaust cannot be subsumed in the cycle of life's sorrows. I do not know what she looked like as a young woman, but my imagining her behind Sebald's loom, like Sebald's invocation of Altdorfer or Virgil to describe Nuremberg, merely substitutes an artistic image for a blank space. The blankness, however, is closer to the truth.
When it seeks to do the work of memory, art may be a source of illusion. And Sebald may have had his own doubts about his endeavor. As he wrote in The Rings of Saturn:
That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.
I do not know whether Sebald despaired over his own complex patterns; but he recognized himself that the patterning and layering in his books closely resembles the Penelope-like embroidering and unraveling of the weavers who re-appear throughout his pages. His material is memory, not thread, but the result is the same: a work of art that vanishes almost as soon as it appears, undone by the opposing forces that it seeks to mesh. And so Sebald's struggle against oblivion ends ironically in evanescence. The art that he created is of near-miraculous beauty, but it is as fragile, and as ephemeral, as a pearl of smoke.
four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free
For nearly 90 years, the New
Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous
examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today,
we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy
the magazine TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give
you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every
word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica
of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!
to sign up.