By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Illustration by Jordin Isip|
EVEN BEFORE THE DEATH OF THEIR AUTHOR a little over a year ago, W.G. Sebald's books had a strangely posthumous quality about them. His prose felt as if it had been exhumed from the past, as if the spirit of ruined Europe were speaking through him. Perhaps this is why it was often said that he wrote like a ghost. In On the Natural History of Destruction, in translation at the time of his fatal car accident, Sebald goes to the epicenter of that ruination, examining the destruction of German cities by Allied bombs in World War II. Given the scale of the calamity, Sebald asks, why have German writers been so silent about it? How had it come about that "the sense of unparalleled national humiliation felt by millions in the last years of the war had never really found verbal expression, and that those directly affected by the experience neither shared it with each other nor passed it on to the next generation"?
The book is derived from lectures given by Sebald in Zurich in 1997. In those lectures he sought to show how, even though he was born in a village in the Allgäu Alps in 1944 and was "almost untouched by the catastrophe then unfolding in the German Reich," it had "nonetheless left its mark on my mind." Sebald apparently illustrated this claim with lengthy references to his own work which he chose not to reproduce in the book -- a decision that makes the text more recognizably Sebaldian. With the vagueness familiar to readers of his fiction, Sebald mentions that in one of his "narratives" he described how, as a boy, he had assumed that all cities were made of ruins. In the course of tracking down this reference, it quickly becomes obvious that several other passages in his 1999 book, Vertigo, could be seen to have their origin in the aftermath of the bombing. Near the end of that book, the narrator is in London where, "before the blazing strip of sky on the western horizon, rain fell like a great funeral pall from the dark-blue cloud that hung over the entire city." Vertigo closes with the narrator's description of a dream which merges with an account from Samuel Pepys' diary of the Great Fire of London that imaginatively anticipates -- or should that be recalls? -- the firestorm that swept through Hamburg: "We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City."
Sebald wryly concedes that the "unsystematic notes" of On the Natural History of Destruction do not do justice to the complex ways "in which memory (individual, collective and cultural) deals with experiences exceeding what is tolerable." That, of course, is the theme underpinning the complex architecture of Austerlitz, Sebald's 2001 novel that seeks to make sense of the troubled life, memories and forgettings of a man who arrived in England from Prague on one of the so-called kindertransports in 1939. The extreme lethargy, the "lack [of] any real will to live," that Sebald, in Destruction, observes in Heinrich Böll's characters is shared by Austerlitz, who falls prey to a "dreadful torpor that heralds disintegration of the personality."
If the new book refers us back to the earlier ones in this way, it also looks ahead to narrative journeys that cannot now be undertaken. Alert "to the few points at which my own life touches the history of the air war," Sebald tells us that he lives near one of the many airfields in Norfolk from which the raids were launched: "Grass has grown over the runways, and the dilapidated control towers, bunkers, and corrugated iron huts stand in an often eerie landscape where you sense the dead souls of the men who never came back from their missions, and of those who perished in the vast fires." In turn this passage haunts us like the daybreak of a book that Sebald never came back to write.
AFTER SEBALD HAD DELIVERED HIS ZURICH lectures, he received a number of letters corroborating his belief "that if those born after the war were to rely solely on the testimony of writers, they would scarcely be able to form any idea of the extent, nature, and consequences of the catastrophe inflicted on Germany by the air raids." This came as a surprise since he had thought that his thesis would be refuted by instances that had escaped his notice. At this point Destruction becomes extremely curious, for if we cross the border into Austria and use "German" to refer not to a people but a language, then we have, in the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, an example that refutes Sebald so thoroughly as to constitute a mirror image of the lacuna he describes. That Sebald doesn't acknowledge this is all the more extraordinary given that Bernhard is, stylistically, probably the biggest influence on him. It was from Bernhard that Sebald derived his inverse telescoping of reported speech ("I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz") whereby the narrative recedes in the act of progressing. The comic obsessiveness