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
and neurosis common to many of Sebald's characters are like a sedated version of the raging frenzy into which Bernhard's narrators habitually drive themselves. The influence was most explicit in Austerlitz, whose long pages of unparagraphed meanderings even look like Bernhard's. Most significantly, Bernhard's autobiography, published in English as Gathering Evidence (1985), dwells at some length on his experience of the bombing campaign.
Bernhard was born in 1931. In 1944 he is at school in Salzburg, watching the "hundreds and thousands of droning, menacing aircraft which daily darkened the cloudless sky." Sebald notes that at some level perhaps the German people felt they deserved this retribution. In a childish version of this impulse, Bernhard and his pals, "while afraid of an actual bombing raid . . . secretly longed for the actual experience of an air attack." It happens soon enough, and Bernhard emerges from the shelter to be confronted by "huge piles of smoking rubble, under which many people were said to be buried."
In the course of one of his strolls through the ruined city, the young Bernhard "stepped on something soft lying on the pavement in front of the Bürgerspital Church. At first sight I took it to be a doll's hand . . . but in fact it was the severed hand of a child." As this section of Bernhard's autobiography proceeds, you realize that it is exactly the kind of thing that Sebald says does not exist. Every detail that Sebald claims is buried beneath a blanket of silence is unearthed by Bernhard. At one point Bernhard looks back and understands that "whenever I walk through the city today, imagining that it has nothing to do with me because I wish to have nothing to do with it, the fact remains that everything about me, everything within me, derives from this city. I am bound to it by a terrible, indissoluble bond."
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BERNHARD IS THE MOST PERVERSELY contradictory of writers. How perfect, then, that this book which refutes Sebald's thesis absolutely should simultaneously confirm it: "Whenever I speak to people about what happened, nobody knows what I am talking about. In fact everybody seems to have lost all recollection of the many houses that were destroyed and the many people who were killed, or else they no longer want to know when someone tries to remind them," writes Bernhard. "It is like being confronted with a concerted determination not to know, and I find this offensive -- offensive to the spirit."
Again, this is Austria, not Germany (Bernhard insisted the rhythms of his prose were Austrian). If someone adopted a similar critical ploy, using an American writer to correct a perceived traumatized silence in British writing, this would be discredited simply by the geographical distance and historical difference. But Austria borders Germany and, more importantly, the experience Bernhard describes ("So-called total war was getting closer and closer and had now made itself felt even in Salzburg") is practically indistinguishable from the one Sebald is concerned with. If we accept the comparison as valid, two intriguing possibilities follow. One is that by failing to take account of Bernhard, it is as if Sebald has in some way fallen victim to his own thesis, succumbing to the amnesia he describes. The other is that because of their intense stylistic similarities, we already have a premonition of how Sebald himself might have made good the lack he laments. In a proto-Sebaldian moment Whitman declared, "I do not doubt interiors have their interiors."
Yes, and ghosts have their ghosts too.
ON THE NATURAL HISTORY OF DESTRUCTION By W.G. SEBALD, translated by Anthea Bell | Random House | 204 pages | $24 hardcover