Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

Ottawa Citizen -- February 23, 2003

On the Natural History of Destruction

W.G. Sebald
Knopf, 202pp, $34.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition. We do not feel any passionate interest in our earlier way of life and the specific features of our own civilization, of the kind universally perceptible, for instance, in the culture of the British Isles. And when we turn to take a retrospective view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, we are always looking and looking away at the same time. As a result, the works produced by German authors after the war are often marked by a half-consciousness or false consciousness designed to consolidate the extremely precarious position of those writers in a society that was morally almost entirely discredited. To the overwhelming majority of the writers who stayed on in Germany under the Third Reich, the redefinition of their idea of themselves after 1945 was a more urgent business than depiction of the real conditions surrounding them.

- W.G. Sebald, 1999
Since the end of the Second World War, the morality and effectiveness of the Allied bombing campaign against German cities has been a familiar, if infrequent, topic for writers and historians in the English-speaking world. By contrast, despite the half-million civilian deaths and the immense physical destruction inflicted by the bombing, the literature of postwar Germany has remained all but silent on this topic.

During the past few years, however, there has been a small flood of retrospective writing, including a six-part newsmagazine series on "The Bombing War against Germany," published this winter in Der Spiegel, and historian Jorg Friedrich's controversial book, The Fire: Germany under Bombardment, 1940-1945.

Responsibility for this surge of national memory can be laid, at least in part, at the door of an émigré German academic who taught at the English redbrick University of East Anglia. Already an expert in the literature of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, in 1988 W.G. Sebald began to publish literary works that rapidly gained him an international following.

In his books of poetry and "prose fiction" -- After Nature, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz and others -- Sebald explored memory, identity and destruction, and did so with a stunningly original style. It was his latest work (also, tragically, his last: Sebald died in a car accident in 2001) that helped to ignite debate in Germany.

A collection of four essays, the longest of which is based on lectures Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997, On the Natural History of Destruction addresses the Allied bombing campaign and its effects on German literature and society.

Judging from the book, the lectures must have made for uncomfortable listening.

Avoiding the abstracts of statistics, Sebald presents instead the "natural history" of the bombing campaign: decaying corpses, plagues of rats and flies, plant life growing over rubble. He details the effects of "Operation Gomorrah," 10 days of British raids on Hamburg in 1943: "Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorous flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed." Such were the ghastly results of the war's first "firestorm," in which 50,000 people died.

In the face of such horror, it was natural for Germans to preserve their sanity by looking away. Sebald acknowledges that survivors of such catastrophes have an inviolable "right to silence," and notes that the postwar "economic miracle" gave Germany an opportunity to start afresh. What disappoints Sebald, however, is the falseness of the literary voices that emerged after the war.

Far from starting afresh, German literature continued to focus on the aesthetic aspects of destruction and apocalypse, the same obsession that helped to create and sustain the psychology of Nazism both before and during the war.

The purpose of Hermann Kasack's 1947 novel The City Beyond the River, for example, is not to depict reality but to "mythologize" it, Sebald argues; with its surrealist fantasies of secret sects and societal reincarnation, the novel's links to the intellectual world of fascism stand out "with alarming clarity."

To Sebald, the standard to be met is clear: "The ideal of truth (is) the only legitimate reason for continuing to produce literature in the face of total destruction. Conversely, the construction of aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects from the ruins of an annihilated world (deprives) literature of its right to exist." This standard applies equally to literature's response to the horrors of the Third Reich itself, the subject of the remaining essays in the book.

In the first of these, Sebald exposes moral and artistic failures in the career of novelist Alfred Andersch. On a moral level, Andersch is condemned for divorcing his Jewish wife in 1943 to gain acceptance into the Reich Chamber of Literature; as a Jew no longer protected by marriage to a German, she was placed in great peril by the divorce. On an artistic level, he is condemned for claiming to write a literature of "resistance," while instead producing novels filled with nothing more than "retrospective wishful thinking," cardboard characters and fascist thought patterns. Andersch is Sebald's prime example of a fatally compromised writer.

Yet the postwar literary scene was not totally devoid of truth, as Sebald shows in essays on Peter Weiss and Jean Améry. Weiss -- who based his most famous play, The Investigation, on Auschwitz trials of 1963-65 -- saw writing as a struggle against the "art of forgetting;" only memory, he believed, "justifies survival in the shadow of a mountain of guilt."

For Améry, memory was an inescapable companion. Born an Austrian Jew, he emigrated to Belgium in 1938 and later joined the Resistance; after his capture in 1943, he was tortured by the SS and imprisoned in Auschwitz. He too suffered a kind of survivor's silence for many years, but in 1960 he began to write about his experiences. Sebald reserves a special place for Améry, "the only one who denounced the obscenity of a psychologically and socially deformed society, and the outrage of supposing that history could proceed on its way afterwards ... as if nothing had happened." Améry was certainly under no illusions about the nature of power, but even so he believed in the necessity of resistance; to be passively swept along by history was to him a contemptible alternative.

With this short but perfectly balanced collection, W.G. Sebald puts postwar German literature on the scales and finds it wanting. In doing so, he writes with unflinching clarity and condemns with uncompromising vigour. Admittedly, it is possible he condemns too much: Many critics of Andersch, for example, do not see him as the abject failure portrayed in this book. But Sebald set out to awaken a deeply repressed national memory and to re-emphasize the standards an honest literature must meet; to achieve such things, perhaps he knew his patient required a good hard shake. To judge from the burgeoning debate in Germany, it seems he succeeded.