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'After Nature,' and 'On the Natural History of Destruction' by W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald Late novelist became a voice for the vanquished

Sunday, May 18, 2003

By Jim Schley

Readers of contemporary literature may be divided into two groups: those who have read the mesmerizing books of W.G. Sebald and those who have not.

Like one of the dislocated characters in his sui generis "novels," which read like hybrids of fiction and expository prose, Sebald was radically estranged from his origins.


"After Nature"
By W.G. Sebald, Translated by Michael Hamburger
Random House ($21.95)

"On the Natural History of Destruction"
By W.G. Sebald Translated by Anthea Bell
Random House ($23.95)


Born in Germany near the end of World War II, he emigrated in his early 20s to England and lived there for 30 years, working as a university professor. He continued to write in German.

Several years ago, American publisher New Directions began releasing English translations of Sebald's narratives, including "The Emigrants" (1996), "The Rings of Saturn" (1998) and "Vertigo" (2000).

"Austerlitz" was published to wide acclaim in 2001 by Random House, which has now produced these austerely handsome editions of Sebald's final works.

Final, because the author was killed in a car accident in December 2001. His circle of readers had widened with each book, and awareness of his unique alchemy was traveling word-of-mouth among the many who still look to great writing for illumination.

The eulogies expressing shock and loss were unlike anything we've seen for other contemporary artists.

Even readers who have been profoundly moved by the experience of reading Sebald find it difficult to explicate the power of the work. His prose is gorgeously textured but presents obstacles to rapid comprehension.

Only briefly and obliquely are we given dramatic or suspenseful plots or engaging protagonists. The books can be bewilderingly subtle, fatiguing at times. Yet, passage by passage, the writing sustains its uncanny magnetic pull.

Photos are used in most of his books, not as illustrations but rather as visual detritus, ciphers or enigmatic flotsam, as in the sculptural collages of Joseph Cornell.

"After Nature," the first literary book Sebald completed in German, wasn't published in English until after his death. Although presented as a suite of poems, it is not so very different from Sebald's prose narratives in theme and method.

"On a Natural History of Destruction," the second posthumous book, is a work of historical description and analysis, very different from the rest of Sebald in print.

The first half of "Natural History" is based on lectures he gave in Zurich in 1997. They are recast as self-contained essays but omit the lectures' extensive quotations from his own work, which were intended to demonstrate how the "catastrophe then unfolding in the German Reich . . . had left its mark on my mind."

The premise of the published version is twofold:

*German cities were obliterated by Allied aerial bombardment that went far beyond military necessity, in a technological orgy of vengeance.

*Postwar German culture has failed to come to terms with the decimation of its cities and society, possibly because many Germans came to feel that they deserved such a trial by firestorms.

Sebald sees German writers as particularly culpable in this omission or erasure. Nowhere, he alleges, has the scale of devastation been inscribed in the nation's literature: 600,000 civilians killed, 3.5 million homes destroyed and 7.5 million people homeless.

The most horrific portions describe the sadistic zeal with which Allied bombing campaigns were administered, then describe the ghastly, scorched carnage that was left. Sebald acknowledges "the implausibility, the unreality" in eye-witness accounts, and "the inability of everyday language to go on functioning."

The second half of the book considers three German-language writers (important, yet not well known in English): Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery, and Peter Weiss.

These chapters are frequently unsatisfying, as they seem to presume that readers will be very familiar with these writers. I fear that those readers who don't yet know Sebald's earlier books will turn away in dismay.

On the other hand, readers who know and love his narratives will find passages of startling vehemence and candor, for while indicting or praising others, this generally reticent author illuminates the values implicit in his more characteristic work: a reverence for the tidal recurrences in memory and a sonorous grief for our century's numberless refugees and half-destroyed survivors.

Despite the urgency of its ideas and scholarship and its moments of autobiographical ardor, Sebald's final book lacks the cumulative power of its predecessors.

By contrast, "After Nature" is a work of aching beauty. And it is readily accessible to attentive readers, especially those attuned to Sebald's blend of hypnotic syntaxes and stark, medieval clarity.

Rendered gracefully by British poet Michael Hamburger (also translator of nuanced versions of Paul Celan's poems), this English version of Sebald's first book was approved by the late author.

"After Nature" is a "triptych" of portraits of three emblematic figures: Renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald, Arctic explorer and botanist Georg Stellar and the author himself, each vantage dramatized with a rare blend of almost scientific precision and lyrical grace.

Although the book is typeset in columns as poetry, no one familiar with Sebald's prose will fail to find a comparable cadence and flow: Breath-measured successions of clauses and richly associative transitions in imagery and argument.

Reading "After Nature," it's fascinating to consider the ways Sebald adapted prior experiments with a complexly grammatical "verse" to the prayer-like textures of his subsequent prose books.

Ecologist of time and remembrance, historian of the endlessly ramifying disaster our civilizations have made of life on Earth, Sebald proved himself to be a poet of telescopic acuity and panoramic reach.

Jim Schley is a poet and editor who lives in Vermont.

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