Jim Schley's Essays

The Last Words of W. G. Sebald

Readers of contemporary literature may be divided into two groups: those who have read one or more of 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. Born in Germany near the end of the second world war, he emigrated in his early twenties to England and lived there for thirty years, working as a university professor. He continued to write in German.

In the twilight of the 1990s, U.S. publisher New Directions began releasing English translations of Sebald’s narratives, including The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), and Vertigo (2000). The book Austerlitz was published to wide acclaim in 2001 by Random House, which has now produced 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. No one could have known that he was completing his corpus instead of just commencing. Following Sebald’s death, the eulogies expressing shock and loss were unlike anything we’ve seen for other contemporary artists. 

What a testament to an author: as if  finding it impossible as yet to make a critical appraisal of his work, critics spoke openly of their personal grief at the sudden vanishing of this writer. 

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 many obstacles to rapid comprehension. Only briefly and obliquely are we given the usual apparatus of fiction: dramatic or suspenseful plots and situations, or engagingly active protagonists. The books can be bewilderingly subtle, fatiguing at times, yet passage by passage the writing sustains its uncanny magnetic pull.

Not novels in conventional ways, Sebald’s narratives somehow resemble documentary accounts, albeit dreamlike in manner, musical in pacing, and inlaid with memorable poetic images. Sebald traces the wake of Europe’s twentieth-century cataclysms, scrutinizing the lives of certain individuals still tumbling in the ripple-effect of wars, political upheavals, and genocidal policies, He only momentarily mentions specific historical incidents, for instance the Nazi undertaking — "the machinery of annihilation operated on an industrial scale." Photos are used in most of his books, not as illustrations but rather as visual detritus, ciphers, enigmatic flotsam as in the sculptural collages of Joseph Cornell. 

  After Nature (Random House, 2002), the first literary book Sebald completed in German, wasn’t published in English until last autumn, after his death. Although presented as a suite of poems,  After Nature is not so very different from Sebald’s prose narratives in theme and method. On a Natural History of Destruction (Random House, 2003), the second book now released posthumously, is a work of historical description and analysis, very different indeed from the rest of Sebald in print.

The first half of Natural History is based on lectures Sebald gave in Zurich in 1997, recast as self-contained essays but omitting 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.  

Firstly, that the cities of Germany were obliterated by Allied aerial bombardment that went far beyond military necessity, in a technological orgy of vengeance. Secondly, that 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, three and a half million homes destroyed, and seven and a half million people left homeless.

The most horrific portions of On a Natural History of Destruction describe the sadistic zeal with which the bombing campaigns were administered, then describe the ghastly, scorched carnage that was left, smoldering and rat-infested. 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 Améry, and Peter Weiss. These chapters are frequently unsatisfying, as they seem to presume that readers will be very familiar with the writers discussed. As a result they have an inward, only partially articulated quality, as if one were overhearing a fervent debate while lacking basic information about the writers’ identities and key works. 

I fear that those who don’t yet know Sebald’s earlier books, and who begin with On a Natural History of Destruction on the assumption that it will be more accessible, may turn away in dismay. We need to recognize that this book has been assembled of disparate parts by a publisher, not shaped by its exceedingly painstaking writer as a sequenced whole. 

The author expresses his own reservations about the work with characteristic modesty and in this case also accuracy: "I am well aware that my unsystematic notes do not do justice to the complexity of the subject."

On the other hand, readers who know and love Sebald’s narratives will find in On a Natural History of Destruction passages of startling vehemence and candor, for while indicting or praising others this generally reticent author illuminates the values implicit but unstated in his more characteristic work: a sacramental reverence for the tidal recurrences in memory and a sonorous grief for our century’s numberless refugees and half-destroyed survivors. He repeatedly distinguishes here between writing that relies upon melodramatic and cacophonous language to invoke extreme experiences and the understated, probing, "objective" accretion of vivid details that his own narratives rely upon, assiduously avoiding flamboyant emotionalism.

But despite the urgency of its ideas  and scholarship, and despite too its moments of autobiographical ardor, Sebald’s final book comes across as a miscellany, lacking the cumulative power of its predecessors.  

By contrast, After Nature is a  work of aching beauty, formally anomalous but intricately complete. The book is also 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 author before his death. 

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

As noted above, although the book is typeset in columns as poetry no one familiar with Sebald’s prose will fail to find here a comparable cadence and flow: breath-measured successions of clauses, and richly associative transitions in imagery and argument. Reading After Nature, it’s quite fascinating to consider the ways Sebald adapted these prior experiments with a complexly grammatical "verse" to the prayer-like textures of his subsequent books in prose. 

Ecologist of time and remembrance, historian of the endlessly ramifying disaster our civilizations have made of life on earth, Sebald in the end proves himself to be a poet of telescopic acuity and panoramic reach:


mythical rivers now dead,

which in better times

shone azure blue,

carmine red and glaucous green,

in the glow reflecting 

the cotton clouds, those white ones

into which without a word the breath

of legions of human beings have been absorbed.

― Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2003