Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

W. G. Sebald, _On the Natural History of Destruction_, tr. Anthea Bell

IT FELT PECULIAR to realize, upon noticing the late W. G. Sebald's birth year (1944) and this book's German publication date (1999), that at the time he published the book he was the same age I am now.

It felt peculiar because Sebald is one of a number of writers -- Thomas Bernhard and E. M. Cioran being two other salient examples -- who make me feel young. That's "young" as in green, naïve, unfledged, wet behind the ears, dewy-eyed, puppy-clueless. That hope-sapping mittel-Europa fog rolls in with the opening pages, departing when I finish the book in a world sadder and more twilit than I had ever imagined possible, without even the poignant quasi-satisfaction of interesting ruins -- just smashed concrete pylons beside cracked asphalt roads, rebar pointing crazily every direction like scorched pipe-cleaners.

There is no sadness like that mid-20th-century European sadness -- No Exit, Beckett....

It has everything to do with the war, Sebald suggests, with seeing familiar urban landscapes turned to rubble and ashes, with the realization that there is no evil, none at all, that people, even people you know and love, even you yourself, will not commit.

The thesis of the book is that German writing after the war collectively refused to acknowledge the trauma of Allied bombing. I am in no position at all to judge the validity of that thesis, my knowledge of postwar German lit scarcely going beyond Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. I can imagine any literate German responding to Sebald's argument with "what about X?" or "he's forgetting y," but the reasons Sebald advances for the silence make sense: a wish to get on with the future, a lurking feeling that to resent the bombing opened the door for Nazi apologetics, the horror that made the experience too excruciating to recall.

The bombing of cities... what, I wonder, are people making of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke now, two years on? There was a flurry of discussion for about fifteen minutes when it was published, but did anything sink in? Or, as Sebald suggests, is this something we just aren't able to think about?

On another track entirely -- very grateful to have Sebald's appreciation of Peter Weiss included in the volume. Any news on the translation of volumes two and three of The Aesthetics of Resistance? I've been waiting for years now.

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