Saturday, March 04, 2017

W.G. Sebald

I've written on the blog before about my admiration for W.G. Sebald, and for the mark his work made on the history of contemporary literature. When I first read Sebald, I pretty much took on everything -- from Austerlitz and The Emigrants, to The Rings of Saturn and After Nature. The one book that I didn't read was On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald's essays on the literary culture of Germany following the Second World War. 

Over the past week, I've read those essays -- and as in the past, I found Sebald's writing mesmerizing. Of the four essays assembled here, the first and the third, I think, achieve a sort of transcendence. The former asks why German writers failed to address their country's destruction toward the end of the Second World War. The latter, meanwhile, focuses on the Jewish writer Jean Amery, and Amery's assertion that the experience of German Jews is something less to be reconciled or resolved, and more to revealed, over and over again. "The unremitting denunciation of injustice," writes Sebald, should be our primary interpretative lens; it should be how we process the Holocaust. 

As always, Sebald's writing is defined by its lucidity, and by the incorporation of images -- the effect of which is to reinforce the gravity of his essays. Sebald strikes me in this collection as a man unafraid of the truth: around German amnesia, for instance, or around the foundations of the modern German state (built with the "well-kept secret of corpses"). Sebald wonders why so many Germans acted as if "nothing had happened" in the period stretching to 1947. That no real literary tradition emerged around the shared experience of domestic destruction suggests that the experience "had not registered in the consciousness," he writes, "of the reemergent nation." 

Sebald concludes that the "self-imposed silence" around Germany's experience in the Second World War owed something to the sense at the time that destruction -- however traumatic -- amounted to progress, and that, by assuming the destruction to have been warranted (as if a punishment), German writers closed one chapter and opened another. The result was silence, but also resurgence. 

Sebald's essays are as relevant now as when they first appeared in 1999. I can't recommend them enough. 

1 comment:

  1. I just posted a podcast with Barbara Epler, the publisher of New Directions, and we get into her relationship with Sebald (and where his work may have gone had he not died prematurely). It's on my site and Soundcloud