Alexander Kluge’s writings clearly exerted a great influence on W.G. Sebald, especially Kluge’s important 1977 book Neue Geschichten: Hefte 1–18: “Unheimlichkeit der Zeit” (which roughly translates as “New Histories: Notebooks 1–18: ‘The Uncanniness of Time’“) . Neue Geschicten is written in a flat, non-literary prose that becomes a montage of voices, photographs, drawings, and charts. Last year, Seagull Books released Kluge’s book Air Raid, which includes what I believe to be the first English translation of a section from Neue Geschichten. The bulk of Air Raid, which is translated by Martin Chalmers, consists the the text titled “The Air Raid on Halberstadt on 8 April 1945,” which appears in Neue Geschicten as the second of the eighteen notebooks ,”Der Luftangriff auf Halberstadt am 8. April 1945.”About a third of Air Raid consists of related pieces by Kluge drawn from several of his other books. Air Raid then concludes with Sebald’s “essay” on Kluge called “Between History and Natural History. On the Literary Description of Total Destruction. Remarks on Kluge.” Read more
Posts from the ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’ Category
Sebald book collectors haven’t had much new to add to their collection since Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 came out a year ago. But now there is a handsome new addition to anyone’s Sebald bookshelf. Notting Hill Editions (London) has just released a new cloth-bound edition of W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction using the 2003 Anthea Bell translation. Unlike previous British and American editions, this version reverts to the original content of the original 1999 German edition, which was titled Luftkrieg und Literatur. The Notting Hill volume includes only Sebald’s Foreword and the two essays: “Air War and Literature: Zurich Lectures” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch,” eliminating the essays on Jean Amery and Peter Weiss that were added when the English-language version was posthumously released in 2003. The slim, compact volume is very beautifully done, being designed, printed and bound in Germany.
Notting Hill’s website rewards poking through (don’t overlook the Videos page).
Nottinghilleditions.com is intended to be the hub of all Notting Hill Editions activity, developing a community around great essay writing. To achieve this, author, Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger Harry Mount will be editor of our online journal featuring new essays monthly, and Ophelia Field will dynamically referee our Top Essay Chart, where the public get to select and vote on the Greatest Essays of All Time, emphasizing once again, the vital role essays have had in our literary, artistic, philosophical and political cultures.
How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin? With a summary of the technical, organizational, and political prerequisites for carrying out large-scale air-raids? With a scientific account of the previously unknown phenomenon of the firestorms? With a pathological record of typical modes of death, or with behaviorist studies of the instincts of flight and homecoming?
In Air War and Literature, the essay that dominates W.G. Sebald’s book of essays On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald deplored what he saw in immediate post-war writing by Germans about the devastation that their country suffered in its defeat, especially the near total destruction that resulted from the Allied tactic of firebombing German cities. “There was a tacit agreement,” he suggested, “equally binding on everyone, that the true state of material and moral ruin in which the country found itself was not to be described.” Sebald then named a handful of writers who “ventured to break the taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction,” even if they “generally did so rather equivocally.”
Indeed, it seems that no German writer, with the sole exception of Nossack, was ready or able to put any concrete facts down on paper about the progress and repercussions of this gigantic, long-term campaign of destruction.
Sebald particularly praised Der Untergang, Hans Erich Nossack’s account of the July 1943 firebombing of Hamburg, which was included in a group of stories in a book called Interview mit dem Tode (Interview with Death), first published in Germany in 1948. Probably because of the attention it received in Sebald’s book, Der Untergang finally appeared in English in 2004 from the University of Chicago Press, translated by Joel Agee and retitled The End: Hamburg 1943.
By sheer luck, Nossack, a writer living in Hamburg in 1943, took his first vacation in years on the very week that the city was firebombed by Allies. Staying in a small rental cottage within sight of the city, Nossack witnessed the days of bombing and the ensuing flight of survivors before making his way back into Hamburg to see if anything was left of his home and office. At the outset, Nossack identifies himself as a “spectator,” an observer who used his location at the fringe of events – rather than at their center – to his advantage. There was a “danger,” he said, at “knowing the entirety.” Though his writing vacillates between the utterly precise and the casually impressionistic, Nossack uses his relentless sense of observation to try to understand the survivors, who, because of their experiences at the center of the firebombing, stand on the other side of “an invisible abyss.” “Why didn’t they cry and lament?” It seemed to him that “shelter, food, and clothing basically didn’t make any difference at all.” At this level, Nossack’s enterprise of trying to comprehend this horrendous experience from which he was largely exempt is not unlike Sebald’s own attempt to slowly excavate the damaged lives of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in The Emigrants.
But Nossack is more than an observer, he is also a moralist. Watching others applaud each time an Allied plane is downed, he declines to join in. “Now was no longer the time for petty distinctions as that between friend and foe,” he writes before quoting from Homer’s Odyssey about the unholiness of rejoicing over the death of enemies. But Nossack goes even further and confesses his own sense of guilt “in the city’s destruction.” Moreover, he suspects other Germans also secretly harbor the same sense of guilt, a theme on which he elaborates throughout The End.
Nossack’s brief book is the document of someone who records the nuances of his own response as the world around him is being destroyed. “One must confess or forget, there is no third option.” Ironically, it is only as he returns to “the dead city” that “at last real life begins.” At that point, it felt “as if a prison door had sprung open before me…”
Sebald’s essay (based on lectures delivered in Zurich in 1997 and later published in The New Yorker) created its own little firestorm. There have been questions about his motivations, his circumscribed list of responsible writers, and his basic thesis – none of which do I really want to wade into. But over the weekend, as I reread The End after a lapse of several years – Nossack’s piece is a mere 63 pages long – I found myself inevitably caught up in the controversy all over again, because the topic somewhat oddly consumes much of translator Joel Agee’s Foreword. “It is worth taking a closer look at Sebald’s thesis,” Agee writes, “because it espouses a program in which Nossack cannot be enlisted without misunderstanding him.” (Agee’s Foreword can be read here.)
There is no doubt that Air War and Literature is a problematic essay. In this and many of Sebald’s later essays, we are presented with an author that is a blend of Sebald the writer of prose fiction and Sebald the historian and critic of German-language literature. Eschewing academic approaches for a more personal essay, Sebald approaches the complex issues of German guilt and Allied moral culpability through the more informal avenues of lecture and essay, rather than developing a tightly argued case. At times, his uncharacteristic imprecision about what he likes and dislikes in German literature of the war era provides an opening for the objections of Agee and others. For example, Sebald makes the somewhat odd claim that Nossack was “primarily concerned with the plain facts,” a statement that earns him the disdain of Agee. In Sebald’s eyes, Nossack stood out from other German writers on the subject of the firebombings because he wrote about
the season of the year, the weather, the observer’s viewpoint, the drone of the approaching squadrons, the red firelight on the horizon, the physical and mental condition of refugees from the cities, the burnt-out scenery, chimneys that curiously still remain standing, washing put out to dry on a rack outside a kitchen window, a torn net curtain blowing from an empty veranda, a living room sofa with a crochet cover, countless other objects lost forever, the rubble burying them and the dreadful new life moving beneath it, people’s sudden craving for perfume.
Agee disputes Sebald’s claim. “These are not ‘plain facts’,” he writes. And he has a point. For, as one reads and rereads Sebald’s comments on Nossack, his position becomes ever more convoluted. In addition to delivering the “plain facts,” Sebald praises Nossack for the manner in which he delivers his facts. He approves of Nossack’s tendency to link “the sacred with the utmost profanity…a device that always proves effective.” Moreover, Nossack’s “narrative tone here is that of the messenger in classical tragedy.” Flipping and and forth between Nossack’s book, Sebald writing about Nossack, and Agee writing about Sebald, I began to think that the differences between Sebald and Agee are more semantic than substantive. Nossack, it seems to me, is not notable for his “plain facts” (although there are plenty of them) as much as for the telling details, which are something altogether different. One night, while taking shelter from the bombing in the cabin’s basement, Nossack knocks something over in the dark and it breaks. It was “a glass bowl that didn’t belong to us.” It’s a typical Nossack moment to register the brief concern that he has broken something that belongs to the cabin’s owner while all of Hamburg is on fire. Or to notice that some escaped pet parakeets have taken to sitting in the branches of a poplar tree. In fact, Nossack himself admits he didn’t remember much of what the survivors said to him as they fled. “It’s not really important,” he writes, as if what they might say was far less important than what they were doing.
Agee’s Foreword has the tone of someone quickly trying to mark the boundaries of his turf as an unwanted stranger approaches. Nonetheless, I also think he properly suggests one of the motivations of Sebald’s essay in something he writes at the end of one of his footnotes:
An unstated motif throughout Sebald’s essay appears to be a polemical claim for his own quasi-documentary aesthetic as the only responsible way to contemplate the bitter truth of historical memory.
While Agee is correct here, I don’t think he should be in the least surprised. Writers and artists have always proposed their own aesthetic lineage (often through a process of misdiagnosing or creatively misreading the work of their predecessors) and they often find ways to leave a trail of breadcrumbs between themselves and those fore-bearers they most admire. Sebald practically said as much himself in Air War and Literature.
It is with this documentary approach, which has an early precursor in Nossack’s Der Untergang, that German postwar literature really comes into its own and begins the serious study of material incommensurable with traditional aesthetics.
The February 1, 2010 issue of The New Yorker contains an article by George Packer about the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, the topic of W.G. Sebald’s lectures in On the Natural History of Destruction. The New Yorker online has a summary of the article and a short slide show, but the full text of Packer’s article can only be read by subscribers or in the print edition.
Packer is interested in how the city has attempted to recuperate its self-image (was it the guilty party or the victim?) through its still-ongoing reconstruction. In a reference to Tennessee William’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, he calls Dresden “the Blanche DuBois of German cities – violated, complicit in its violation, desperate to recover its innocence.”
Packer also talks with Daniel Libeskind, who is transforming the city’s Alberstadt arsenal into a Military History Museum, which, Packer says, “will surely cause outrage when it is completed.” Libeskind calls the design for the building “an interruption.” “It will be impossible for visitors to tour the traditional rooms without passing through the trapezoidal openings in Libeskind’s disorientingly angled concrete-slab walls ” – walls that soar “upward in every conceivable angle except ninety degrees.”
As Libeskind tours Packer around the construction site they reach the top floor, which, fittingly, is not level. Libeskind turns to Packer and says: “It’s like a collapse, isn’t it? You feel it in your knees – do you feel it? Maybe it’s the reflex of a body feeling that a building’s collapsing on it. You can’t be neutral in these spaces.” Sebald, it seems to me, often intervened in history so that the floors were no longer level, giving the reader the feeling that everything was on the verge of collapsing inward.
There’s more information about this project on Daniel Libeskind’s website.
Elective affinities…are the type of willful connections made among disparate objects which go beyond actual correspondences such as shared dates or locations. [James P. Martin]
Hot off the press is the 2007 Gegenwarts Literatur: A German Studies Yearbook, which focuses on W.G. Sebald through nine essays (four in German, five in English). The secret word (to invoke Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life) that pops up repeatedly is Goethe’s phrase “elective affinities,” which seems about as good a phrase as any to describe the collective thrust of these essays. Here are my quick and greatly oversimplified summaries of the ones in English.
Richard Langston (Elective Affinities: Sebald and Kluge on Feeling History) simultaneously contributes to and examines the ever-growing aftermath to Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction by dissecting Sebald’s complex re-thinking of Alexander Kluge, especially on Geschichtsgefühl, or feelings about history.
Ben Hutchinson (Der Erzähler als Schutzengel: W.G. Sebald’s Reading of Giorgio Bassani) speculates on the influence that Bassani had on Sebald, based in part on a close examination of the marked-up copies of Bassani’s books in Sebald’s archive. When Sebald was asked about the writers that most influenced him, Bassani was the only non-German writer in the list.
James P. Martin (W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe des Saturn) discusses the roles that melancholy and exile play in the construction of Sebald’s narrators.
At the heart of this project [Der Ringe des Saturn] is the Sebaldian narrator, a melancholic wanderer whose deliberately peripheral, emigrant perspective evokes the flood of memories and significations in the representation of catastrophic events. [page 132]
The inability of atrocity to be conveyed in its totality using representational language, demands an oblique approach to history and a peripheral perspective upon the traces of destruction in material culture….Sebald’s wandering narrator recognizes that a condition of being-in the-world, in a Heideggerian sense, is that one is forced to continually interpret reality in order to create meaning, and that this process necessarily entails a partial destruction of that reality…in order to create the possibility of a new meaning… [page 133]
Karen Remmler (The Shape of Remembering: W.G. Sebald’s Die Ringe der Saturn and Austerlitz) deals with the way in which memory functions in these two novels, especially the memory of traumatic pasts. She explores the various geometric patterns which recur and which both store and trigger memories (think of the quincunx and the fortress at Breendonk).
Peter O. Arnds (Dans la Salle des Pas Perdus: Wandering, Dwelling, and Myth in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz) reads Austerlitz and Sebald through the lens of Heidegger.
Authors writing on Sebald in German are Doren Wohlleben, Claudia Öhlschläger, Elena Agazzi, and Yahya Elsaghe.Other essays in the volume deal with Elfriede Jelinek, Turkish-German writer Ermine Sevgi Özdamar, and Urs Widmer.
There is a brief but curious exchange about W.G. Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction on, of all places, the U.S. Army in Germany website where several retired Army personnel have posted reminiscences of being stationed in Sonthofen, Germany in the early 1950s. Sebald’s family moved some 19 kilometers or so from Wertach im Allgäu to Sonthofen in 1952 when he was about eight years old and he recalled the town still bearing scars from Allied air raids:
nothing seemed as fascinating as the presence of areas of waste land here and there among the rows of houses… On February 22 and April 29, 1945, bombs had been dropped on the totally insignificant little market town of Sonthofen [page 74]
In 2004, as several retired soldiers posted their recollections of Army life in Sonthofen, one wrote:
A matter of some interest to me arose this past year: a book, entitled, “On the Natural History of Destruction”, by an Allgaeuer from Wertach (near Sonthofen), W.G. Sebald, who was only one year old when the war ended, came to Sonthofen in 1952 and saw the “ruins” of two aerial bombings that occurred on February 22 and April 29, 1945. I was dismayed by the (what I thought to be) serious misstatements of fact. We were told, in 1950, that only one bomb was jettisoned onto the town and hit the Brewery which, in any part of Germany, was a major catastrophe.
Herr Sebald was killed in an automobile accident recently and can’t be questioned about what he saw in Sonthofen, but can any of the Constabulary people confirm or deny his statements. I’d love to hear about it. I contacted the USAAF Archives at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama, but they have no record of such a “raid” on either of those dates, but they said it may have been an RAF happening.
Unfortunately, the few responses that this post elicited don’t do much to resolve the question of how significantly Sonthofen was bombed in the final months and days of World War II.
However, in trying to discover a little more about Sonthofen, I discovered that physicist Werner Heisenberg was traveling by bicycle and train through the region around Sonthofen and the Allgäu during late April and early May 1945. In his diary Heisenberg reports on almost daily air raids as the Allies closed in on the collapsing German war effort. Here is part of what he wrote on April 20, 1945:
Shortly behind Leutkirch appear large convoys of American bomber planes accompanied by fighter planes up above. From a sheltered spot near a little chapel I watch the destruction of Memmingen. Huge plumes of smoke and waves of detonation; thus I am glad not to have gone via Memmingen. In Krugzell in the Iller Valley a decent meal in a diner, then a long nap under trees on a glacial hill, about 9km north of Kempten. From there one can see all of the Allgäu Alps, especially the mountains surrounding Sonthofen, where I had been in boot camp seven years ago with the mountain troops. 5pm departure in the direction of Kaufbeuren. Cloudless skies all the time. Since I have been going for 50 km already this day, I have trouble ascending from the Illertal. Around 8 pm arrival in Kaufbeuren, fight for a glass of tea in the overcrowded waiting room at the station, I am hungry and am now feeling the exertion of the last days. 10pm the train leaves for Schongau, there pacing from 1am to 5am in the waiting room filled with a horde of half grown boys in SS uniform, probably from the Balkans. I don’t dare sleep, fearing for bicycle and luggage. At 5am departure of the train for Weilheim.
Memmingen, which was destroyed before Heisenberg’s eyes, lies less than 40 miles north of Sebald’s home in Wertach.
It’s curious to imagine the Nobel Prize winning author of the Uncertainty Principle alternately napping on a mountainside and watching Allied bombers over the valleys where one year-old Winfred Georg Maximilian Sebald lived at the time.I wonder what Sebald would have thought of Heisenberg”s often-quoted line: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
But, back to my digression with Heisenberg’s diary. On April 22, fifteen days before the surrender of Germany, Heisenberg reports that his wife and “Mrs. Linder have baked a cake, the children are playing out on the terrace in the sunshine, thus we are celebrating the Sunday as if it were total peace time.”
For me, the most curious entry comes on April 29 (one of the dates that Sebald claims Sonthofen was bombed). Heisenberg and his wife were in Kochel (south of Munich) to buy provisions. The town was full of “loitering” SS and foreign laborers, all waiting the inevitable “occupation” by the Allies, when Heisenberg sees a train waiting in the station “with prisoners from Dachau who look terribly starved and pale”. Since the liberation of Dachau (more than 40 miles to the north) was underway that very day, where could the train seen by Heisenberg have been heading?According to what I read, the last train into Dachau, the so-called Death Train, arrived there on April 26.