The Silent Catastrophe: Sebald’s Manchester
by Terry Pitts
In 1966, W.G. Sebald moved to Manchester, England to live “among the previous / century’s ruins” and begin his academic career as a teacher at the University of Manchester. He was twenty-two years old and he would live in Manchester for three years. The Manchester urban area, with a 1960s population that exceeded two million people, would be the largest place Sebald ever lived for any length of time.
Manchester was the quintessential boom town of the Industrial Revolution, a historic center for textile manufacturing, home of the world’s first railroad station, and a blueprint for unplanned urban sprawl. Sebald quotes 19th century Prime Minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli as calling the city “a celestial Jerusalem.” But by the time Sebald moved there from Germany, the population within the city limits had dropped nearly in half. The tide of industrial progress that had made Manchester a great city had moved somewhere else on the globe, leaving Manchester to pick up the pieces of its past.
Almost twenty years after departing Manchester to take a new position at the University of East Anglia, Sebald touched upon his time in Manchester and the city’s history as one of the themes in his book-length poem Nach der Natur (After Nature), published in Germany in 1988, the first book of his that was not literary scholarship. Four years later, in 1992, Sebald again turned to the subject of Manchester in his second work of fiction Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants), where he significantly reworked and expanded on many of the same themes first alluded to in After Nature. The level of attention that has been paid to the extended rural walks that Sebald took in The Rings of Saturn has tended to overshadow the fact that Sebald walked obsessively everywhere he visited, including cities. Nevertheless, no city receives the kind of systematic attention that he gave Manchester.
After Nature consists of three separate sections, each of which serves as a self-contained poem that focuses on the life of a German figure. The first two subjects are drawn from the distant past: the German painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) and the German scientist and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), who accompanied Vitus Bering on his fateful exploration of Russia’s Pacific coast and the Aleutian Islands. In the third section, entitled “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” Sebald focuses on the life and family history of a then little-known German writer – himself.
This final section, “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” is divided into seven numbered parts and is a short autobiography that begins with the marriage of his grandparents in 1905 and then follows the outline of Sebald’s life into the 1960s. Sebald immediately sets up a dialectic between the beautiful and the comforting on one hand and the cruel on the other. “I grew up…without any / idea of destruction.” But he soon learned “to imagine / a silent catastrophe that occurs / almost unperceived.”
In the fourth part of “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” the narrator tells of moving to Manchester. While it is brief, constituting only about five per cent of After Nature, it is a critical part. Sebald at first reminds us of Disraeli’s claim that Manchester was “the most wonderful city of modern times, / a celestial Jerusalem.” But Sebald’s narrator recalls Manchester almost entirely through images of abandonment, ruin, and pollution. The images are so bleak that one could be forgiven for mistaking Manchester for a city that suffered from wartime bombing. “I rambled over the fallow / Elysian Fields, wondering, / at the work of destruction, the black / mills and shipping canals, / the disused viaducts and / warehouses, the many millions / of bricks, the traces of smoke, / of tar and sulphuric acid…” As Manchester became technologically outmoded, Sebald envisioned its population as “the obscure crowds / who fuelled the progress of history.”
The original German edition Nach der Natur, issued by Greno in 1988, included six photographs of natural settings made by photographer Thomas Becker. While Sebald’s later books are each known for the photographs and images embedded within the text, the use of photographs in the first edition of Nach der Natur is something else entirely. Each image was lushly printed and given a double-page spread so that they serve as multiple endpapers to the book (three at the front, three at the back), literally wrapping Sebald’s poem within photographs of pristine nature. The addition of these images seems intended to give the luxurious sense of a limited edition, but their inspirational, almost spiritual reverence for raw images are jarring and utterly wrong for Sebald’s text. The title After Nature ambiguously suggests both a copy of nature as well as the state of the world post-nature, and there is considerable irony in Sebald’s allusion to “drawn after nature,” the phrase commonly used by artists to proclaim their works are faithful to nature (like Becker’s photographs). One of Sebald’s “silent catastrophes” is nature itself, whose infinite scale and brute, irrational force looms over frail and petty human aspirations. It is not surprising to learn from Lise Patt, in her Introduction to Searching for Sebald, that the decision to add Becker’s photographs to Sebald’s poem was the publisher’s idea. The photographs do not appear in any subsequent editions of Nach der Natur in any language.
Sebald took up his years in Manchester once again in the fourth and final story of his 1992 work of prose fiction The Emigrants, where he extended – and even reused – work from the “Dark Night Sallies Forth” section of After Nature. Originally titled “Max Aurach” in the German edition but subsequently changed to “Max Ferber,” the story recounts how the narrator – an unnamed man who is much like Sebald himself – explores Manchester, where he had taken up residence in 1966. His initial view of the city is from an airplane as it makes its final approach for landing. “By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash.” As he travels to his hotel, he sees “whole blocks where the doors and windows were boarded up, and whole districts where everything had been demolished.” No longer “one of the nineteenth century’s miracle cities, Manchester was now a “wasteland,” “hollow to the core,” and “a necropolis or mausoleum.”
“I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see,” Sebald wrote in “Max Ferber.” But even more amazing to him was the fact that no one seemed to be learning the lessons of the past and the cycle of ruination in Manchester was, in fact, speeding up. “Even the grandest of the buildings…which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops.”
Sebald starts to develop an image of a city that extends beyond buildings and streets. During his first glimpse of Manchester and its region from the airplane descent mentioned earlier, Sebald sees a living organism “rising and sinking like a giant recumbent body, heaving as it breathed.” His subsequent walks in the city and its environs serve as a kind of anatomical exploration of a dying beast in which Sebald begins the process of recuperating the local topography. Sebald’s Manchester slowly becomes caught within the web of history, and the reader comes to see it as an urban construct laid down like a palimpsest over the English countryside, a palimpsest that itself was once again starting to be erased. Place names like Angel Fields and Moss Side serve as reminders of Manchester’s more bucolic prehistory.
In a way, Sebald’s exploration of Manchester serves as a prototype for the in-depth treatment he will give Norwich and East Anglia in The Rings of Saturn. In “Max Ferber,” Sebald hints as the deep historical connections of global trade that led to Manchester’s rise and fall, most notably in several comments on the Manchester Ship Canal. The canal, more than half as long as the Suez Canal, resulted from an immense earthmoving project and permitted the world’s largest ships to come to the world’s largest inland port. “The loading and unloading never stopped: wheat, nitre, construction timber, cotton, rubber, jute, train oil, tobacco, tea, coffee, cane sugar, exotic fruits, copper and iron ore, steel, machinery marble and mahogany.” But Sebald stops short of analyzing the possible causes for Manchester’s rise and dramatic fall from global power. Even when his narrator visits the immense, abandoned inland port, with its kilometers of docks on which “nothing had moved for years,” Sebald offers no overt economic, technologic, or historic explanation; instead, it reminds him of “some massive shipping disaster,” as if this were a disaster of natural causes. Here, as elsewhere, Sebald tends to treat history as a kind of natural disaster, as an inevitable and uncontrollable catastrophe.
Max Ferber, the eponymous main character of Sebald’s story, was a blend of Sebald’s Mancunian landlord and the British painter Frank Auerbach. The story of this German Jew, sent abroad as a young boy by his parents just before their own deportation and extermination, is the central focus of “Max Ferber.” Sebald’s narrator accidentally stumbles on Ferber’s studio one day during a walk down an obscure road near the docks. Ferber becomes the narrator’s only apparent friend and confidante in Manchester and his studio becomes an oasis that draws the narrator back for many return visits.
While Sebald’s narrator slowly becomes attracted to the sense of history he discovers in the ruins of his newly adopted city, Max Ferber became spiritually wedded to Manchester in a sudden epiphanic moment. Ferber describes the crucial moment in the mid 1940s at which he looked upon Manchester from the peak of a nearby hill and “felt I had found my destiny.” The reader is likely to find Ferber’s view of the city curiously bleak and negative. The Manchester he falls in love with is “the crammed and interlinked rows of houses, the textile mills and dying works, the gasometers, chemical plants and factories of every kind.” But even more impressive, said Ferber, “were all the chimneys that towered above the plain…belching out smoke by day and night.” At this point in the book, Sebald inserts an illustration that looks like a very poor and grainy photocopy of a cityscape in which dozens of tiny, distant chimneys can be seen belching smoke into the sky. The object of Ferber’s passion was a city that appears to be burning itself into cinders.
Outside Ferber’s studio a single symbolic almond tree flourishes and blooms, while inside there is chaos and clutter. In the midst of otherwise gloomy and eternally gray Manchester, Sebald’s narrator is immediately drawn to the sudden appearance of color in “the paint pots gleaming carmine red, leaf green and lead white in the gloom, the blue flames of the two paraffin heaters.” By contrast, Ferber seems drawn only to the dust. “I often thought his prime concern was to increase the dust,” the narrator notes. The window that supplies his light is “layered with the dust of decades.” “He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water.” Ferber, who paint portraits, makes his paintings by repeatedly applying thick coats of paint which he then scratches off, slowly “excavating the features of his model…from a surface already badly damaged by the continual destruction” of his prior days’ work. Eventually, a portrait “evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.”
Buried within this description of Ferber’s working method is a poetic description of Sebald’s own enterprise as a writer. In Max Ferber, Sebald developed a character committed to creating by means of excavation. Likewise, Sebald developed his own method of writing almost like an archaeologist, poking among the ruins of the past, spinning a new history out of the lost stories of dust and abandoned gasometers.
Despite several decades of living in Manchester, Max Ferber admits to Sebald’s narrator that he was never able to truly leave Germany behind. “I imagined I could begin a new life in Manchester, from scratch; but instead, Manchester reminded me of everything I was trying to forget.” He goes on to say: “Although I had intended to move in the opposite direction, when I arrived in Manchester I had come home, in a sense, and with every year I have spent since then in the birthplace of industrialization, amid the black facades, I have realized more clearly than ever that I am here, as they used to say, to serve under the chimney.”
Sebald’s Manchester is haunted by echoes and ghosts of Germany, especially German Jews. One day he realizes he is in the old Jewish neighborhood, which is now demolished. “All I found still standing was one single row of empty houses, the wind blowing through the smashed windows and doors; and, by way of a sign that someone really had once been there, the barely decipherable brass plate of a one-time lawyers’ office, bearing names that had a legendary ring to my ear: Glickmann, Grunwald and Gottgetreu.” But, even though he explains that the Jewish quarter had been abandoned because the occupants had “moved to the suburbs,” Sebald can’t seem to avoid describing the abandoned neighborhood without a veiled reference to Kristallnacht.
“Max Ferber” ends with the narrator revisiting Manchester years after moving away. At the end of a long walk, during which he sees that even more of the city has fallen into ruin, he settles into an armchair in a room at an enormous late nineteenth-century hotel in Manchester called the Midland Hotel. The Midland is described as being famous for having an overheated, hothouse atmosphere, which “generally conveyed the impression that here, in the heart of this northern city with its perpetual cold wet gusts, one was in fact on some tropical isle of the blessed, reserved for mill owners, where even the clouds in the sky were made of cotton.” As he sits in the decrepit hotel, which is now more like a fortress than a pseudo-tropical resort, his mind wanders off through a series of digressions. He recalls nearby Liston’s Music Hall, where, in the 1960s, he had listened to performers sing excerpts from Wagner’s Parsifal in German. This, in turn, makes him think of an exhibition he had seen the year before in Frankfurt of photographs of the Litzmannstadt ghetto in Lodz, which was the second largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland during World War II. These photographs were from a series of newly discovered propaganda images that depicted the Litzmannstadt ghetto as a camera-ready Potemkin village, “strangely deserted pictures, scarcely one of which showed a living soul, despite the fact that at times there were as many as a hundred and seventy thousand people on Litzmannstadt, an area of no more than five square kilometers.”
So, like his fictional character Ferber, Sebald himself came face to face in Manchester with the silent catastrophe that was the German guilt of his parent’s generation. For Sebald, the ruins of Manchester had a double meaning. The first centered around the city as an emblem of failure, the failure of progress and of capitalism to live up to its promise. But on a more personal level, the ruins of Manchester inescapably reminded him of the ruined cities and ghettos of World War II. Just as Ferber consigned himself to serve under the industrial “chimney” of Manchester, Sebald dedicated himself to resurrecting what his mother (and his father, a soldier in the Nazi era) witnessed but did not see or explain. The ways in which he began to uncover the hidden histories of Western civilization more thoroughly in The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, had its beginnings in After Nature and the “Max Ferber” section of The Emigrants.
Sebald, always alert to the latent symbolism in coincidences, noted in After Nature that his mother realized she was “with child” on the same day in which she witnessed Allied aircraft bomb the city Nürnberg. Thus, Sebald directly connects his own gestation with the wartime destruction of a city – and with his mother’s inability or refusal to recall “what the burning town looked like / or what her feelings were / at this sight.” At this point in After Nature, as he does several other times in his books, Sebald turns to a famous painting to stand in for the image he cannot describe. He recalls seeing Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting “Lot and His Daughters,” a work from 1537 now housed in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. “On the horizon / a terrible conflagration blazes / devouring a large city. / Smoke ascends from the site, / the flames rise to the sky and / in the blood-red reflection / one sees the blackened / facades of houses.”
There is a dual activity embedded within this moment when Sebald’s narrator shifts from his mother’s silence to the incestuous story of Lot with its depiction of Sodom burning in the background. On one level there is a clear reference to human guilt and heavenly justice (or revenge) in the destruction of Sodom, not to mention the pointed reference to betrayal amongst family members. On another level, we see Sebald repeatedly drawn to paintings with distant or aerial views of destruction. By placing moments of war and destruction at the wrong end of a telescope, so to speak, where they appear tiny and almost insignificant, Sebald, in effect, forces the reader to adopt a god’s-eye view of human history. And from this perspective, Sebald seems to be saying, all of human endeavor seems to be nothing more than an endless catastrophe, a history of sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing.
This essay was originally published in French as La Catastrophe Muette, translated by Zaha Redman, in Ligeia: Dossiers Sur L’Art, for an issue devoted to “Ruines, Photo & Histoire.” (XXIV Annee, no. 105-108) Janvier-Juin 2011. This English version © 2013 Terry Pitts. For citation purposes, use the permalink: https://sebald.wordpress.com/essays/the-silent-catastrophe/