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On the Natural History
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B- : some interesting aspects, but poorly argued and the underlying view of what literature should be is a disturbing one
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Most discussion of this volume has centred on the longest piece in it, Air War and Literature.
Based on lectures given by Sebald in Zürich in 1997 (and including Sebald's discussion of the initial reaction to those lectures), the piece takes up about half of the book; the remainder of the book consists of essays about three authors (Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery, and Peter Weiss) in which Sebald explores issues similar to those raised in Air War and Literature.
function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend.What bothers him, of course, is that this is not how he wants these horrors to be conveyed. He doesn't believe it could be this easy:
The apparently unimpaired ability -- shown in most of the eyewitness reports -- of everyday language to go on functioning as usual raises doubts of the authenticity of the experiences they record.Sebald doesn't consider it possible that everyday language suffices completely (if banally). The facts don't correspond to his idea of how things should be, and so he simply calls all the eyewitness accounts into question -- telling the victims, in essence, that the way they dealt with these events is unsatisfactory.
Sebald also imposes his notions of human capacity for emotional and intellectual suffering on the German people, generalizing about "experiences beyond our ability to comprehend" (how is he to judge ?), or melodramatically noting that in the fires of Hamburg: "no one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died". Indeed, he repeatedly suggests and insists that people were left demented or mad, without providing any evidence; it seems simply that he believes that these events should have driven people mad, and he can't believe that this didn't happen. (Note: the frequent mention of madness and people demented by events may be a problem of translation: we haven't had access to the German original, and possibly Sebald uses words that are more ambiguous regarding states of mind in the German original.)
Public discourse -- and literary output -- on the subject of the wide-scale destruction in Germany does not conform to Sebald's ideals. He believes:
People's ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time.The fact that the destruction was so comprehensive that it could literally not be overlooked or forgotten is something he doesn't care to consider. The fact that every step over the rubble (which, in some cities, was prominent for decades) was a reminder, making the consequences of the bombing an everyday event, isn't how he wants to look at things. No, the Germans -- and specifically the German writers -- didn't properly wallow in these events, and he doesn't understand why.
The idea that distance might be required, especially to creatively use this material is also something he doesn't consider: it took decades for the Napoleonic wars and the worst of their destruction to be adequately literarily addressed (in Tolstoy's War and Peace), and arguably the most extensive fictional consideration of the World War II fire-bombings to date is American author Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (a book not mentioned by Sebald). But the German writers failed to conform to his expectations (or, perhaps, needs) and so they simply failed.
An interesting addition to his Zurich lectures is a final chapter included here, in which Sebald considers the reactions he received. He finds his theses (a sort of collective and individual memory-failure, an unwillingness to confront what happened) supported, though his arguments are no more convincing than in the lecture as a whole -- convincing, perhaps, to the extent that there has been and is a reluctance (or a difficulty) in discussing what happened, but unconvincing in its explanations.
The three shorter essays included in this volume deal with authors whose World War II experiences inform their writing. Experience informing writing: that's something Sebald likes, that's what he expects from writers. (Almost all the works discussed here, even the fiction by these authors, is to a considerable extent autobiographical.)
The first of the authors, Alfred Andersch, is an example by failure. Andersch, as Sebald notes, "lacked neither success nor failure in his lifetime". Sometimes very popular, sometimes critically praised (and sometimes disparaged), Andersch is a writer about whom there is no consensus opinion. Sebald clearly finds him to be a failure -- and finds that failure specifically in Andersch's refusal to deal with experience in a manner that he perceives as honest.
Sebald readily finds in Andersch's "autobiographical novel" that:
an essentially apologetic attitude dominates the urge Andersch sometimes feels for unreserved confession. Memory acts very selectively: decisive tracts of experience are entirely omitted, an editing technique which runs counter to the objectivity announced by the subtitle Ein Bericht ("An Account").The idea that it is artistic license -- a conscious decision by Andersch -- as to what to include and what to omit doesn't occur to Sebald. And the possible motives in subtitling a work of fiction (it's a novel, after all, no matter how autobiographical) "An Account" is apparently completely lost on Sebald, who is only concerned with facts.
The facts regarding Andersch, as Sebald recounts them, are fairly damning -- but focussing almost solely on these (and their relation to Andersch's output) remains a questionable (and limited) approach to literature. Andersch's writing doesn't rely on authenticity in the manner Sebald wants (or rather: demands) from fiction-writers; that alone should not be enough to dismiss it -- and arguably it is not even a fair point on which to judge it. It is one way of looking at literature, but it is an extremely limited one.
The next essay deals with concentration camp survivor and eventual suicide Jean Améry. Améry, of course, lived (or so it seemed) practically only in experience ("'Twenty-two years later,' writes Améry, 'I am still dangling over the ground by dislocated arms.'" Sebald -- almost gleefully, it seems, -- notes), and so Sebald is enthusiastic. This is what writing should be ! Authenticity ! Not letting go of experience but rather making it one's entire identity (or at least the centrepiece of one's writing) !
Sebald is convinced:
the essays written by Améry at this time about his personal past and present contain insights, based on the most direct experience, into the irreparable condition of those victims, and it is from such insights alone that the true nature of the terror visited on them can be extrapolated with some precision.Améry meets Sebald's expectations of victimhood, and his accounts are the accounts Sebald wants: this is what a victim should sound like. Améry had "the most direct experience" -- but so did many others, and recall from the Air War and Literature essay how Sebald denied eyewitness accounts. No, what Sebald likes is the horror Amery conveys and how he conveys it: it fits Sebald's image of "the true nature of the terror" visited on the victims.
Sebald's leap here is a large and troublesome one: he decides which sort of terror is authentic, and which representation adequate. The idea (indeed, it seems to us: the likelihood) that these (and many other) terrors are simply unconveyable isn't one he can accept. Certain descriptions are good (Améry's), other bad. Nowhere does he explain why he believes he is in a position to make these value judgements.
Apart from Niederland's professional case histories, which show the humiliation of the victim continued even in the compensation proceedings, only Améry's writings give an adequate idea of what it means to have been delivered up to death.Again: Améry's account meets Sebald's expectations, hence it is adequate -- to Sebald. Others may have different needs in order to understand "what it means to have been delivered up to death" -- but Sebald does not allow for this possibility. It's his way or no way.
The final essay is on Peter Weiss, an author who wrote several works of fiction with strong autobiographical elements. Sebald clearly approves of this reliance on the authentic in Weiss' work, and finds Weiss' literary use of memory acceptable:
More clearly than the oeuvre of any other contemporary author, the writings of Peter Weiss show the abstract memory of the dead is of little avail against the lure of waning memory if it does not also express sympathy -- sympathy going beyond mere pity -- in the study and reconstruction of an actual time of torment.Sebald continues to presume, fitting his readings to his fixed ideas, as when he writes approvingly about a passage in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands:
It records an accumulated sense of fear and pain of death, and must have almost exhausted its author; that account is the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return. The rest of the text is only a postlude, the coda to a martyrs' chronicle.Why the passage should have "almost exhausted its author" is unclear -- as is why Sebald suggests it. Presumably Sebald suggests it because it facilitates his reading of the text: this is what he wants from it, for Weiss to have reached the highpoint here, perhaps keeling over, all spent, on the manuscript pages ..... Far from being "the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return" it is presented as the place from which Sebald, as reader, does not wish to return. It remains unclear why Sebald won't own up to that, but rather places the onus (or blame) on Weiss (except, perhaps, that it allows him to easily and summarily dismiss the rest of the book as a "postlude").
Sebald's reading of Weiss isn't bad (for the most part), but perhaps misleading in its focus on the autobiographical texts. But Sebald can't seem to admit that there might have been more to the author. Weiss is an author Sebald can admire -- because of his reliance on authenticity, his trying to come to grips with memory and experience (in a way Sebald approves of) -- but it seems these are the only reasons Sebald can admire him. Curious, and ultimately not convincing.
The title of this collection is nicely chosen. As Sebald explains: Solly Zuckerman visited Cologne after the end of the war and "agreed to write a report for Cyril Connolly, then editor of the journal Horizon, to be entitled On the Natural History of Destruction". Naturally, words failed him and the piece was never written.
The four pieces collected here examine a variety of approaches to writing about specifically the bombing-horrors suffered in Germany, but also more generally about how an individual (specifically a writer-artist) can (or rather: should) convey the worst of human horrors. The failure of the pieces lies in Sebald's extremely narrow view of what a valid representation or communication of such events must look like. His qualitative judgements -- Améry is clearly presented as a 'better' victim than the Germans who just got on with life after their cities and homes and families were destroyed -- are offered with no sound rationale, and so border somewhere between the offensive and the ridiculous.
Worse yet are the implications for the creative act: Sebald shows no interest in imagination as a guiding force in the writing of fiction. Authenticity is the measure of literature for him, and his authenticity seems practically to preclude imagination. Memory trumps all -- but even here it is memory that must be dealt with in a specific way: the wrong kind of forgetting will not do. It is a crippling theory -- allowing for some art, but denying far more.
All in all: a book that is deeply disturbing in all the wrong ways.
Additional notes: The writing in the essays is uneven. Sebald often does express himself well, and there are some nice flourishes, but he awkwardly wavers between neutral and melodramatic. Rather than a close analysis of the actual suffering endured in the bombings he offers emotional and ineffective (or, to judge by some approving reviews, superficially effective) bombast:
Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt.(Talk about inadequate writing ! How does he know of their grotesque contortions ? What is grotesque, under these circumstances ? What is a 'thick bubble' ? What does it mean that they are 'thrown up' ? Wouldn't the asphalt be boiling rather than melting if it were throwing up thick bubbles (whatever that means) ?)
There are several other rhetorical and essayistic devices that are also a bit troubling. In the Améry essay he several times quotes passages in French, e.g:
The words that Améry set down on paper, and which seem to us full of the comfort of lucidity, to him merely outlined his own incurable malady and drew a dividing line between "deux mondes incommunicables (.....)"Only the end-notes reveal what isn't even hinted at in the text: the French words are E.M.Cioran's. (Note in the above also Sebald's presumptuous "seem to us full of the comfort" (italics his) -- where does he come up with that us (and how dare he include us in it) ?)
Telling, in a way, is also his choice to include the most famous passage -- a whole page -- from Améry's classic Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (translated into English as At the Mind's Limit), in which Améry describes how his arms came to be dislocated. It is a straightforward but powerful passage -- in some ways arguably too powerful: those of us familiar with the book, when pressed, could recall nothing else from it (but could all remember this scene very, very well): here -- at least for us -- a specific scene of horror that overwhelms everything else Améry had to say (much as, perhaps, many remember nothing about the Disney-movie Bambi except for the mom getting shot). This is perhaps exactly the sort of authentic description Sebald wants: a piece of memorable, ineradicable (and based-on-the-truth) horror. But Sebald doesn't consider how, for example, one image of this sort can literally overwhelm the remainder of a text.
Finally: two titular issues. Sebald (?) writes about Améry's:
Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre (as the title of one of his works runs, alluding to Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre)Surely, Améry's title alludes to the similarly well-known Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (the much later continuation of Goethe's novel) -- all the more so because that book is subtitled: "Die Entsagenden" ('the relinquishing' or 'the renouncing' -- and a word that suggests (ent-sagen) both un-saying and de-mythification). (Possibly this isn't Sebald's slip -- as German readers wouldn't have needed it spelled out so clearly for them --, but rather something added in the English translation.)
Sebald also refers to one of Peter Weiss' autobiographical novels: "Abschied von den Eltern ('Farewell to My Parents')". All the other German books that are cited that have been translated into English have the English titles given in the endnotes, but this one doesn't. Was no one aware that this has long been available in English, as Leavetaking ?
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German author Winfried Georg Sebald was born in 1944 and spent most of his life teaching at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. He died in 2001.
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