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Heir of a Dark History

After Nature

by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger
Random House, 116 pp., $21.95

W.G. Sebald was born in 1944 in the corner of southern Germany where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge. In his early twenties he left for England to further his studies in German literature, and spent most of his working life teaching there at a provincial university. By the time of his death in 2001 he had a solid body of academic publications to his name, mainly on the literature of Austria.

But in his middle years Sebald also blossomed as a writer, first with a book of poetry, then with a sequence of four prose fictions. The second of these, The Emigrants (1993, English translation 1996), brought him wide attention, particularly in the English-speaking world, where its blend of storytelling, travel record, fictive biography, antiquarian essay, dream, and philosophical rumination, executed in elegant if rather lugubrious prose and supplemented with photographic documentation of an endearingly amateurish quality, struck a decidedly new note (the German reading public was accustomed by this time to the crossing and indeed trampling of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction).

The people in Sebald’s books are for the most part what used to be called melancholics. The tone of their lives is defined by a hard-to-articulate sense that they do not belong in the world, that perhaps human beings in general do not belong here. They are humble enough not to claim they are preternaturally sensitive to the currents of history—in fact they tend to believe there is something wrong with them—but the tenor of Sebald’s enterprise is to suggest that his people are prophetic, even though the fate of the prophet in the modern world is to be obscure and unheard.

What is the basis of their melancholy? Again and again Sebald suggests they are laboring under the burden of Europe’s recent history, a history in which the Holocaust looms large. Internally they are wracked by conflict between a self-protective urge to block off a painful past and a blind groping for something, they do not know what, that has been lost.

Although in Sebald’s stories the overcoming of amnesia is often figured as the culmination of a labor of research—burrowing in archives, tracking down witnesses—the recovery of the past only confirms what at the deepest level his people already know, what their steady melancholy in the face of the world already expresses, and what, in their intermittent breakdowns or catalepsies, their bodies have all along been saying in their own language, the language of symptom: that there is no cure, no salvation.

The form that the crisis of melancholy in Sebald takes is well defined. There is a lead-up full of compulsive activity, often consisting of nocturnal walking, dominated by feelings of apprehension. The world seems full of messages in some secret code. Dreams come thick and fast. Then there is the experience itself: one is on a cliff or in an aircraft, looking down in space but also back in time; man and his activities seem tiny to the point of insignificance; all sense of purpose dissolves. This vision precipitates a kind of swoon in which the mind collapses.

Vertigo (1990, English translation 2000), Sebald’s first long prose work, emphasizes the apocalyptic dimension of this mental crisis. In the final section of the book the “I” narrator takes a trip to his birthplace, the town of W. There, as he pores over a clutter of objects in a dusty attic, a flood of memories is released, followed by intimations that retribution is about to be visited on the town. Fearing madness, he flees. The trip back through southern Germany is eerie. The landscape has an alien air; people at the train station look like refugees from doomed cities; before his eyes someone reads a book that, as his later bibliographical researches prove, does not exist.

In Sebald, 1914 often appears as the year when Europe took the wrong turn. But, looked at more closely, the pre-1914 idyll reveals itself to be without foundation. Did the true wrong turn take place earlier, then, with the triumph of Enlightenment reason and the enthronement of the idea of progress? While there is plenty of historical awareness in Sebald—the cities and landscapes through which his people move are ghost-ridden, layered with the past—and while part of his general gloom is about the destruction of habitat in the name of progress, he is not conservative in the sense of harking back to a golden age when mankind was at home in the world in a good, natural way. On the contrary, he subjects the concepts of home and being at home to continual skeptical scrutiny. One of his literary-critical publications, Unheimliche Heimat (1991), is a study of the notion of Heimat, or homeland, in Austrian literature. Playing on the ambiguity of the word unheimlich (unhomelike but also uncanny), he suggests that for today’s Austrians, citizens of a notional country whose borders and population have changed with each turn in modern European history, there ought to be something ghostly in feeling at home.

The Rings of Saturn (1995, English translation 1998) comes the closest among Sebald’s books to what we usually think of as nonfiction. It is written to tame the “paralyzing horror” that overtakes its author—that is to say, its “I” figure—in the face of the decline of the eastern part of England and the destruction of its landscape. (Of course the “I” in Sebald’s books is not to be identified with the historical W.G. Sebald. Nevertheless, Sebald as author plays mischievously with similarities between the two, to the point of reproducing snapshots and passport photographs of “Sebald” in his texts.)

After a walking tour through the region, Sebald or “I” is hospitalized in a cataleptic state, with symptoms that include a sense of utter alienation linked to hallucinations of being in a high place looking down on the world. To this vertigo he gives a metaphysical rather than a merely psychological interpretation. “If we view ourselves from a great height,” he says, “it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.” A spinning of the mind followed by mental collapse: that is what happens when we see ourselves from God’s point of view.

Sebald did not call himself a novelist—prose writer was the term he preferred—but his enterprise nevertheless depends for its success on attaining liftoff from the biographical or the essayistic—the prosaic in the everyday sense of the word—into the realm of the imaginative. The mysterious ease with which he can achieve such liftoff is the clearest proof of his genius. But The Rings of Saturn does not always succeed in this respect. Chapters on Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the poet Edward Fitzgerald, and the last empress of China, all of whom—surprisingly—have links with East Anglia, remain anchored in the prosaic.

In the earlier books, the subject of time is not treated in any depth, perhaps because Sebald is not sure his medium will bear the weight of too much philosophizing. When the subject is broached, it tends to be via references to the idealist paradoxes of Jorge Luis Borges, or, in The Rings of Saturn, to one of Borges’s mentors, the Neoplatonist Sir Thomas Browne. But in Austerlitz (2001), Sebald’s most ambitious book, time is confronted full on.

Time has no real existence, asserts Jacques Austerlitz, a professor of European art and architecture who lost his past when his Jewish parents packed him off to England as a small child to escape the coming catastrophe. Instead of time, says Austerlitz, there exist interconnected pockets of space whose topology we may never understand, but between which the so-called living and the so-called dead can travel and meet one another. A snapshot, he goes on, is a kind of eye or node of linkage between past and present, enabling the living to see the dead and the dead to see the living, the survivors. (Thus the denial of the reality of time provides a retrospective rationale for the photographs that pepper Sebald’s prose texts.)

Despite such ingenious theorizing, Austerlitz is aware that the past consists only of interlocking memories, and is haunted by the knowledge that each day a quantum of the past, including his own past, vanishes as people die and memories are extinguished. Here he echoes the anxiety expressed by Rainer Maria Rilke in his letters about the duty of the artist as bearer of cultural memory. Indeed, behind Sebald’s scholar hero, so out of place in the late twentieth century, loom several dead masters from the last years of Habsburg Austria: Rilke, the Hugo von Hofmannsthal of the “Letter to Lord Chandos,” Kafka, Wittgenstein.

Shortly before his death Sebald published a book of poems with images by the artist Tess Jaray.* It is a work of no great ambition, suggesting that his verse-writing was a mere hobby. Yet his first book of poetry, After Nature, which came out in Germany in 1988 and now appears in an excellent translation by Michael Hamburger, is a work of considerable scope and ambition. Though its imagery is more challenging than anything in Sebald’s prose works, the verse retains the Sebaldian virtues of rhetorical elegance and clarity, and sits well in English, as indeed does virtually every word he wrote.

After Nature is made up of three long poems. The first is about Mat-thias Grünewald, the sixteenth-century painter whose life story Sebald cobbles together from scanty historical sources and observations on his paintings. Chief among the latter is the altarpiece Grünewald painted for the Antonine monastery of Isenheim in Alsace, in his time the home of a hospital for plagues of various kinds. In the darkest of the Isenheim paintings—the temptation of Saint Anthony, the crucifixion and deposition of Jesus—Sebald’s Grünewald sees creation as a field of experiment for blind, amoral natural forces, one of nature’s crazier productions being the human mind itself, capable not only of mimicking its creator and inventing ingenious methods of destruction, but of tormenting itself—as in the case of Grünewald—with visions of the insanity of life.

Equally bleak is Grünewald’s Crucifixion in Basel, where the strange, murky lighting creates an effect of time rushing backward. Behind the painting, Sebald suggests, lie premonitions of apocalypse stemming from an eclipse of the sun in central Europe in 1502, a

secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky….

The darkness of Grünewald’s vision is not just a matter of an idiosyncratically melancholy temperament. Via connections with the messianic prophet Thomas Münzer, Grünewald knew and responded to the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, which included a wholesale atrocity any artist would shudder at, the gouging out of eyes; furthermore, through his wife, a convert born in the Frankfurt ghetto, he had intimate experience of the persecution of Europe’s Jews.

The coda of the poem consists of a single image: the world overtaken by a new ice age, white and lifeless, which is all that the brain sees when the optic nerve is torn.

The second of the After Nature poems is again about vastness and blankness and iciness. Its hero, Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709–1746), is a child of the Enlightenment, a young German intellectual who has abandoned theology to study natural science. In pursuit of his ambition of cataloging the fauna and flora of the frozen north, Steller travels to St. Petersburg, a city looming like a phantom out of “the future’s resounding emptiness,” where he joins the expedition led by Vitus Bering to map the sea passage from Russia’s Arctic ports to the Pacific.

The expedition is successful. Steller even sets foot for a few brief hours on the North American land mass. On the way back to Russia, however, the voyagers suffer shipwreck. The melancholy Bering dies; the survivors make their way home in a makeshift craft, all but Steller, who goes off into the Siberian interior to collect specimens and familiarize himself with the native peoples. There he dies, leaving behind a list of plants and a manuscript destined to become a guidebook for hunters and trappers.

The aims of the Grünewald and Steller poems are not biographical or historical in any ordinary sense. Though the scholarship behind them is thorough—Sebald had publications on art-historical subjects to his name; he clearly read widely on the Bering expedition—scholarship takes second place to what he intuits about his subjects and perhaps projects upon them (this may give a clue as to how Sebald constructed characters in his later prose fictions). For instance, his claim that Grünewald, though married, was secretly homosexual, involved for many years in “a male friendship wavering/ between horror and loyalty” with a fellow painter named Mathis Nithart, is highly contentious: “Mathis Nithart” may simply be Grünewald’s own baptismal name. The historical Steller appears to have been a vain and supercilious young man, interested mainly in making a name for himself, who met his death when he fell into a drunken stupor in subzero temperatures. None of this is in Sebald.

It is thus best to think of Grünewald and Steller as personae, masks that enable Sebald to project back into the past a character type, ill at ease in the world, indeed in exile from it, that may be his own but that he feels possesses a certain genealogy which his reading and researches can uncover. The Grünewald persona, with his Manichaean view of the creation, is more fully worked out than the Steller persona, which is little more than a set of gestures, perhaps because Sebald could find—or create—no believable depths in the latter’s character.

Dark Night Sallies Forth,” the third of the poems in After Nature, is more overtly autobiographical. Here Sebald, as “I,” takes stock of himself as a person but also as inheritor of Germany’s recent history. In images and in fragments of narrative, the poem tells his story from his birth in 1944 under the sign of Saturn, the cold planet, to the 1980s. Some of the images—we are familiar with the practice by now from Sebald’s prose fictions—come from Europe’s cultural treasure chest, in this case two paintings by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480–1538): of the destruction of Sodom; and of the Battle of Arbela, fought between Alexander of Macedon and Darius, king of Persia.

Seeing the Sodom painting for the first time precipitates a déjà vu experience, which Sebald connects with the refusal of his parents to speak about the bombing of Germany’s cities in World War II. The willed amnesia of his parents’ generation, which includes their absentmindedness about the Holocaust, is the chief source of his grievance against and alienation from them (here he speaks for many of his coevals), and forces him to do their remembering for them. In the poem this leads to a personal crisis (“I nearly went out of my mind”), which he links to his recurrent episodes of vertigo; but with hindsight we can see that it will also lead to the labor of reparation constituted by his four prose works, and particularly by his biographies of Jews, both imaginary (the people in The Emigrants; Austerlitz) and real (his friend and now his translator Michael Hamburger in The Rings of Saturn).

The most clearly narrative section of After Nature, written with a nod in the direction of “The Prelude,” William Wordsworth’s poem about his formative years, tells the story of Sebald’s first sojourn in the Manchester of the 1960s, a city in which early industrial Europe survives into the late twentieth century as a kind of necropolis or kingdom of the dead (“These images/ often plunged me into a quasi/sublunary state of deep/melancholia”).

The East Anglian landscape where Sebald later finds himself is equally bleak: farms have been replaced with asylums or prisons or homes for the aged or testing ranges for weapons. Nor is modern England unique in its ugliness. Flying over Germany, he has another of his darkly visionary experiences:

Cities phosphorescent
on the riverbank, industry’s
glowing piles waiting
beneath the smoke trails
like ocean giants for the siren’s
blare, the twitching lights
of rail- and motorways, the murmur
of the millionfold proliferating molluscs,
wood lice and leeches, the cold putrefaction,
the groans in the rocky ribs,
the mercury shine, the clouds that
chased through the towers of Frankfurt,
time stretched out and time speeded up,
all this raced through my mind
and was already so near the end
that every breath of air made my
face shudder.

Visions like this lead him to think of himself as Icarus, the boy who, sailing high above the earth with homemade wings, sees what no ordinary mortal is allowed to see. When he falls, as he is doomed to, will anyone pay attention, or, as in Brueghel’s famous painting, will the world simply go on with its business?

Vertigo points him backward to childhood problems with keeping his balance, and forward to the second Altdorfer painting, The Battle of Arbela, a panorama of slaughter on a huge scale rendered in detail of hallucinatory, vertigo-inducing minuteness. The painting ought to precipitate another of his melancholic collapses. Instead it leads to the rather unconvincing transcendence with which the poem ends: an opening out of vision beyond horizons of unending warfare, East versus West, to a new future:

…still farther in the distance,
towering up in dwindling light,
the mountain ranges,
snow-covered and ice-bound,
of the strange, unexplored,
African continent.

After Nature has its dead patches and moments of empty portentousness, but in all it is a work of great power and seriousness, fully worthy to stand beside the prose works of Sebald’s last decade.

  1. *

    For Years Now (London: Short Books, 2001).

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