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Conspiracy of Silence

I first read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants when it came out in English in 1996 and remember feeling that I had not read anything so captivating in a long time. The book is difficult to classify. Told in the first person by the author, it reads at times like a memoir, at others like a novel or a work of nonfiction about the lives of four emigrants. They come from Lithuania and Germany and end up in England and the US. The book includes, and this is another peculiarity of his, blurry, black-and-white photographs with no captions and not-always-clear connections to people and places being talked about in its pages. As for the author, one knew next to nothing about him except what one deduced from autobiographical details in the book, most importantly that he was a German living in England. The Emigrants was widely praised and called a masterpiece by many eminent writers and critics. The reviewers noted the author’s elegiac tone, his grasp of history, his extraordinary powers of observation, and the clarity of his writing. While stressing his originality, critics mentioned Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov, Calvino, Primo Levi, Thomas Bernhard, and a few others as Sebald’s likely influences. There were some complaints about the unrelenting pessimism of his account of thwarted lives and the occasional monotony of his meandering prose, but even those who had reservations acknowledged the power of his work.

The narrator of The Emigrants is a loner and so are the rest of the characters. The countless victims of last century’s wars, revolutions, and mass terror are what interests Sebald. One may say that he sought a narrative style that would convey the state of mind of those set adrift by forces beyond their understanding and control. Unlike men and women who have never known exile, whose biography is shaped by and large by social class and environment, to be a refugee is to have sheer chance govern one’s fate, which in the end guarantees a life so absurd in most cases that it defeats anyone’s powers of comprehension. Sebald served as a kind of oral historian and unconventional biographer of such people, reconstructing their lives out of bits and pieces he was told by them and out of additional research he did himself into their backgrounds. If his book is melancholy, it is because the task he gives himself is all but hopeless.

Eventually, other works of Sebald’s were translated, though not always in order of their composition. The Rings of Saturn (1998), which came next, is a record of a walking tour of the eastern coast of England with lengthy digressions on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, the Battle of Waterloo, the Taiping rebellion, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and at least a dozen other topics. Another oddity of Sebald’s prose, which either delights or exasperates his readers, is his digressions. He never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association. He does this without forewarning, transition, or even paragraph break. Clearly, he intends the reader to draw together the various threads in the book, the way one would do with images and metaphors in a poem, and make something of them. Here is an example from The Rings of Saturn, which tells of an event from the 1860 British and French punitive military expedition into China and anticipates some of his concerns in the new book:

In early October the allied troops, themselves now uncertain how to proceed, happened apparently by chance on the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking, with its countless palaces, pavilions, covered walks, fantastic arbours, temples and towers. On the slopes of man-made mountains, between banks and spinneys, deer with fabulous antlers grazed, and the whole incomprehensible glory of Nature and of the wonders placed in it by the hand of man was reflected in dark, unruffled waters. The destruction that was wrought in these legendary landscaped gardens over the next few days, which made a mockery of military discipline or indeed of all reason, can only be understood as resulting from anger at the continued delay in achieving a resolution. Yet the true reason why Yuan Ming Yuan was laid waste may well have been that this earthly paradise—which immediately annihilated any notion of the Chinese as an inferior and uncivilized race—was an irresistible provocation in the eyes of soldiers who, a world away from their homeland, knew nothing but the rule of force, privation, and the abnegation of their own desires.

Although the accounts of what happened in those October days are not very reliable, the sheer fact that booty was later auctioned off in the British camp suggests that much of the removable ornaments and the jewellery left behind by the fleeing court, everything made of jade or gold, silver or silk, fell into the hands of the looters. When the summerhouses, hunting lodges and sacred places in the extensive gardens and neighbouring palace precincts, more than two hundred in number, were then burnt to the ground, it was on the orders of the commanding officers, ostensibly in reprisal for the mistreatment of the British emissaries Loch and Parkes, but in reality so that the devastation already wrought should no longer be apparent.

The temples, palaces and hermitages, mostly built of cedarwood, went up in flames one after another with unbelievable speed, according to Charles George Gordon, a thirty-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers, the fire spreading through the green shrubs and woods, crackling and leaping. Apart from a few stone bridges and marble pagodas, all was destroyed. For a long time, swathes of smoke drifted over the entire area, and a great cloud of ash that obscured the sun was borne to Peking by the west wind, where after a time it settled on the heads and homes of those who, it was surmised, had been visited by the power of divine retribution.

The secret of Sebald’s appeal is that he saw himself in what now seems almost an old-fashioned way as a voice of conscience, someone who remembers injustice, who speaks for those who can no longer speak. There was nothing programmatic about that. He wrote as if nothing else was worth a serious person’s attention. Like any one of us who takes time to read history, both ancient and modern, he was dismayed. No explanations along the lines of “war is hell,” “human beings everywhere are like that,” and so forth could make him forget for a moment the cruelties committed against the innocent. He’d agree with the Dowager Empress of China, who said before she died that she finally understood that history consists of nothing but misfortune, so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free of fear. What is strange—and it’s no doubt owing to the marvelous translation of Michael Hulse, who worked closely with Sebald—is that the effect of his tales of horror is lyrical.

Vertigo, the very first prose book he wrote, when he was forty-six years old, came next. It was published in Germany in 1990 and not translated into English until 1999. It is a story of a journey across Europe in the footsteps of Stendhal, Casanova, and Kafka which ends in the narrator’s native Bavarian village. Austerlitz, which followed in 2001 in a translation by Anthea Bell, is his one true novel. It is a story of a small child brought to England in one of the children transports from Germany in the summer of 1939 and his subsequent effort to find out about the death of his Jewish parents and his origins in Prague. Sebald said that behind the hero of the book hide two or three, or perhaps three and a half, real persons. Some of the narrative feels contrived with realistic description alternating with segments that could have come out of magic-realist fiction, and yet the book contains some of his best and his most moving writing.

I recall him saying in an interview that there are questions a historian is not permitted to ask, because they are metaphysical. The truth for him always lies elsewhere, somewhere yet undiscovered in myriad overlooked details of some individual existence. “I think how little we can hold in mind,” he writes after a visit to a Belgian prison used by the Nazis, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”

There’s a spooky scene in Austerlitz in which the hero, walking the empty streets of Terezin in Czechoslovakia where his mother had died in a camp, comes upon a closed antique store window cluttered with various objects that in all probability belonged to the inmates. There they were, these ornaments, utensils, and mementos that had outlived their former owners together with his own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them. All that remained was a Japanese fan, a globe-shaped paperweight, and a miniature barrel organ that brought home the reality of some vanished life and the full magnitude of what happened.

After Sebald’s death in December 2001 in a car accident we learned more about his life. He was born in 1944 in a small village in the Bavarian Alps to a working-class family. He studied German literature in Fribourg, Switzerland, and Manchester and eventually settled in England permanently where he taught European literature for thirty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. His first literary work was a book of prose poems, After Nature, which was translated and published in 2002. He traveled a great deal. He told his last interviewer, “My ideal station is possibly a hotel in Switzerland.”1 His literary reputation seems to have been much greater in English-speaking countries than in his native Germany. Even though he was born in 1944, World War II cast a long shadow over his writing. As André Aciman said, “Sebald never brings up the Holocaust. The reader, meanwhile, thinks of nothing else.”2

His posthumous book, On the Natural History of Destruction, again has four parts and reads this time like a straightforward collection of nonfiction pieces. The subject of the first is the destruction of German cities by Allied bombing. The other three, which were not included in the original German edition, deal with the postwar German novelist Alfred Andersch; the Austrian-Belgian writer Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz; and the painter Peter Weiss. The chapters on air war were based on lectures he delivered in the autumn of 1997 in Zurich. His thesis, which provoked considerable controversy when the lectures were published in newspapers in Germany, is that the destruction of all the larger German cities and many smaller ones by the Allied air raids was never adequately discussed in literature after the war. There was a conspiracy of silence about it as there was about many other things that occurred during the Nazi years.

  1. 1

    Maya Jaggi, “The Last Word,” The Guardian, December 21, 2001.

  2. 2

    Out of Novemberland,” The New York Review, December 3, 1998.

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