In a recent review in these pages of two posthumous works by W.G. Sebald, perhaps the greatest of contemporary German writers, Charles Simic mentioned Sebald’s nonfiction book On the Natural History of Destruction, in which the subject was “the carpet bombing of German cities by the Allies and the strange silence in German literature after the war about that experience.” Sebald, he continues, makes in another essay, Campo Santo, the “interesting point that the most effective descriptions of total destruction of cities, an experience that surpasses all imagination, is to be found in the most matter-of-fact reports, such as letters.”
Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944 and died in England in December 2001 (he was by then professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia). When he wrote Campo Santo he probably had never heard of A Woman in Berlin: it was suppressed by the author soon after it first appeared, precisely because of the indignation it aroused. The book is neither fiction nor letters, but a diary—the diary of a thirty-four-year-old woman in Berlin, between April 20 and June 22, 1945. It begins a few days after the start of the artillery bombardment that opened the attack of Russian troops on Berlin, by which time the American and British air forces had already reduced much of the city to rubble. So it is all about destruction and hunger, and rape by Russian soldiers.
The diarist was highly educated. When the first bombs fell, she penciled a verse by Horace on the wall of her room:
Si fractus illabatur orbis
Impavidum ferient ruinae.
(Should Nature’s pillared frame give way,
that wreck would strike one fearless head.)
(The translation is from the English version of the diary. The German original doesn’t bother with translation.) The anonymous diarist was a writer by profession, a journalist and editor, although we never learn where she worked. She certainly knew how to write. In one entry after another, she manages to be brisk and perceptive, vivid, evocative, horrified, disgusted, heart-rending; and there is even an occasional murmur from the undercurrent of laid-back and quite friendly sarcasm that Berliners like to claim as their special brand of humor.
The book has a foreword by the poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whose stature as a writer in Germany is probably comparable to Sebald’s own. He says that the diary was first published anonymously in English in the United States in 1954. (It remains anonymous to this day; though as you might expect, at least one German writer has claimed to know who wrote it.) No German publisher would touch it, and it took five more years before the original German text appeared in 1959. Even then, the publisher was not German, but Swiss. “German readers were obviously not ready to face some uncomfortable truths, and the book was met with either hostility or silence,” Enzensberger writes.
One of the few critics who reviewed it complained about the …