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W G Sebald's apocalyptic vision: The world will end in 2013

Radio producer and journalist Isabel Sutton travelled to Germany to talk about W G Sebald with his old friend and fellow academic Professor Rüdiger Görner. She meets him in the same hotel bar where he and Sebald had lunched together many years before.

Portrait of W G Sebald.
“In Sebald’s writings the narrator accumulates baggage while travelling through time and space and memory. You are not necessarily trapped by the past, but your specific memories – and also the collective memory – stay with you.”

It seemed somehow fitting to be meeting to talk about W G Sebald in a hotel bar with his old friend and fellow academic Professor Rüdiger Görner – indeed, the same hotel bar where he and Sebald had lunched together many years before.

Often in Sebald’s writing, the semi-autobiographical narrator describes similar encounters with old friends and acquaintances. The narrator in The Rings of Saturn describes the ‘feeling of repetition’ which comes upon him at such meetings: ‘The physical sensation…which sometimes lasts for several minutes and can be quite disconcerting...resulting in a temporary inability to think, to speak or to move one’s limbs, as though, without being aware of it, one had suffered a stroke.’

Part of me is inclined to laugh at the drama with which Sebald describes such unremarkable and everyday experiences; but his genius is to mark the unremarkable, to observe what others miss or deliberately ignore, and to identify vestiges of the past in the landscape of the present. As I sat with Professor Görner in the Dom Hotel in Cologne’s Roncalliplatz, he showed the same keen eye for the traces of history in our surroundings.

The Dom Hotel, he told me, is something of a Cologne institution. Ever since 1866, there’s been a hotel on the same site – right in the shadow of the cathedral (or ‘dom’) after which it is named. The current building dates from the 1890s but – if you look at photographs taken at this time – it isn’t immediately recognisable.

The Dom Hotel in 1898. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the topmost story with its trio of turrets is gone; and the hotel makes less of an impression than it did in its heyday before it suffered bomb damage during the Second World War. Nonetheless, it’s still up and running, offering a formal, slightly old-fashioned service to its guests.

“I met Max Sebald here in this very place, in the shadow of the huge cathedral,” Rüdiger Görner tells me. “Sebald loved this city, and was very fond of this particular hotel, as he told me at the time.”

Sebald never lived in Cologne, but it’s a city with obvious resonance for a writer who – until his death in 2001 – was obsessed with the legacy of history, particularly following the two world wars.

“Sebald loved Cologne,” Professor Görner continued, “because he liked the diversity of this place.”

“It offers one of the most iconic buildings in Germany, the cathedral, and it also offers a bewildering amalgamation of architectural modernism.” There are remnants of Roman architecture, 12 Romanesque churches and a medieval Jewish bath currently being excavated.

The cathedral itself was an architectural project that spanned 632 years. Begun in 1248, it was finally finished in the mid-nineteenth century. After construction stalled in the late-fifteenth century, later generations were faced with the troubling question of how to complete the Gothic building. This, Rüdiger Görner told me, was an idea that intrigued Sebald, and you can understand why. Few writers are more concerned with the question of how we relate to our past.

Sebald’s very first literary work, the epic poem After Nature, is structured around the lives of three figures, the artist Matthias Grünewald, the botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller and finally the poet himself. These three lives together span five centuries, yet Sebald implies correspondences between them across time and space. Rüdiger Görner suggests that the poem raises a number of themes we encounter in Sebald’s subsequent prose works: in particular, “you get a strong sense that Sebald was very keen to portray in poetic terms the multi-layeredness of history, of German and indeed European history; and somehow, Cologne represents all of that in a nutshell. After all, by comparison, Berlin is young. Cologne is the very place where traditions and cultural influences merged to an extent of concentration that you find along the Rhine more frequently than anywhere else in Germany.”

On the other side of the Rhine to the cathedral, on the western edge of the city, is the lively cultural district of Ehrenfeld. Once upon a time, Ehrenfeld was a separate town, which grew so affluent in the nineteenth century that it became part of Cologne itself. Now it’s full of artists and filmmakers, and home to a converted warehouse and theatre called the Halle Kalk (part of the Köln Schauspiel.) It was here, in May last year, that British director Katie Mitchell directed Sebald’s Die Ringe die Saturn on stage.

The idea of transforming Sebald’s dense and introverted prose into live performance would strike many as an impossible challenge. But, after reading The Rings of Saturn, this is exactly what Katie Mitchell wanted to do. During discussions with the Köln Schauspiel, she suggested the possibility of staging Sebald.

“The chief dramaturg was very interested by The Rings of Saturn,” Katie told me, “because in Germany Sebald’s writing is not so well received as it is in the UK.”

Certainly Sebald has been a controversial figure in his homeland. His voluntary exile from Germany and his criticism of other post-war German writers have both served to make him unpopular in some quarters.

In the late 1990s, Sebald delivered four lectures in Zurich, which are now published under the title On The Natural History of Destruction. These lectures concentrate on the allied bombing campaigns that destroyed cities like Hamburg, Dresden, and indeed Cologne, during the Second World War. Sebald describes the impact of the 1943 bombing of Hamburg in meticulous and horrifying detail: ‘Residential districts so large that their total street length amounted to two hundred kilometers were utterly destroyed. Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorus flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size.’

In Cologne, Sebald reports, there were 31.1 cubic metres of rubble for every person left in the city after the war. He quotes the journalist Janet Flanner describing her impressions of the ravaged city of Cologne in The New Yorker: ‘Through its clogged streets trickles what is left of its life, a dwindled population in black and with bundles – the silent German people appropriate to the silent city.’ And here you have the chief concern of Sebald’s lectures: ‘That silence, that reserve, that instinctive looking away are the reasons why we know so little of what the Germans thought and observed in the five years between 1942 and 1947’. ‘The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation, as it set about rebuilding itself, only in the form of vague generalizations.’

This sense of destruction was what struck Katie Mitchell when she first visited Cologne: she remembers being shocked and unsettled by the general absence of old buildings. In the flat she’d rented there was as place mat picturing the deserted landscape of the city after the war, with only the two spindly spires of the cathedral rising out of the rubble.

The Rings of Saturn may be set in East Anglia, but it’s a book that is no less concerned with the ‘traces of destruction’ following the two world wars. Working with a cast of actors from Cologne, Katie Mitchell made no attempt to avoid the uncomfortable questions that might emerge from these undercurrents in the book. Instead, she took the British and German team to the East Anglian coastline to encounter first-hand the ‘traces of destruction’ which the book so memorably describes.

Sebald’s phrase, ‘the traces of destruction’, which appears on the very first page of The Rings of Saturn, is ominous and obscure; but you don’t have to read much further before you begin to understand his meaning. On the long walk down the coast, Sebald’s semi-autobiographical narrator stops first at Somerleyton Hall, where he encounters an elderly gardener called William Hazel: ‘When he realized where I was from he told me that during his last years at school, and his subsequent apprenticeship, his thoughts constantly revolved around the bombing raids then being launched on Germany from the sixty-seven airfields that were established in East Anglia after 1940.’

What was extraordinary to Katie – when she and her team made their own pilgrimage to Somerleyton – was how little the German cast had ever learnt of the bombing campaign over Germany. This aspect of the history of the war was largely excluded from their school teaching, and the cultural consciousness of Germany after the war.

Standing in a derelict airfield between Woodbridge and Orford, the German actors and British production team were forced to imagine what William Hazel describes at the beginning of The Rings of Saturn:

‘Every evening I watched the bomber squadrons heading out over Somerleyton, and night after night, before I went to sleep, I pictured in my mind’s eye the German cities going up in flames, the firestorms setting the heavens alight, and the survivors rooting about in the ruins.’

This attempt to “experience” The Rings of Saturn may seem, on one level, to neglect the nuances of a book that only ever hints at the undercurrents of the narrator’s observations. But, on another level, it seems to reflect a way of thinking that Sebald actively encourages in his writing.

“Memory in W G Sebald’s literature refers to a very personal responsibility,” as Professor Görner puts it. “It is a responsibility that has a great deal to do with T.S. Eliot’s famous line, ‘my end is my beginning and my beginning lies in my end.’”

“In Sebald’s writings the narrator accumulates baggage while travelling through time and space and memory. Sebald suggests that there is no such thing as the possibility of disentangling yourself from the past. You are not necessarily trapped by the past, but your specific memories – and also the collective memory – stay with you.”

Katie Mitchell’s assistant director on The Rings of Saturn was Stefan Nagel. Stefan was born and raised in Cologne and the collective history of the German people – written into the landscape of cities like Cologne – is deeply significant for him personally: “For me I think, as a German, it’s very important that this history actually happened. It helped to construct an identity that we have as Germans. I think that I’m a bit different from the usual German because a lot of people in my generation feel like they should not be bothered with the past anymore since we’re a new generation: we obviously have the burden in our history, but still it’s nothing to do with us. For me it always is a bit – actually it sounds a bit strange if I say it – but a bit like a privilege to have that background, to be aware of what can actually happen wrong in the world because we were told about that and…made aware of how conflict can easily take over.”

Sebald’s first novel Vertigo ends with a vision of an apocalypse. The narrator has just been reading the account of the Great Fire of London in Samuel Pepys’ diary before he begins to doze and dream:

Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

These are the final words of the English translation but, in the original German edition, there is something more: the date ‘– 2013 –’ and then, beneath it, the word ‘Ende’.

The final page of Sebald's first novel, Vertigo, in the German original. Image: Vertigo.

I asked Rüdiger Görner if he could shed any light on what the significance of this date might be. “It’s a hypothetical year,” he suggested, but not perhaps entirely random. 1813 and 1913 are both years that are mentioned earlier in the novel (the first corresponding to a critical moment in the life of Stendhal and the second to a difficult point in the life of Kafka.) These years are also threshold years: 1813 saw the Battle of Leipzig and heralded the fall of Napoleon; 1913 was the eve of the First World War. Why might 2013 not be another such year – a tuning point in time?

The ‘feeling of repetition’ is perhaps all we need take away from the curious date at the end of Vertigo. Sebald asks merely that we pay attention to our place in time, remembering that we come in a line stretching far back into the past. When asked by Piet de Moor why he’d foreshadowed the apocalypse for 2013, Sebald replied:

Of course, I don’t know what 2013 will bring, but whether we shall carry on for that long, either individually or collectively, is uncertain. Even so, it is amazing that we still learnt at school that the world is eternal and that we are all very secure within the balance of Nature. Less than half a century later, this comforting certainty has simply vanished; one day we shall be presented with the bill.

As Sebald reminds us throughout his prose, the human race is constantly bringing down destruction upon the face of the earth; and it can only be a matter of time before we face the cost.

Professor Rüdiger Görner is director of Anglo-German cultural relations and Professor of German at Queen Mary, University of London.

Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision, produced by Isabel Sutton, will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 21.30 on 8 June. It is a Just Radio production for the BBC.