The unfortunate traveller. The late W G Sebald had the aura of a magician. But who was he? Why couldn't he live in his native Germany? And why do his books inspire such wonder? By Robert Winder
On the Natural History of Destruction
W G Sebald Hamish Hamilton, 205pp, £16.99
A year ago last December, the German writer W G Sebald was killed in a car crash in East Anglia. He had lived in England since 1966, first in Manchester and then near Norwich, after becoming professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. At that time, he was a writer of small but glittering renown, on the basis of four works that were winning prizes and new admirers every day. In Germany he was also a noted literary critic, and the book under review here - a critique of Germany's failure to respond in literature to the Allied bombardment that killed more than 600,000 people - created its own firestorm when it was published there in 1999.
It appears here at a time when aerial bombing is much on our minds. But despite the title - which suggests a thorough anatomy - this is no wide-ranging meditation on air power (for that, see Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing, published by Granta). Sebald's focus is narrower. He is surprised that so few German writers were able to bear witness to the destruction of their own cities, and wants to explore this telling imaginative lapse.
He looks at writers not much known here, such as Peter de Mendelssohn, Hermann Kasack, Hans Erich Nossack and Arno Schmidt, and finds little more than a cliched recoiling from "that fateful day . . . that dreadful night" when "all hell was let loose" by the "teeming messengers of death". It is fine literary criticism (sharp enough to prompt at least one angry letter from Germany claiming that the bombing was a typical Jewish plot). But for a British audience, this is quite arcane material. Nor does it seem so very surprising. Everything he says feels well-judged, but in finding the taboos erected against that unforgettable horror so mystifying he seems to overlook the obvious extent to which postwar German publishers were obliged to wave aside anything that smacked of self-pity. Reconstruction was the order of the day; no one was about to shed tears over German suffering in the war.
There are moments, however, when the neutral critic's voice gives way to the resonant, digressive and mysterious style which has become Sebald's signature. In four books - The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz - he ranged over recent European history with what seemed an authentic new voice. His prose was filtered through an intense sensibility - by Kafka, out of Nabokov. And it was draped around old photographs - a banister, a fishing smack, the author standing by a tree, a lighthouse - that turned readers into browsers, rummaging about in an attic crammed with flashing images. The text sluiced around these illustrations like water in an Alpine brook, permitting itself to be checked or diverted, but never pausing in its downward rush.
The overall effect is mesmeric and quite wonderful - simultaneously lucid and unfathomable. The text obeys the grammar of causality - the traditional literary taste for causes and effects - but declines to recognise the usual constraints of chronological pressure. The narration is not a sequence of events but a snakes-and-ladders collage of memories. Suspense is generated not by any uncertainty about what might happen next, but through the accumulation of suggestions and the intensity of the sights along the way. The photographs, slamming into sight and whipping away again like glimpses out of a train window, suggest a sobering destination: after a disused tennis court, a pile of skulls; after an Alpine meadow, a row of corpses. But then the line branches, and we find ourselves in a sunlit apple orchard, or being gazed at by a child in fancy dress, or in an empty doorway.
Page follows page with hallucinatory urgency. The narrator might see a brass squirrel in the window of a shop in the Jewish quarter in Prague, which will remind him of the squirrel he once saw foraging beside a canal in Manchester, which will remind him of the rats that colonised Dresden, which will kindle memories of a rat-catcher he once met in Ipswich who was wearing a hat very like the one his uncle used to wear in Heidelberg. And he might remember how this uncle had a crude painting of a squirrel behind the piano in his house, which he would copy with old crayons while the troops marched past outside. And that echo of troops marching outside would trigger echoes of the narrator's own father marching off to war and never coming back, and how the last news they had from him was written on a postcard of an Alpine mountain, a mountain he himself had once tried to climb.
In making these rolling leaps and connections, Sebald achieves nothing so much as a jagged sense of dislocation. Forgotten intensities are retrieved and found still to reverberate. This is especially true in the novel Austerlitz, which presents (as if faithfully transcribing them) the rambling but precise recollections of an evacuated Jewish child trying, as an adult and architectural historian, to retrace the springs of his peculiar temperament. It is unputdownable, and not only because it consists of a single unbroken chapter (in 400 pages there are only three paragraphs). This is no mere stream of consciousness: it is a wide river whose banks we cannot even see, but which bobs us along on its stately journey into one of Europe's bleakest memories. It's like driving in a blizzard. The pictures - a staircase, a watch, a moth, a railway station, a stamp - blink like lamps while the prose drifts and clears and swims before our eyes. As in an overexposed photo, darkness is always seeping in from the edges and threatening to eclipse these fleeting visions.
There is something disquieting here: a good deal of Sebald's work is of uncertain authenticity. Some of the mementoes seem manifestly his own; others must be borrowed or invented. The task of untangling memoir from fiction is going to keep scholars busy for years, and may prove impossible, because Sebald writes in the persona of a Borgesian first person - one who was born in Germany and lives in East Anglia, but who seems also to have witnessed Napoleonic campaigns. It is not beyond imagination that someone, some day, will pop up and denounce him as a thoroughgoing fraud. But it seems too late for such judgements to matter. The books are mazy tributes to the promptings of both private and collective memories. That Sebald died before divulging his secrets gives him the aura of a magician. Quite how all those rabbits ended up in that hat we will never know.
His new book scarcely belongs in this extraordinary oeuvre. The roaring of aircraft on the news gives it topicality, but its main thesis - the tendency of German literature to ignore all that rubble in the streets - may prove premature. Recollections of horror take years to emerge; it took decades even for memoirs of the Holocaust to appear in print, so it would not be surprising if the accounts whose absence Sebald regrets started to emerge only now. As it happens, a book did appear in Germany last year on precisely this point. Jorg Friedrich's The Fire: Germany under bombardment (1940-45) created headlines both in Germany and in Britain with its polemical view that the Allied bombardment was a gratuitous war crime. Alas, he was merely outraged - in Sebald's view, a fake and self-important way of giving our own piffling opinions priority over the experience itself. To him, there is only one reasonable response to such events: bafflement, sadness, wonder. Even in his darkest moments, life feels miraculous.
Robert Winder is working on a book about immigration