On The Natural History Of Destruction, by W.G. Sebald
Having never read any of Sebald’s prose writing before, I did not know what to expect when reading this book on the writing about the destruction of Germany from an insider perspective . The late author has somewhat of an advantage in his writing that he is able to tackle the destruction of Germany from the perspective of someone without war guilt, and that is something that few of his contemporaries or near elders can say, most of whom were compromised by their own accommodations with Hitler’s regime and their own attempts at achieving literary fame at the cost of the truth. This book is certainly a murky one and one that has a worthwhile place in the metaliterary discussion about literature and its place. The author’s steadfast position against kitsch and melodrama where it interferes with grim realism is definitely something worth appreciating as well, although admittedly I do not consider myself to be particularly familiar with the debate that the author is engaged with involving other members of the postwar German literary scene, a scene I am no part of being an Anglophone whose historical interests are mostly pre-20th century in nature.
This book of almost 200 pages of material consists of four essays related to World War II and its impact on German letters. A foreword begins and then the author provides a revised version of a series of lectures that he had given in Zurich about the relationship of strategic bombing in World War II and German literature. This essay along with its postscript discusses how it was often foreigners who were the most perceptive about German bombing because most Germans refused to look out the windows of trains and refused to take in the destruction that was all around them. This deliberate ignorance made the writing that exists about the bombing of German cities often of a highly stereotypical nature rather than honest and open to the horrors. After this the author gives a pretty brutally frank discussion on the German author Alfred Andersch, who tried to pass himself off as a heroic and ambitious writer despite some immensely troubling aspects relating to his desertion from World War II and his shabby dismissal of his Jewish wife during the war and his own anti-Semitic work during the war in working for a publishing house. After this comes an essay on Jean Amèry that deals with how one faces the irreversible and tries to carry on as a writer after close encounters with death and horror. The book then closes with a look at remorse and memory and cruelty in the writings of Peter Weiss, another writer I must admit I am not very familiar with.
In reading this book I felt that I had some advantages as well as some disadvantages in dealing with the material. For one, I happen to have studied the debates over strategic bombing in the interwar and World War II period from the perspective of military history, which gives me some context in the author’s discussion. That said, I came to this book without a great deal of knowledge about the writers that the author deals with. It is intriguing to note how he acts like a detective when it comes to uncovering the difference between the author’s postwar claims and the documentary evidence of how some of these writers had actually behaved during World War II. In addition, the author is pretty unsparing when it comes to discussing the horrors of war and the limits of the human capacity to cope honestly with the destruction that came upon Nazi Germany. One wonders what would have been necessary for someone to be an uncompromised writer of postwar Germany.