After Natureby W. G. Sebald
After Nature, W. G. Sebald’s first literary work, now translated into English by Michael Hamburger, explores the lives of three men connected by their restless questioning of humankind’s place in the natural world. From the efforts of each, “an order arises, in places beautiful and comforting, though more cruel, too, than the previous state of ignorance.” The first figure is the great German Re-naissance painter Matthias Grünewald. The second is the Enlightenment botanist-explorer Georg Steller, who accompanied Bering to the Arctic. The third is the author himself, who describes his wanderings among landscapes scarred by the wrecked certainties of previous ages.
After Nature introduces many of the themes that W. G. Sebald explored in his subsequent books. A haunting vision of the waxing and waning tides of birth and devastation that lie behind and before us, it confirms the author’s position as one of the most profound and original writers of our time.
From the Hardcover edition.
“The language of After Nature, as conveyed in Michael Hamburger’s flawlessly clear translation, is classically lucid. . . . It is [Sebald’s] ability to enter diverse inner landscapes, and evoke, with an impartial empathy, entire geographies of experience, that gives [his] writing . . . its gravitas and its somber beauty.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Accessible and moving . . . a wonderful introduction to this compelling and impressive writer, even for those who insist they do not like or understand poetry.” —USA Today
“Here, we find the contours or outlines of his singular vision, the interconnecting, often uninterpreted threads of association that constitute a life, and meditations on his great themes of exile, memory, and loss.” —The Washington Post
“The verse retains the Sebaldian virtues of rhetorical elegance and clarity, and sits well in English, as indeed does virtually every word he wrote. . . . [After Nature] is a work of great power and seriousness, fully worthy to stand beside the prose works of Sebald’s last decade.” —The New York Review of Books
Read an Excerpt
Whoever closes the wings
of the altar in the Lindenhardt
parish church and locks up
the carved figures in their casing
on the lefthand panel
will be met by St. George.
Foremost at the picture's edge he stands
above the world by a hand's breadth
and is about to step over the frame's
threshold. Georgius Miles,
man with the iron torso, rounded chest
of ore, red-golden hair and silver
feminine features. The face of the unknown
Grünewald emerges again and again
in his work as a witness
to the snow miracle, a hermit
in the desert, a commiserator
in the Munich Mocking of Christ.
Last of all, in the afternoon light
in the Erlangen library, it shines forth
from a self-portrait, sketched out
in heightened white crayon, later destroyed
by an alien hand's pen and wash,
as that of a painter aged forty
to fifty. Always the same
gentleness, the same burden of grief,
the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled
and sliding sideways down into loneliness.
Grünewald's face reappears, too,
in a Basel painting by Holbein
the Younger of a crowned female saint.
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other's
image where their paths had crossed.
Hence too, at the centre of
the Lindenhardt altar's right wing,
that troubled gaze upon the youth
on the other side of the older man
whom, years ago now, on a grey
January morning I myself once
encountered in the railway station
in Bamberg. It is St. Dionysius,
his cut-off head under one arm.
To him, his chosen guardian
who in the midst of life carries
his death with him, Grünewald gives
the appearance of Riemenschneider, whom
twenty years later the Würzburg bishop
condemned to the breaking of his hands
in the torture cell. Long before that time
pain had entered into the pictures.
That is the command, knows the painter
who on the altar aligns himself
with the scant company of the
fourteen auxiliary saints. Each of these,
the blessed Blasius, Achaz and Eustace;
Panthaleon, Aegidius, Cyriax, Christopher and
Erasmus and the truly beautiful
St. Vitus with the cockerel,
each look in different
directions without knowing
why. The three female saints
Barbara, Catherine and Margaret on
the other hand hide at the edge
of the left panel behind the back of
St. George putting together their
uniform oriental heads for
a conspiracy against the men.
The misfortune of saints
is their sex, is the terrible
separation of the sexes which Grünewald
suffered in his own person. The exorcised
devil that Cyriax, not only because
of the narrow confines, holds raised
high as an emblem in
the air is a female being
and, as a grisaille of Grünewald's
in the Frankfurt Städel shows in
the most drastic of fashions, derives from
Diocletian's epileptic daughter,
the misshapen princess Artemia whom
Cyriax, as beside him she kneels on
the ground, holds tightly leashed
with a maniple of his vestments
like a dog. Spreading out
above them is the branch work
of a fig tree with fruit, one of which
is entirely hollowed out by insects.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
W. G. Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgäu, Germany, in 1944. He studied German language and literature in Freiburg, Switzerland, and Manchester. He taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, for thirty years, becoming professor of European literature in 1987, and from 1989 to 1994 was the first director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. His previously translated books—The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, Vertigo, and Austerlitz—have won a number of international awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Berlin Literature Prize, and the Literatur Nord Prize. He died in December 2001.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is not a novel, nor is it exactly poetry. Sebald has a unique style that alludes to everything and yet tells the story of nothing--literally. This book will invoke your emotional unrest while simultaneously denouncing itself as a presence. It is impossible to read any of Sebald's texts as 'stories'; he is an historian, critic, philosopher and perhaps, finally, a fictional writer. Be prepared to read slowly and carefully or you will miss that intangible and ineffable thing which makes you continue reading in the first place.