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After Nature

After Nature

4.5 2
by W. G. Sebald

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

After Nature, a prelude to the novels for which Sebald is most commonly recognized, is an example of the somber tone, clear description and graceful prosody that distinguish his style. Here Sebald presents two distinct sections, the first regarding Matthias Grunewald, a 16th-century painter, the second concerned with Georg Steller, a 19th-century botanist, before presenting a concluding autobiographical third poem. While the first two poems are thoroughly researched and provide interesting information, the creation of their individual characters through interpretive speculation provides intriguing elements of venue and motivation to somewhat obscure historic figures and situations. It is, however, a sense of the sophisticated intersections between the three individuals that unites the work. The use of motifs such as water, green vegetation and snow suggests that relationship in style. But there is a more subtle thread linking the sections in tone. "Tell me, child, / is your heart as heavy as / mine is, year after year / a pebble bank raised / by the waves of the sea / all the way to the North, / every stone a dead soul / and this sky so grey?" Sebald's vision, the most refined connection between the three components, is stated at the outset of the third section. "But if I see before me / the nervature of past life / in one image, I always think / that this has something to do / with truth." While somewhat demanding in content, the echoing undercurrents that tie these eras and individuals together make this a rewarding read, and the clarity of the prose poem as translated by Michael Hamburger makes it more accessible than one might imagine. KLIATT Codes: A-Recommended for advancedstudents and adults. 2002, Random House, Modern Library, 116p., Ages 17 to adult.
— James Beschta
Library Journal
Alas, Sebald didn't live to see the National Book Critics Circle give him its 2001 fiction award for Austerlitz. At least readers have the consolation of this three-part prose poem, which limns the life journeys of Renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald, explorer/botanist Georg Stellar, and Sebald himself. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"In the five or six years before he was killed in December 2001, Max Sebald began to reap the harvest of a lifetime's immaculate thinking, feeling, and writing. He became widely celebrated for the originality of his forms, for his range, and for his emotional seriousness. All these things are present here, in the first of his posthumously-published works. In language that is at once plainly strong and spiderishly delicate, he addresses the themes of migration, stillness and remembering which were his recurrent preoccupation. But by presenting them within the mixed disciplines and freedoms of blank verse, he gives them terrific freshness and potency. After Nature is a deeply intelligent book, but also a marvellously warm, exciting and compassionate one." -- Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate of Great Britain

“A wonderful introduction to this compelling and impressive writer.” -- USA Today

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Modern Library Paperbacks
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2 MB

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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After Nature 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago