“Most writers, even good ones, write of what can be written. . . . The very greatest write of what cannot be written. . . . I think of Akhmatova and Primo Levi, for example, and of W. G. Sebald.”
—The New York Times
“[Sebald] is writing about what he regards as a disquieting refusal to face facts—not only about what was done to the nation, but by implication, by the nation. . . . No better future for humankind is possible if we do less than look upon the crimes of our past, and their catastrophic results, with ‘a steadfast gaze.’”
—The Boston Sunday Globe
“This may well be the last of Sebald’s writing we’ll ever have, so how amazing—and fitting—it is that it seems, in a fashion as uncanny as his prose and perceptions could often be, to close the circle of the ruminations that preoccupied his writing life.”
—The Washington Post
“Sebald approaches his subject with sensitivity, yet avoids neither descriptions of horrible carnage nor criticism of writers too preoccupied with absolving themselves of blame to faithfully portray a destroyed Germany. The result is a balanced explication of devastation and denial, and a beautiful coda for Sebald.”
“The secret of Sebald’s appeal is that he saw himself in what now seems almost an old-fashioned way as a voice of conscience, someone who remembers injustice, who speaks for those who can no longer speak.”
—The New York Review of Books
It's hard to miss what he was really saying. Just as Germany was wiederaufgebaut, reconstructed, so Sebald, in this work, reconstructs the reality of what was visited upon Germany. He doesn't do it to give Germans license to say "Look, hey, we suffered too." He does it to remind them of the price they paid for their nation's grievous sin. The silence that was imposed about the firebombing horror is "very understandable," he writes, "if one remembers that the Germans, who had proposed to cleanse and sanitize all Europe, now had to contend with a rising fear that they themselves were the rat people." Yet in Sebald's thinking, facing that reality is the only way to come to terms with it. In that sense, On the Natural History of Destruction is but the final piece of the work of expiation this audacious writer spent his life putting together. Work undertaken, as he confesses in his essay on the playwright Peter Weiss, "in order to set memory to work, since it alone justifies survival in the shadow of a mountain of guilt." — Zofia Smardz
On the Natural History of Destruction is a complex apologia of a
book, one that attempts to absolve a son of the sins of the father by
establishing a larger and more generic ground for incrimination. It is a
testament, among other things, to the lingering impact of early familial
identifications and to the powerful grip of unresolved conflicts between
intellectual and emotional allegiances. — Daphne Merkin
Shortly before his untimely death last year, Sebald had published to great acclaim Austerlitz, the NBCC Prize-winning fourth of his novel-memoirs that appeared in rapid succession. Now comes this slim collection of four essays addressing the same themes that preoccupied Sebald in Austerlitz and his other major works-memory and survival in an era marked by so much wanton cruelty. The four essays gathered here find Sebald turning his luminous intelligence and rich, sometimes caustic prose on major figures of postwar German literature. Sebald can be a devastating critic: he dislikes melodrama and falsehood, is inspired by crisp, serious prose and veracity. In essays on Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery and Peter Weiss, Sebald suggests that great writing is underpinned by moral fortitude. In "Air War and Literature," Sebald criticizes the silence of postwar German literature on the starvation, mutilations and killings caused by Allied bombings. The essay provoked a major controversy when it appeared in Germany in 1999. Some commentators were dismayed that Sebald chose to revisit those difficult times and to attack, with his full ironic and sardonic powers, a number of revered figures in German literature. Sebald was dismayed that his comments provoked an outpouring of support from those who could talk only about German suffering and Jewish conspiracies. But only at the very end, almost as an afterthought, does Sebald place this suffering in historical context, as the consequence of German policies of total war and the Holocaust. "Air War and Literature" is an important but flawed effort by a writer who always demanded unflinching engagement with the past. B&w photos. (On sale Feb. 11) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Author of the best-selling Austerlitz (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), Sebald died in 2001 before he could approve this felicitous translation of his Zurich lectures on the literature of the air war waged on Germany by the Allies and its destructive impact on the German population. Added to this English-language edition (already excerpted in The New Yorker) are three essays on German writers of the destruction, Karl Amery, Alfred Andersch, and Peter Weiss. Central to all of these essays is a meditation not on literary expression but on silence and its meanings. Especially in the Zurich lectures, Sebald considers the devastation of Germany and asks why writers were for so long silent, or equivocal, on this topic, as if to write at all about the bombings would be seen as claiming victimhood. These essays complement Sebald's major work but are secondary to it, though it is likely that the closely reasoned and limpid Zurich lectures will continue to be cited and read by specialists for years to come. Academic libraries aiming for completeness should include this volume; smaller or more general collections can represent this stream of thought with Austerlitz and with Primo Levi's If Not Now, When? [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/02.]-Barbara Walden, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Interconnected essays from the recently deceased German novelist (Austerlitz, 2001, etc.) on his nation’s capacity to cause, absorb, and forget suffering. "In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past," writes Sebald, "it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history and lacking in tradition." Born in 1944 in a corner of the Alps comparatively untouched by the war, his mental landscape was nonetheless populated by the ruins and corpses of the Hitler era. In the first portion of this text, he examines the Allied bombing campaigns that virtually leveled Germany’s cities and towns but—as the Allied commanders well knew, he asserts—did little damage to the Nazi war-making capability; it was punishment for its own sake. Though hundreds of thousands of civilians died, Sebald writes, the destruction "seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness, it has largely been obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected, and it never played any appreciable part in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country." Sebald lucidly depicts the suffering of his people even as he wonders why contemporaries are unwilling to discuss it. He ventures no apology or claim to victim status; as he carefully notes, "The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived." The second half considers the careers of several German writers whose work examines (or fails to examine) the horror of the time. Readers with a background in modern German literature will be at an advantage in following Sebald’s arguments,though this is not a prerequisite to understanding his glum conclusion that literature is essentially powerless in the face of evil. Somber and moving: a contribution to the literature of WWII from a perspective that will be new to most American readers.