By W.G. Sebald. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Random House. 220 pp. $24.95
Michael Dirda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His online discussion of books takes place each Thursday at 2 p.m.
W.G. Sebald, who was born in Germany in 1944, spent 30 years teaching modern European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. He died near there in an automobile accident in 2001, much lamented by admirers of his too few books, chiefly The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz. Readers of these four essay-fictions know that Sebald exemplified the best kind of cosmopolitan literary intelligence -- humane, digressive, deeply erudite, unassuming and tinged with melancholy. That last quality is particularly important, for if one had to characterize Sebald's ethos -- the mood he generates on the page, the themes that haunt him -- one could hardly do better than borrow the title of a famous essay by Freud: "Mourning and Melancholy."
What is Sebald mourning? It's tempting to say, almost fatuously, "the human condition," for he looks at life with that rare combination of empathetic hypersensitivity and analytic coolness that characterizes our greatest interpreters of this heartbreaking world -- Rembrandt, Stendhal, Kafka. In particular, Sebald finds himself drawn back repeatedly to the human and material devastation of World War II. In The Emigrants and Austerlitz, especially, he chronicles his encounters with the displaced, the exiled and the brokenhearted. He dramatizes survivor guilt and the loss of identity. He mourns the fate of the Jews -- and the fate of the Germans.
The latter is emphasized in several of the more scholarly pages of Campo Santo, a posthumous collection of Sebald's criticism and literary journalism. "Between History and Natural History," for instance, bears the subtitle "On the Literary Description of Total Destruction" and takes as its subject the nearly gratuitous obliteration bombing of German cities during World War II. In these reflections, Sebald springboards off several works of fiction and reportage, among the latter a study by Alexander Kluge called blandly, in the hope of avoiding sensation and the false allure of the merely literary, Neue Geschichten Hefte 1-18 ("New Stories. Nos. 1-18"). "If," writes Sebald, "the strategy of the area bombing of as many German cities as possible could not be justified by military objectives, which can hardly be denied today, then, as Kluge's book shows, the special case of the horrible devastation of a medium-sized town, of no importance either strategically or to the war economy, must raise serious questions about the factors determining the dynamic of technological warfare."
In particular, we learn that Kluge emphasizes "the organizational structure of such a disaster, showing how even when the facts have become clearer the catastrophe continues on its old course because of administrative apathy, and there is no chance of raising the difficult question of ethical responsibility." In fact, Kluge points out "so much intelligence, capital, and labor went into the planning of such destruction that, under the pressure of all the accumulated potential, it had to happen in the end." One U.S. Air Force general observed that bombs cost a lot and, even if a city had raised a white flag, these weapons of destruction "couldn't have been dropped over mountains or open country, after so much labor had gone into making them at home." The result of such "prior claims of productivity," notes Sebald dryly, is a ruined city.
Such sorrowful ruminations should give pause to any 21st-century American, but by and large Sebald's dense essays on the political convictions of writers Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Hildesheimer won't carry much resonance for non-Germans. Those patient enough to stick with them will, however, be rewarded with unexpected illuminations. For example, Böll once speculated that the contemporary German passion for speed and travel can be ascribed to this same period of intensive bombing, "when whole social groups were removed from the last secure factor in their lives, the places where they lived" and were thus forced to become nomads constantly on the move. To bracket these sobering thoughts about German national memory, Campo Santo opens with sections from Sebald's unfinished record of a journey to Corsica and closes with delicate appreciations of Nabokov, Kafka and travel writer Bruce Chatwin. In all these Sebald reveals his distinctive tone, as his winding sentences gradually mingle together curiosity and plangency, learning and self-revelation.
In "A Little Excursion to Ajaccio," Sebald writes, "I wandered through the streets feeling carefree and at ease, now and then going into one of the dark, tunnel-like entrances of buildings to read the names of their unknown inhabitants on the metal letter boxes with a certain rapt attention, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in one of these stone citadels, occupied to my life's end solely with the study of time past and passing." That last Proustian phrase prepares us for Sebald's rapture before a painting in the local museum: "I stood in front of this double portrait for a long time, seeing in it, as I thought at the time, an annulment of all the unfathomable misfortune of life." At such moments Sebald skirts close to the lachrymose, yet he can also step back and poke fun at his own tragic sense. The ticket-seller at the Casa Bonaparte is found dozing behind her desk, leading to "one of those moments strangely experienced in slow motion that are sometimes remembered years later. When the cashier rose, she proved to be a lady of very stately proportions. You could imagine her on an operatic stage, exhausted by the drama of her life, singing 'Lasciate mi morire' or some such closing aria." It turns out that the cashier, gender aside, precisely resembles the Emperor Napoleon himself.
In this collection's title piece, "Campo Santo" -- an elegy written in a Corsican graveyard -- Sebald meditates on the meanings of that singular island's burial customs, black clothing and belief in ghosts, as well as the spooky aura of old photographs and the hunger of the dead for the living. In its companion, "The Alps in the Sea," we learn that Corsica preserved well into the 19th century the greatest and tallest forests in Europe. A Saxon entomologist "had several sightings in the forest of Bavella of the Tyrrhenian red deer, Cervus elaphus corsicanus, now long since extinct, an animal of dwarfish stature and almost oriental appearance, with a head much too large for the rest of its body, and eyes wide with fear in constant expectation of death." In yet a final, very brief Corsican memory, Sebald recalls that the town of Porto Vecchio was one where "nothing happened, except that everything went on rotting and decaying as it had for centuries. There was always a strange silence in the streets, since half the population was drowsing the day away indoors, shaking with fever, or sitting on steps and doorways looking sallow and hollow-cheeked." That last observation, in its balance and poetry, shows how fine Anthea Bell's English translation can be.
The final items in this collection of disjecta membra (scattered remains) take up Nabokov's belief in "spirits," Kafka at the movies, the life of Bruce Chatwin (whose restless spirit so often resembles Sebald's) and musical moments in the author's life. Yet perhaps the most important of these shorter pieces is "An Attempt at Restitution," wherein Sebald reveals how he came to be a writer. He had gone to visit the workshop of former classmate Jan Peter Tripp, now a well-known artist:
"With the admiration I immediately felt for Tripp's work it also occurred to me that I too would like to do something one day besides giving lectures and holding seminars. At the time Tripp gave me a present of one of his engravings, showing the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull -- what can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds? -- and much of what I have written later derives from this engraving, even in my method of procedure: in adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life."
Like Guy Davenport (whom he resembles in associative erudition) and Penelope Fitzgerald (whom he matches in wisdom about the somber truths of life), Sebald came late to "creative" writing. As a result, his themes are naturally autumnal and grave, marked by the seriousness of middle age. Yet Sebald's spirit remains that of a philosophical gypsy: His various books look back at holidays spent wandering among the fens and moorlands of England, prowling the junkshops of London and Manchester, lingering in Paris train stations and Dutch museums.
Though W.G. Sebald's kindliness irradiates every page he ever wrote, the smile on his face remains thin and wistful. He knows that "On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark."
That's from The Rings of Saturn. In its epigraph Sebald notes that the planet's distinctive rings were formed out of the fragments of a former moon, thus even there adumbrating the persistent Sebaldian theme of the mutability of all things. He is a writer who will appeal most strongly to those with some experience of life's sorrows or of an introspective nature similar to his own. Appropriately enough, Saturn isn't only a beautiful ringed planet; he is also the god of melancholy.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.