Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

They are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes …

Hearing the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought it was about time that I investigated last year’s winner, Patrick Modiano. Like many on this side of the Channel, the French novelist’s name was unknown to me. Now my literary friend Dave reckoned I should read his 1997 novella Dora Bruder, published here as The Search Warrant. It proved to be an excellent recommendation: Modiano’s spare and finely-written excavation of memory is a haunting addition to the literature of the Holocaust and one that is unique, being neither Holocaust memoir nor historical fiction but a skilful reconstruction of a life and a moving reflection on his country’s amnesia surrounding collaboration and the fate of French Jews during the Occupation. Continue reading “Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces”

Dresden and the history of bombing

Dresden and the history of bombing

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5

In Dresden on 13 February, they commemorated the 70th anniversary of the RAF air raid that reduced the city to rubble.  The RAF attack – carried out by 800 bombers on a cloudless night – was  the most destructive raid of the second world war. In the firestorm  that was unleashed around 25,000 people, mainly civilians, were killed in a few hours. It remains by far the most controversial British wartime act. Continue reading “Dresden and the history of bombing”

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald): the synchronicity of words and images

Patience (After Sebald) is a film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It was premiered last year at a weekend festival celebrating Sebald in Aldeburgh and, unable to get there, I’ve wanted to see it ever since.  On our first afternoon on a short break in London there was, fortuitously, a one-off screening at the Renoir cinema in Bloomsbury and so we grabbed at the chance to see it.

The emergence of this film reflects the huge rise in Sebald’s reputation:  a contributor to the film even suggests that, had he not died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001, he might by now have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Gee’s film explores Sebald’s profound influence on contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film.

Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany constitute a recurrent strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.

The Rings of Saturn is an unclassifiable work – Sebald’s idiosyncratic style absorbs elements of travel writing (a walk along the Suffolk coast), history book, Holocaust literature, biography, poetry, essay, and photography.  On one level, Patience (After Sebald) takes the form of Grant Gee walking in Sebald’s footsteps along the route taken in the book, filming the landscape in grainy black and white, like the images in Sebald’s book, and evoking the book’s powerful sense of a landscape refracted through the memory of the narrator.  These are atmospheric passages in the film, enhanced by Sebald’s words which are voiced superbly by Jonathan Pryce.

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place. Perhaps it was because of this that, a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility. It was then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages.
– WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, opening lines

Embarking on a film about The Rings of Saturn there is obviously a strong temptation to do this – to follow in Sebald’s footsteps-  but Gee is aware of this, and several contributors to his film comment on the futility of such an endeavour, such as Robert Macfarlane, who tells of his  attempt to retrace Sebald’s melancholy-drenched steps. He arrived in Lowestoft, and the weather was lovely, and everybody was smiling.  He quickly realised that he was having too much fun, so he went and had a swim in the sea and gave up the venture.

Patience is an essay film rather than a conventional documentary, so there isn’t the usual gamut of people who knew Sebald talking about the man, or literary critics talking about his work. Gee’s film is more subtle than that; what we hear are responses by some of those who have been touched by his work, including writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean.

Gee weaves their words into the film with great sensitivity: sometimes they are heard  only on the soundtrack, while at others their heads fade in like ghostly apparitions over the landscape. The pace is measured, and the minor key mood is reinforced by the soundtrack music contributed by Leyland Kirby working under his moniker The Caretaker in which snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise are treated electronically – I quote – ‘subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear’.

Gee’s film opens with a Google map created by Barbara Hui: Litmap uses Google to digitally map literature, to create a tool that can be used alongside traditional methods of close reading in order to critically examine narratives in terms of their geospatiality. She explains:

In keeping with spatial theorist Doreen Massey, I contend that places be defined as the nodes that are constituted by the intersection of multiple lines or paths of social networks. As she describes it:

What gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus. If one moves in from the satellite towards the globe, holding all those networks of social relations and movements and communications in one’s head, then each ‘place’ can be seen as a particular, unique, point of their intersection. It is, indeed, a meeting place. Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, a region, or even a continent.

This approach is certainly appropriate to The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald’s musings, as he walks along his Suffolk path, spiral outwards through time and place and across the globe.

Gee’s film is largely successful in capturing the book’s sense of physical meandering that provokes disparate mental associations.  Tracing Sebald’s path in grainy black and white, the film segues into archive footage and back, collapsing present into past and echoing the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, the originals repeatedly photocopied until their lines were sufficiently blurred. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a high definition colour segment, such as when his friend and translator Michael Hamburger speaks of the man he knew.

Grant Gee’s documentary is a labour of love, its elegiac tone making an engaging tribute to Sebald’s work.  There is only one questionable moment – the sequence in which some besotted Sebald follower decides to set of a firework at the roadside location where Sebald died and then claims to discern his facial features in the drifting smoke should have been excised. Overall, the film provides a useful guide to The Rings of Saturn (when Jonathan Pryce reads an extract the page number appears on screen), though someone who has not read the book may find themselves adrift.

It is those passages in which Jonathan Pryce reads from the book itself, augmenting Gee’s photography with the author’s sonorous words that are the best moments in which words and image synchronise with absolute perfection.

See also

WG Sebald: Accounting for loss

On 14 December 2001, W. G. Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was 57.  At the time Sebald, a German born in the Bavarian village of Wertach in 1944, was professor of German literature at the University of East Anglia, having lived and worked as a university lecturer in England since his mid-twenties.  Only in the previous five years had he come to be widely recognized as one of the greatest living authors. Earlier that year, his book Austerlitz (about a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939, the memory of whose past has been lost) was published to universal acclaim, and he was being tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Marking the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death, Mark O’Connell in a piece entitled ‘Why You Should Read WG Sebald’, wrote in the New Yorker:

The weight of the loss to literature with his early death – of all the books he might have gone on to write – is counterbalanced only by the enigmatic pressure of the work he left behind. His four prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz are utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound. Susan Sontag, in a 2000 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, asked whether ‘literary greatness [was] still possible’.  She concluded that ‘one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald’.

Also marking the anniversary was a week of personal reflections on the life, work and influence of WG Sebald by those who knew him, broadcast in The Essay on BBC Radio 3 (and currently available to download as a podcast).  The series began with Sebald’s friend and colleague, Christopher Bigsby discussing, in ‘Not Responsibility – Shame’, how living in Norfolk allowed Sebald to write about the hidden history of his German homeland.

Sebald grew up in Wertach, Bavaria, one of four children of Rosa and Georg Sebald. His father, an army officer who served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, was a detached figure with whom Sebald was in contention for most of his life. After studying German literature at the University of Freiburg, Sebald took up the post of assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966.  In 1970 he was appointed lecturer at the University of East Anglia and settled in Norfolk.

Christopher Bigsby began by noting that in the ten years since his death, Sebald’s reputation has grown: ‘His was a truly orginal voice. He cannot be described in terms of anyone else’. Bigsby defined Sebald’s originality in these terms:

His publishers called his work novels, but that was because they couldn’t think of any other way to describe them.  In fact, they were a blend of fiction, autobiography and biography.  They featured photographs, and sometimes those were informative, sometimes merely ironic.  … In his work it’s difficult to be sure at any one moment whether you’re dealing with fact or fiction.  His books roam through time and space, they explore the nature of memory, and in particular a crime at the heart of his own country – the Holocaust.

Bigsby suggested that the only work comparable to Sebald is that of the Spanish novelist Javier Marías, who also used photographs and mixed fact and fiction, and had a similar approach to language, including a similar disregard for paragraphing.  After writing several books ‘of the sort that academics do’, Sebald developed ‘an elliptical style of writing, breaching the supposed boundaries between fact and fiction which you’re not supposed to do as an academic’.  But he didn’t regard them as being in opposition to one another: ‘reality certainly intruding into fiction and fiction surely shaping the way we see the world’.

In his book Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory Christopher Bigsby devoted a chapter to Sebald, and in his Radio 3 essay he focussed on the question: where in particular did his concern with the Jews and the Holocaust, a growing concern of his books, have its roots?  Bigsby noted that Sebald’s time as a student in Freiburg coincided with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, in which the accused were former guards at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  Sebald followed coverage of the trials in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  He later said that the trials ‘shifted his vision’: for him they were the first public admission that there was such a thing as ‘an unresolved German past’.

Sebald was the son of a man who had served in the war, but who refused to say anything of what he had done or seen.  As he later explained, his father’s first line of defence was always ‘I can’t remember’.  In Sebald’s work, Bigsby argued, the past is problematic, always ‘being re-edited’.  Later in childhood he came a cross a photograph album, a Christmas present from his father to his mother in 1939.  It featured a group of gypsies seen behind barbed wire.  There was no explanation.  His father had been among the troops that invaded Poland.

Reading reports of the Frankfurt trials, Bigsby went on, ‘Sebald suddenly realised that he had been taught by those who were professors under the Third Reich and that his was a country based on willed forgetfulness’.  As Sebald read reports of the trials, the accused seemed familiar figures – they could have been his next-door neighbours. ‘The Jews, however, were a different story; of them he had no experience: an absence for which he’d never had to account’.  Bigsby spoke of  conversations with Sebald in which he’d made the point that, being born in 1944, why did he have any sense of responsibility?  Sebald answered: ‘Not responsibility: shame’.  He felt this, he said, ‘because this is where I come from; this is my identity’.

Graduating from Freiburg, Sebald travelled to Manchester in 1966 to take up his first teaching post.  There, he met his first Jew. Later, he would say that ‘the attempted eradication of the Jewish people by his compatriots loomed largest among the historical experiences in his life, and that as a consequence he found it necessary to write about Jewish lives’.

Bigsby did not want to suggest that the Holocaust dominated his work; his significance, Bigsby argued, ‘lies in his writing’:

You can be reading one of his books, and a passage that seems to be autobiographical suddenly merges with an apparent historical account of someone in the 19th century, and the join is so seamless that I often find myself turning back to see if I can spot where one thing merged into another.  Then it turns out that that person, though an historical figure, is actually a character in a Stendhal novel.  Again, it takes time to realise this and this forces a re-evaluation of what you’ve been reading.  This may sound aridly academic: It is anything but.  What you’re following is a map of Max’s own devising, a collage, bits and pieces of experience that render up new meanings.

Often there’s a literal journey involved, whether it be along the Suffolk coast in The Rings of Saturn, or out of the darkness of Nazi Europe in Austerlitz.  And in that last novel, Austerlitz is the name of a character, a battle and the railway station in Paris from which the French Jews were sent to die.

But the journey is a double one, because it’s also about redemption, for this is the story, in part of the kindertransporte which, for a brief while, rescued Jewish children from their fate.  Why was Max drawn back to the past?  ‘Because’, he explained, ‘might it not be that we have appointments to keep in the past, and must go there in seach of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time?’

The crossing of boundaries was what Sebald himself did, said Bigsby; ‘but it was also his subject and his method’.  He was, argued Bigsby, ‘a writer of true originality… one of the leading figures of his generation’.  He concluded:

If it’s difficult to think of Max without being overwhelmed by a sense of loss, that was, in fact, one of his own major concerns.  When I asked him why it was, he said, ‘that is what life is about to a very large extent – day by day you leave things behind.  Loss is perhaps the most common experience we have and I think that somehow this has to be accounted for.  And as there are fewer places where it is accounted for, it has to be done by writing’.

Sebald wanted to find a literary form responsive to the waves and echoes of human tragedy which spread out, across generations and nations, yet which began in his childhood. Silence and forgetting were conditions of his early life. Sebald doubted whether those who had never experienced Theresienstadt or Auschwitz could simply describe what occurred there. That would have been presumptuous, an appropriation of others’ sufferings. Like a Medusa’s head, he felt that the attempts to look directly at the horror would turn a writer into stone, or sentimentality. It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one ‘WG Sebald’, a German writer long settled in East Anglia. He was reluctant to call his books “novels”, because he had little interest in the way contemporary writers seemed to find all meaning in personal relationships, and out of a comic but heartfelt disdain for the “grinding noises” which heavily plotted novels demanded.
– Peter Handke

In the second essay, Uwe Schutte reflected on Sebald’s life and work from the perspective of someone who was once taught by him. Schutte spoke of the growing political pressure on academia that drove him towards literature. ‘Conditions in British universities were absolutely ideal in the Sixties and Seventies. Then the so-called reforms began and life became extremely unpleasant’, Sebald explained in an interview with The Observer in 1996. ‘I was looking for a way to re-establish myself in a different form simply as a counterweight to the daily bother in the institution’.

When Schutte told Sebald about his plan to do a PhD with him, he smiled wryly and strongly advised against it. ‘Try your hand at gardening or land surveying’, he suggested – spending one’s working days out in the open air would be so much more preferable to slaving away at completing endless forms and other time-wasting paperwork in a stuffy office’.

Schutte told how, arriving in a grimy Manchester to take up the position of language assistant, Sebald was shocked when he saw how dilapidated the city was, something he describes in the Max Ferber story in The Emigrants (1992). Schutte recounted how the reasons for his decision to drop out of the German university system and emigrate to the UK was more than economic: in Sebald’s view, the German university system was still dominated by a culture of silence and forgetfulness about the recent Nazi past.  The University of Freiburg, where Sebald studied German literature, was the very university whose rector in 1933 was Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who supported the Nazi regime during its first years in power.

The German-speaking literary establishment for a long time ignored Sebald, said Schutte, while in contrast the Anglo-American world hailed him as a ‘Holocaust author’, a term he hated.  Nevertheless, he was co-opted by The New York Times Book Review, alongside Primo Levi, as the ‘prime speaker of the Holocaust’.

Sebald’s works, said Schutte, are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people. In On the Natural History of Destruction (1997), he wrote a major essay on the wartime bombing of German cities and the absence in German writing of any real response. His concern with the Holocaust is expressed in several books delicately tracing his own biographical connections with Jews.

Anthea Bell, regarded as one of the finest translators of the last decade, offered a translator’s view of the work of WG Sebald. Bell’s translation of Sebald’s final novel Austerlitz won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002.  His novels were written in German but became best known in English translations, principally by Anthea Bell and Michael Hulse.  Bell described how Sebald closely supervised the process of translation. Interestingly, Sebald wrote in a rather fusty 19th century German style; the challenge for the translator was to transpose this voice into English, whilst also capturing Sebald’s dry and mischievous sense of humour.

In her essay, Amanda Hopkinson, director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at UEA, discussed Sebald’s use of photographs in his books.  She described Sebald’s fascination with photographs, in which he found an essential, evocative counterpoint to his elegiac narratives.  His books, she said, are strewn with them – enigmatic black-and-white captionless photographs. Never simply illustrative, these images are at once embedded in the prose while remaining disconnected, puzzling and digressive, asking questions and telling their own stories.

In the final essay of the week, poet George Szirtes reflected on Sebald’s poetry. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay ‘WG Sebald the Poet’, reproduced from his blog:

…This double nature – the poetic shifting between fact and fiction – seemed to hang about him and about everything he wrote. He was a scholar of German literature, but he was also an author of essayistic fictions based on history and coincidence. In what I had read of him there was always a sense that the floor would fall away and that his complicated, old fashioned, melancholy yet droll voice would fall through with it and we would find ourselves altogether elsewhere in history and geography. History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, said Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses. The dreams and nightmares Max was conducting us through were historical, but the history was perceived in terms of accident, coincidence, anecdote and ghosts. History was a way of feeling the world as much as knowing about it.

I sometimes think of Max’s books as haunted magical encyclopedias. It isn’t the story that holds them together, the books are not exactly working towards a climax: it is more that they present us, particularly in his last work, Austerlitz, with intensely seen and felt phenomena that come upon us without warning. Nothing is stable, not even the narrative voice, which is likely to melt into other voices in the course of a sentence. One first becomes conscious of this in The Rings of Saturn where the voices of Michael Hamburger and Sebald wind in and out of each other, with a simple, ‘he said’. Even as I write the words ‘he said’ I note how I have placed the inverted commas around them, rather than, as in normal speech, before or after, around what is actually being said. I think that is appropriate for a voice so insistent yet so evanescent, and one so likely to return to the reader as the reported speech of an encounter behind glass, that intervening glass becoming the very nature of perception…

…Max’s history, the history of the world as he presents it, is the history of suffering. The suffering happens in the real world but is immediately mediated through memory, historical record, art and narrative drift. The suffering is often at second hand but is everywhere, the very air through which we move. Remorseless power and cruelty are the animating factors in his history, leaving behind a trail of vanishings and cries.

The ghost world is, however, lodged in a material one whose physical substance is an object of wonder. The sheer welter of phenomena, the orderings of the natural system as well as the orderings of the museums and palaces of art, are constantly brought before us. The whole place shimmers with it. Reading him made it shimmer.

See also

Sebald: After Nature

What is this being called human?’

Recently I blogged about the event at Aldeburgh that celebrated the work of WG Sebald, Patience and Re-Enchantment, which culminated in a performance by Patti Smith at which she read from Sebald’s first literary work, published only posthumously, the prose-poem After Nature. I hadn’t been aware of this before, so I decided to read it.

After Nature was written in 1988 – that is, before his first book of fiction, Vertigo. Sebald himself described it as a ‘prose poem’, and the work is presented on the page as blank verse.  For me – and many commentators have felt the same way – I think this is a mistake. The work consists of three parts, and though the final section might possibly stand as poetry, it is hard to accept the first two parts as anything other than randomly chopped-up prose.  Prose of a high order, though, that should have been left as just that.

After Nature is certainly a fine piece of writing that anticipates themes which Sebald explored in later works: memory (and forgetting), art, the interpretation of history, migration.  Each of the three parts concerns a figure from a different century – the 16th century artist Mathias Grünewald, the eighteenth-century botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and, in the final part, Sebald himself.  What unites these stories?  All concern men troubled by the violence and injustice of their century and who, in their different ways (artist, scientist, literary scholar), interpret and meditate on their time.  All are migrants, geographically or socially, while Grunewald and Sebald seem to share the melancholic view of the human condition that is the hallmark of Sebald’s writing.

The first of the narratives, ‘As the Snow on the Alps’, concerns the artist Mathias Grünewald – ‘unknown’ as Sebald states, since Grünewald was probably not his name at all. We may know his face, though, since he incorporated his own self-portrait into many of his works, such as his John the Evangelist (below), ‘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’.

Sebald suggests that he is the bearded man laying a gentle hand on another’s shoulder in commiseration in The Mocking of Christ (below): ‘always the same gentleness, the same burden of grief, the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled and sliding sideways down into loneliness’.

Sebald portrays Grunewald as an artist disturbed by the suffering and conflict of his time, especially the Peasants’ War – the Anabaptist insurrection against political and spiritual oppression led by Thomas Muntzer  which was utterly defeated at the battle of Frankenhausen in1525, In the Battle of Frankenhausen, Müntzer and his farmers were defeated. Muntzer was captured, tortured and decapitated, while

the bodies of peasants piled up
into a hetacomb, because, as though they were mad,
they neither put up any resistance
nor took to their heels.
When Grunewald got news of this
on the 18th of May
he ceased to leave his house.
Yet he could hear the gouging out
of eyes that long continued
between Lake Constance and
the Thuringian Forest. For weeks at that time he wore
a dark bandage over his face.

Thereafter, Grunewald ‘led a reclusive, melancholy life’, painting the altar panels for which he is now famous – most notably the extraordinary Isenheim Altarpiece, regarded as his masterpiece.

In one section an innermost panel, Grunewald depicts the Temptation of St. Anthony in mystical, visionary and grotesque form:

Sebald writes:

Now life as such, as it unfolds, dreadfully,
everywhere and at all times,
is not to be seen on the altar panels
whose figures have passed beyond
the miseries of existence, unless it be
in that unreal and demented thronging
which Grünewald has developed around
St. Anthony of the temptation:
dragged by his hair over the ground
by a gruesome monster.

To him, the painter, this is creation,
image of our insane presence
on the surface of the earth […]

In this fashion Grünewald,
silently wielding his paintbrush,
rendered the scream, the wailing, the gurgling
and the shrieking of a pathological spectacle
to which he and his art, as he must have known,
themselves belong.

Sebald later elaborated his thoughts on Grunewald’s vision in The Emigrants:

The extreme vision of that strange man, which was lodged in every detail, distorted every limb, and infected the colours like an illness, was one I had always felt in tune with, and now I found my feeling confirmed by the direct encounter. The monstrosity of that suffering, which, emanating from the figures depicted, spread to cover the whole of Nature, only to flood back from the lifeless landscape to the humans marked by death, rose and ebbed within me like a tide. Looking at those gashed bodies, and at the witnesses of the execution, doubled up by grief like snapped reeds, I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end. One may think one has reached the very limit, but there are always more torments to come. One plunges from one abyss into the next.

The central narrative of After Nature, ‘And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea’, is based on the 18th century naturalist and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller and his part in Vitus Bering‘s Alaskan expedition. Sebald is interested in what drove Steller to leave the safety of an academic career in Germany for the severity and the unknown dangers of the arctic wilderness. One answer:

Visions of this voyage of discovery,
Steller later recorded, had so seized
his imagination that he […] could
think of nothing other than
the shapes of the fauna and
flora of that distant region
where East and West and North
converge, and of the art and skill
required for their description.

Steller sought the unexplored arctic to catalogue and classify. But by the end of his life, Steller becomes aware of the ill-treatment of the indigenous people and writes papers defending their rights against the incursions and exploitation of Russian imperial interests: arrests and interrogations follow and Steller ‘now wholly grasps the difference between nature and society’. He flees, pursued by Imperial forces, and eventually dies of fever and stroke:

This is infirmitas, the breaking
of time from day to day
and from hour to hour,
it is rust and fire
and the salt of the planets,
darkness even at noon and
luminaries absent from heaven.

Sebald describes Steller’s death and burial:

…the dead man
was dreaming still of the grazing
Mammoth across the river
until in the night someone came
And took his cloak
and left him to lie in the snow
like a fox beaten to death.

The powerful last section, ‘Dark Night Sallies Forth’, brings together the themes of migration, departure, and ‘revisitings’ of histories, as Sebald explores his own family’s history and memory and tells of his journey out of Germany to study in Manchester:

…after leaving my remote home,
I arrived there and took lodgings
among the previous century’s
ruins.

Sebald confronts the ease with which things are forgotten, or are displaced from memory because they are associated with a shadow that knows no limits.  He stares at a photo of his mother and father, taken on 26 August 1943.  The following day his father left for Dresden ‘of whose beauty his memory, as he remarks when I question him, retains no trace’. The very next day, Nurnberg is bombed; his mother

saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like
or what her feelings were
at this sight.

In all three narratives, the forces and phenomena of the natural world are powerfully present. Steller joins Vitus Bering on the ill-fated Alaska expedition in 1741, and watches captain and crew sicken and rot in wind and weather. Grünewald paints his altarpieces in revulsion at the physical world and at man’s plague-ridden, war-torn, sinful existence in it.  Sebald recounts the journey of his mother, fleeing the bombing of Nürnberg and becoming aware that she is pregnant, and his own migration to Manchester. Then the narrative moves from memory to a melancholic vision of the future, in poignant lines addressed in the East Anglian present to his daughter:

Come, my daughter, come on,
give me your hand, we’re leaving
the town, I’ll show you …

…the end
of the world, the five
cold houses of Shingle Street.
Inconsolable a woman
stands at the window,
a children’s swing Rusts in the wind,
a lonely/spy sits in his Dormobile
in the dunes, his headphones
pulled over his ears.
No, here we can write no postcards,
can’t even
get out of the car
Tell me, child,
is your heart as heavy as
mine is, year after year
a pebble bank raised
by the waves of the sea
aAll the way to the North,
every stone a dead soul
and this sky so grey?
So unremittingly grey
and so low as no sky
I have seen before.
Along the horizon
freighters cross over
into another age
measured by the ticking
of Geigers in the power station
at Sizewell, where slowly
the core of the metal
is destroyed. Whispering
madness on the heathland
of Suffolk.
Is this
the promis’d end?
Oh, you are men of stones.
What’s dead is gone
forever.What did’st
thou say?  What,
how, where, when?
Is this love
nothing now
or all?
Water? Fire? Good?
Evil? Life? Death?

The spellbinding conclusion of the poem – which might have been visualised by Werner Herzog, and is, in fact, inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s visionary 16th century painting, The Battle of Alexander at Issus – describes a dream in which Sebald sees far below him his own house and ‘the shadows falling on the East Anglian landscape’.  He flies over the North Sea and the Rhine’s alluvial plain, ‘cities phosphorescent on the river bank, industry’s glowing piles waiting beneath the smoke trails…’ .

Now I know, as with a crane’s eye
one surveys his far-flung realm,
a truly Asiatic spectacle …

tents lying in the evening glow
and a city on the shore …

The Nile Delta can be made out,
the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea
and, still farther in the distance,
towering up in dwindling light,
the mountain ranges,
snow-covered and ice-bound,
of the strange, unexplored,
African continent.

Image (top) of Shingle Street by Sarah Spencer.

Links