Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction / literary criticism

On the Natural History
of Destruction

W. G. Sebald

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase On the Natural History of Destruction

Title: On the Natural History of Destruction
Author: W.G. Sebald
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: German
Availability: On the Natural History of Destruction - US
On the Natural History of Destruction - UK
On the Natural History of Destruction - Canada
Luftkrieg und Literatur - Deutschland
De la destruction comme élément de l'histoire naturelle - France
  • The bulk of this volume was previously published in German as Luftkrieg und Literatur
  • Translated by Anthea Bell
  • Includes the essays:
    • Air War and Literature, based on lectures given in Zürich in 1997
    • Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch
    • Against the Irreversible: On Jean Améry
    • The Renorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Works of Peter Weiss

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B- : some interesting aspects, but poorly argued and the underlying view of what literature should be is a disturbing one

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 16/3/2003 Zulfikar Abbany
The Atlantic Monthly . 1-2/2003 Christopher Hitchens
The Believer . 5/2003 William T. Vollmann
Boston Review . Summer/2003 Susie Linfield
British Medical J. . 5/4/2003 Fred Charatan
Daily Telegraph . 22/2/2003 Alan Marshall
The Guardian . 22/2/2003 John Banville
Harper's . 3/2003 John Leonard
The Independent . 22/2/2003 Peter J. Conradi
LA Weekly . 6/2/2003 Geoff Dyer
Libération . 8/1/2004 Marc Semo
London Rev. of Books . 21/8/2003 Christian Schütze
The LA Times . 23/3/2003 James J. Sheehan
Le Monde . 6/2/2004 Raphaëlle Rérolle
The Nation . 31/3/2003 Hugh Eakin
The New Republic . 23/9/2002 Ruth Franklin
New Statesman . 24/2/2003 Robert Winder
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/2/2003 Charles Simic
The NY Times . 5/2/2003 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/4/2003 Daphne Merkin
The Observer . 23/2/2003 Adam Phillips
Queen's Quarterly . Summer/2003 Fraser Bell
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/2/2003 Kenneth Baker
The Spectator . 15/2/2003 Andrew Gimson
Sunday Telegraph . 23/2/2003 Max Hastings
Sydney Morning Herald . 12/4/2003 Andrew Riemer
The Times . 12/2/2003 Antony Beevor
TLS . 25/4/2003 Daniel Johnson
The Washington Post . 23/3/2003 Zofia Smardz

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, varied opinions (many only focussing on the first essay)

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sebald's sombre thoughts were motivated not by historical revisionism, but by a cultural deficit." - Zulfikar Abbany, The Age

  • "Germany suffered both those disgraces to the fullest possible extent, and Sebald registers that contradiction to the limit of his ability. His opening bid deserves criticism, as I hope I have shown." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Over and over, Sebald finds himself appalled by the inappropriate cheerfulness, busyness, et cetera, of the people he studies. (...) By no means do I want to dismiss this book, which I cannot shake from my mind. I disagree with much of what Sebald says, and with the harsh way that he says it. Nonetheless, he has begun something very important. To the extent that World War II remains relevant to our time, it can no longer be relevant through primary perception -- the battles are over -- but through memory." - William T. Vollmann, The Believer

  • "W. G. Sebaldís On the Natural History of Destruction is dry ice. In prose as precise and astringent as a surgeonís knife -- Sebald writes in clear revulsion against what he sees as the kitschy grandiosity of too much German literature -- he examines a great hole of cultural memory (.....) But the reasons for this German amnesia (...) are not difficult to fathom, and so Sebaldís puzzlement is puzzling." - Susie Linfield, Boston Review

  • "Its primary subject is literature and the Allied air raids on Germany during the second world war, but it is just as much about the psychopathology of destructiveness, repression in the mass memory of succeeding generations, and the sequelae of torture and cruelty from the victims' point of view." - Fred Charatan, British Medical Journal

  • "The most substantial of these four essays by W G Sebald is concerned with the way in which German writers responded to the air raids, and what place these man-made events have had or still have in the nation's collective memory. In other words, in common with all Sebald's work, this book is about memory and bearing witness and the failure to do so. And what he records is, with very few exceptions, a history of failure." - Alan Marshall, Daily Telegraph

  • "This act of willed national amnesia both fascinates and appals Sebald. (...) If Sebald is baffled by the evasions and pretences of the populace at large, he is profoundly disturbed by the "self-imposed silence" of German writers, who, with notable exceptions (...) have been unable, or unwilling, to tackle the subject of the Allied strategy of destruction. (...) On the Natural History of Destruction is a quietly spoken but fierce protest at the mendacity and moral evasiveness of our time. In the tragic absence of more Sebald fiction, it will have to do." - John Banville, The Guardian

  • "What preoccupies Sebald here, as in his eerie novels, is the career of guilt in history. Why do so few German writers face up to this "landscape of ruins," this psychic ground zero ? Because, he suggests, they were so compromised by their behavior during the Third Reich that they've been busy ever since rewriting their own story, coming up with an alibi." - John Leonard, Harper's

  • "But his main subject is in the inability of German writers to bear truthful witness. Sebald condemns their bad faith and selective amnesia, casting himself in the roles of public conscience and seer. (...) Though the work of a laconically witty man, Sebald's writing has little humour. But his bleak pessimism, like Skegness air, is bracing. These four essays add to our picture of his achievement a fiercely didactic moralist, brave in his pursuit of truth." - Peter J. Conradi, The Independent

  • "If the new book refers us back to the earlier ones in this way, it also looks ahead to narrative journeys that cannot now be undertaken." - Geoff Dyer, LA Weekly

  • "Expressions such as 'national humiliation' or the 'rise from total degradation' reveal Sebald to have been a child of the postwar period and a writer significantly moulded by years spent in a country which never experienced a comparable historical rupture." - Christian Schütze, London Review of Books

  • "On the Natural History of Destruction is a translation of one of the first and still one of the most profound expressions of this new interest (.....) Although Sebald gives us a vivid account of the bombing and a sensitive discussion of its literary representations, his book has little to say about the historical context. Sebald was in no sense an apologist for Nazism, nor does he suggest a moral equivalence between the air war and Nazism's crimes. But for all its rhetorical power, his book leaves the most important question unanswered: Can the air war be morally justified ?" - James J. Sheehan, The Los Angeles Times

  • "En prenant appui sur ce continent noir de l'histoire, Sebald se penche avec une passion non dénuée de cruauté sur les liens épineux qui existent entre la littérature et la vérité." - Raphaëlle Rérolle, Le Monde

  • "(E)ven after substantial revision, the published version retains a disjointed feel. Sebald presents less a linear argument than an accumulation of meanings filtered through lapidary descriptions, personal musings, historical notes and, above all, literary criticism. (...) The posthumous English edition of On the Natural History of Destruction further includes two other literary essays, so that the air war lectures now make up only the first half of the book. The overall effect of these changes is to present the lectures themselves as criticism -- a kind of discursive commentary on the writers who did attempt to address the devastation of German cities." - Hugh Eakin, The Nation

  • "But these criticisms all overlook the aspect of Sebald's book that, for a non-German reader is the most obvious, and the most shocking: the utterly ahistorical way in which Sebald discusses the bombing campaign, without giving even a hint of moral or political context." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic

  • "It is fine literary criticism (sharp enough to prompt at least one angry letter from Germany claiming that the bombing was a typical Jewish plot). But for a British audience, this is quite arcane material. Nor does it seem so very surprising. Everything he says feels well-judged, but in finding the taboos erected against that unforgettable horror so mystifying he seems to overlook the obvious extent to which postwar German publishers were obliged to wave aside anything that smacked of self-pity." - Robert Winder, New Statesman

  • "The issues he raises about the war against the civilians have no simple answers. They defy description (.....) What worries Sebald, as it should worry any thinking person, is our newfound capacity for total destruction." - Charles Simic, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)his slim volume is patently something of a publishing afterthought. (...) 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." - Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "On the Natural History of Destruction is such a timely and startling book because Sebald is not proud to be telling the truth about Germany after the war, he is just dismayed that it might always need to be told." - Adam Phillips, The Observer

  • "On the Natural History of Destruction leaves an aftertaste of sadness that flows from both its own bleak reflections and the knowledge that Sebald's indispensable voice has been silenced." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This approach may sound dull, or too literary, but it is not. Sebald, with his aversion to anything bombastic, self-righteous or self-pitying, is a guide with the good manners not to harangue either us or his fellow Germans, and scarcely a page of this book fails to throw out valuable hints." - Andrew Gimson, The Spectator

  • "Sebald draws no overt moral or historical lesson. He seeks simply to speak about the unspeakable, to bring into the open something most of his contemporaries chose for years to airbrush from their consciousness. Sebald's laconic prose is admirably suited to the subject. His book is chiefly interesting to a British reader because it is the work of a brilliant mind, rather than because it exposes new evidence." - Max Hastings, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Sebald's thesis is clear and pursued with his customary rigour. After the war, he argues, collective amnesia became the dominant factor in the German psyche (.....) Its focus and emphasis might prove slightly too specialised for some readers. The German writers he discusses are practically unknown in this country." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "This is a brilliant and disturbing book, but nothing is as bleak as his conclusion" - Antony Beevor, The Times

  • "Andersch is representative of that self-deceiving generation. The severity with which Sebald judges his novels applies also to the West German society that mistook Andersch and other "internal emigrants" for examples of intellectual integrity, when in reality they had merely conformed. The attempt to rehabilitate German literature had foundered on account of the fraudulence and moral cowardice of its leading figures. Sebald was casting doubt, not only on the authenticity of a generation of writers, but on the entire post-war German project of "coming to terms with the past" (Vergangenheitsbewaltigung)." - Daniel Johnson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "His challenge to postwar writers who ignored the holocaust that consumed Germany's cities is only rhetorical. (...) Sebald isn't really interested in taking others to task for what they didn't do. He just wants an excuse for doing it instead. And so he does. Meticulously, point by point, detail by detail, he reconstructs the destruction that was visited upon his land, sparing no horror." - Zofia Smardz, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Most discussion of this volume has centred on the longest piece in it, Air War and Literature. Based on lectures given by Sebald in Zürich in 1997 (and including Sebald's discussion of the initial reaction to those lectures), the piece takes up about half of the book; the remainder of the book consists of essays about three authors (Alfred Andersch, Jean Amery, and Peter Weiss) in which Sebald explores issues similar to those raised in Air War and Literature.
       Sebald believes that Germans have inadequately discussed (both publicly and in their literature) and hence also not come to terms with the incredible destruction ("on a scale without historical precedent") caused specifically by the large scale (and largely indiscriminate) aerial bombing of Germany by the Allied powers during World War II. Sebald offers some of the shocking statistics (huge numbers of dead, enormous amounts of bombs, rubble, etc.) and describes some of what happened -- some of the more horrific conflagrations and their consequences --, but what he focusses on is what he perceives to be an unwillingness to publicly discuss these events and the lingering aftermath, what he believes became a "taboo on any mention of the inward and outward destruction".
       Sebald certainly has a valid point insofar as these events have not been publicly discussed (or obsessed over) to the extent one might expect, given how many people were affected (and given the horror of many of their experiences). Certainly, the fire-bombings of Germany have not been publicly dissected in the same manner that other World War II horrors -- such as the Nazi concentration camps or the bombing of Hiroshima -- have, but Sebald does not probe very deeply into what the reasons for this may be. Comparisons that he might have considered (Hiroshima's iconic and much-discussed status, compared to the largely ignored fire-bombing of Tokyo that claimed more lives, for example) are ignored, and discussion remains relatively superficial. Differing reactions in West and East Germany, the role of the occupying forces in limiting and shaping public discussion, the constant reminders (bombed and burnt out buildings -- some of which remained standing as testament to events (certainly in East Germany) until fairly recently) all might explain part of how the public dialogue about these events was shaped, but Sebald does not consider them closely.
       More disturbingly, Sebald specifically focusses on the literary reaction to the destruction and horrors suffered in Germany -- or rather the lack thereof. Sebald is particularly disappointed that writers did not (and have not) adequately (as he considers it) addressed these events in their writing, particularly their fiction. Again, he is fundamentally correct in the observation that these events, and the aftermath, have not been extensively treated in post-War German fiction -- but Sebald condemns the writers for this failure, and this is what is objectionable. Sebald has a clear vision of what literature must be and what it must do: he demands that it be grounded in authenticity and deal with human experience in a specific way, including, specifically, confronting history. It is an extremely limited view of literature.
       Again and again, Sebald insists that what writers should have done is convey the magnitude and the horror of these events (and chides them for not doing so). Sebald has a very specific idea of what these horrors are, or at least how they should be perceived: they are incredible, nearly unimaginable. They are really, really bad. He easily dismisses eyewitness accounts (by those who actually experienced the events he's concerned with) as inadequate because they use clichés, language that is banal, with words and phrases whose:

function is to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend.
       What bothers him, of course, is that this is not how he wants these horrors to be conveyed. He doesn't believe it could be this easy:
The apparently unimpaired ability -- shown in most of the eyewitness reports -- of everyday language to go on functioning as usual raises doubts of the authenticity of the experiences they record.
       Sebald doesn't consider it possible that everyday language suffices completely (if banally). The facts don't correspond to his idea of how things should be, and so he simply calls all the eyewitness accounts into question -- telling the victims, in essence, that the way they dealt with these events is unsatisfactory.
       Sebald also imposes his notions of human capacity for emotional and intellectual suffering on the German people, generalizing about "experiences beyond our ability to comprehend" (how is he to judge ?), or melodramatically noting that in the fires of Hamburg: "no one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died". Indeed, he repeatedly suggests and insists that people were left demented or mad, without providing any evidence; it seems simply that he believes that these events should have driven people mad, and he can't believe that this didn't happen. (Note: the frequent mention of madness and people demented by events may be a problem of translation: we haven't had access to the German original, and possibly Sebald uses words that are more ambiguous regarding states of mind in the German original.)
       Public discourse -- and literary output -- on the subject of the wide-scale destruction in Germany does not conform to Sebald's ideals. He believes:
People's ability to forget what they do not want to know, to overlook what is before their eyes, was seldom put to the test better than in Germany at that time.
       The fact that the destruction was so comprehensive that it could literally not be overlooked or forgotten is something he doesn't care to consider. The fact that every step over the rubble (which, in some cities, was prominent for decades) was a reminder, making the consequences of the bombing an everyday event, isn't how he wants to look at things. No, the Germans -- and specifically the German writers -- didn't properly wallow in these events, and he doesn't understand why.
       The idea that distance might be required, especially to creatively use this material is also something he doesn't consider: it took decades for the Napoleonic wars and the worst of their destruction to be adequately literarily addressed (in Tolstoy's War and Peace), and arguably the most extensive fictional consideration of the World War II fire-bombings to date is American author Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (a book not mentioned by Sebald). But the German writers failed to conform to his expectations (or, perhaps, needs) and so they simply failed.
       An interesting addition to his Zurich lectures is a final chapter included here, in which Sebald considers the reactions he received. He finds his theses (a sort of collective and individual memory-failure, an unwillingness to confront what happened) supported, though his arguments are no more convincing than in the lecture as a whole -- convincing, perhaps, to the extent that there has been and is a reluctance (or a difficulty) in discussing what happened, but unconvincing in its explanations.        

       The three shorter essays included in this volume deal with authors whose World War II experiences inform their writing. Experience informing writing: that's something Sebald likes, that's what he expects from writers. (Almost all the works discussed here, even the fiction by these authors, is to a considerable extent autobiographical.)
       The first of the authors, Alfred Andersch, is an example by failure. Andersch, as Sebald notes, "lacked neither success nor failure in his lifetime". Sometimes very popular, sometimes critically praised (and sometimes disparaged), Andersch is a writer about whom there is no consensus opinion. Sebald clearly finds him to be a failure -- and finds that failure specifically in Andersch's refusal to deal with experience in a manner that he perceives as honest.
       Sebald readily finds in Andersch's "autobiographical novel" that:
an essentially apologetic attitude dominates the urge Andersch sometimes feels for unreserved confession. Memory acts very selectively: decisive tracts of experience are entirely omitted, an editing technique which runs counter to the objectivity announced by the subtitle Ein Bericht ("An Account").
       The idea that it is artistic license -- a conscious decision by Andersch -- as to what to include and what to omit doesn't occur to Sebald. And the possible motives in subtitling a work of fiction (it's a novel, after all, no matter how autobiographical) "An Account" is apparently completely lost on Sebald, who is only concerned with facts.
       The facts regarding Andersch, as Sebald recounts them, are fairly damning -- but focussing almost solely on these (and their relation to Andersch's output) remains a questionable (and limited) approach to literature. Andersch's writing doesn't rely on authenticity in the manner Sebald wants (or rather: demands) from fiction-writers; that alone should not be enough to dismiss it -- and arguably it is not even a fair point on which to judge it. It is one way of looking at literature, but it is an extremely limited one.

       The next essay deals with concentration camp survivor and eventual suicide Jean Améry. Améry, of course, lived (or so it seemed) practically only in experience ("'Twenty-two years later,' writes Améry, 'I am still dangling over the ground by dislocated arms.'" Sebald -- almost gleefully, it seems, -- notes), and so Sebald is enthusiastic. This is what writing should be ! Authenticity ! Not letting go of experience but rather making it one's entire identity (or at least the centrepiece of one's writing) !
       Sebald is convinced:
the essays written by Améry at this time about his personal past and present contain insights, based on the most direct experience, into the irreparable condition of those victims, and it is from such insights alone that the true nature of the terror visited on them can be extrapolated with some precision.
       Améry meets Sebald's expectations of victimhood, and his accounts are the accounts Sebald wants: this is what a victim should sound like. Améry had "the most direct experience" -- but so did many others, and recall from the Air War and Literature essay how Sebald denied eyewitness accounts. No, what Sebald likes is the horror Amery conveys and how he conveys it: it fits Sebald's image of "the true nature of the terror" visited on the victims.
       Sebald's leap here is a large and troublesome one: he decides which sort of terror is authentic, and which representation adequate. The idea (indeed, it seems to us: the likelihood) that these (and many other) terrors are simply unconveyable isn't one he can accept. Certain descriptions are good (Améry's), other bad. Nowhere does he explain why he believes he is in a position to make these value judgements.
       Sebald maintains:
Apart from Niederland's professional case histories, which show the humiliation of the victim continued even in the compensation proceedings, only Améry's writings give an adequate idea of what it means to have been delivered up to death.
       Again: Améry's account meets Sebald's expectations, hence it is adequate -- to Sebald. Others may have different needs in order to understand "what it means to have been delivered up to death" -- but Sebald does not allow for this possibility. It's his way or no way.

       The final essay is on Peter Weiss, an author who wrote several works of fiction with strong autobiographical elements. Sebald clearly approves of this reliance on the authentic in Weiss' work, and finds Weiss' literary use of memory acceptable:
More clearly than the oeuvre of any other contemporary author, the writings of Peter Weiss show the abstract memory of the dead is of little avail against the lure of waning memory if it does not also express sympathy -- sympathy going beyond mere pity -- in the study and reconstruction of an actual time of torment.
       Sebald continues to presume, fitting his readings to his fixed ideas, as when he writes approvingly about a passage in Die Ästhetik des Widerstands:
It records an accumulated sense of fear and pain of death, and must have almost exhausted its author; that account is the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return. The rest of the text is only a postlude, the coda to a martyrs' chronicle.
       Why the passage should have "almost exhausted its author" is unclear -- as is why Sebald suggests it. Presumably Sebald suggests it because it facilitates his reading of the text: this is what he wants from it, for Weiss to have reached the highpoint here, perhaps keeling over, all spent, on the manuscript pages ..... Far from being "the place from which Weiss, as a writer, does not return" it is presented as the place from which Sebald, as reader, does not wish to return. It remains unclear why Sebald won't own up to that, but rather places the onus (or blame) on Weiss (except, perhaps, that it allows him to easily and summarily dismiss the rest of the book as a "postlude").
       Sebald's reading of Weiss isn't bad (for the most part), but perhaps misleading in its focus on the autobiographical texts. But Sebald can't seem to admit that there might have been more to the author. Weiss is an author Sebald can admire -- because of his reliance on authenticity, his trying to come to grips with memory and experience (in a way Sebald approves of) -- but it seems these are the only reasons Sebald can admire him. Curious, and ultimately not convincing.

       The title of this collection is nicely chosen. As Sebald explains: Solly Zuckerman visited Cologne after the end of the war and "agreed to write a report for Cyril Connolly, then editor of the journal Horizon, to be entitled On the Natural History of Destruction". Naturally, words failed him and the piece was never written.
       The four pieces collected here examine a variety of approaches to writing about specifically the bombing-horrors suffered in Germany, but also more generally about how an individual (specifically a writer-artist) can (or rather: should) convey the worst of human horrors. The failure of the pieces lies in Sebald's extremely narrow view of what a valid representation or communication of such events must look like. His qualitative judgements -- Améry is clearly presented as a 'better' victim than the Germans who just got on with life after their cities and homes and families were destroyed -- are offered with no sound rationale, and so border somewhere between the offensive and the ridiculous.
       Worse yet are the implications for the creative act: Sebald shows no interest in imagination as a guiding force in the writing of fiction. Authenticity is the measure of literature for him, and his authenticity seems practically to preclude imagination. Memory trumps all -- but even here it is memory that must be dealt with in a specific way: the wrong kind of forgetting will not do. It is a crippling theory -- allowing for some art, but denying far more.
       All in all: a book that is deeply disturbing in all the wrong ways.

       Additional notes: The writing in the essays is uneven. Sebald often does express himself well, and there are some nice flourishes, but he awkwardly wavers between neutral and melodramatic. Rather than a close analysis of the actual suffering endured in the bombings he offers emotional and ineffective (or, to judge by some approving reviews, superficially effective) bombast:
Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt.
       (Talk about inadequate writing ! How does he know of their grotesque contortions ? What is grotesque, under these circumstances ? What is a 'thick bubble' ? What does it mean that they are 'thrown up' ? Wouldn't the asphalt be boiling rather than melting if it were throwing up thick bubbles (whatever that means) ?)
       There are several other rhetorical and essayistic devices that are also a bit troubling. In the Améry essay he several times quotes passages in French, e.g:
The words that Améry set down on paper, and which seem to us full of the comfort of lucidity, to him merely outlined his own incurable malady and drew a dividing line between "deux mondes incommunicables (.....)"
       Only the end-notes reveal what isn't even hinted at in the text: the French words are E.M.Cioran's. (Note in the above also Sebald's presumptuous "seem to us full of the comfort" (italics his) -- where does he come up with that us (and how dare he include us in it) ?)
       Telling, in a way, is also his choice to include the most famous passage -- a whole page -- from Améry's classic Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne (translated into English as At the Mind's Limit), in which Améry describes how his arms came to be dislocated. It is a straightforward but powerful passage -- in some ways arguably too powerful: those of us familiar with the book, when pressed, could recall nothing else from it (but could all remember this scene very, very well): here -- at least for us -- a specific scene of horror that overwhelms everything else Améry had to say (much as, perhaps, many remember nothing about the Disney-movie Bambi except for the mom getting shot). This is perhaps exactly the sort of authentic description Sebald wants: a piece of memorable, ineradicable (and based-on-the-truth) horror. But Sebald doesn't consider how, for example, one image of this sort can literally overwhelm the remainder of a text.

       Finally: two titular issues. Sebald (?) writes about Améry's:
Unmeisterliche Wanderjahre (as the title of one of his works runs, alluding to Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre)
       Surely, Améry's title alludes to the similarly well-known Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (the much later continuation of Goethe's novel) -- all the more so because that book is subtitled: "Die Entsagenden" ('the relinquishing' or 'the renouncing' -- and a word that suggests (ent-sagen) both un-saying and de-mythification). (Possibly this isn't Sebald's slip -- as German readers wouldn't have needed it spelled out so clearly for them --, but rather something added in the English translation.)
       Sebald also refers to one of Peter Weiss' autobiographical novels: "Abschied von den Eltern ('Farewell to My Parents')". All the other German books that are cited that have been translated into English have the English titles given in the endnotes, but this one doesn't. Was no one aware that this has long been available in English, as Leavetaking ?

- Return to top of the page -


On the Natural History of Destruction: Reviews: Alfred Andersch: Jean Amery: Peter Weiss: W.G.Sebald: Other books by W.G.Sebald under review: Books about W.G.Sebald under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       German author Winfried Georg Sebald was born in 1944 and spent most of his life teaching at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. He died in 2001.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2003-2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links