I have been meaning to get around to reading WG Sebald for a long time, for two main reasons. First is local interest: he spent most of his academic career in Norwich, a city not far from my home, to which I have strong family connections; and his novel The Rings Of Saturn is based around a series of walks in rural Suffolk, which is where I live. The second reason is the frequency with which writers, artists and musicians whose work I admire cite Sebald as an influence (particularly experimental musicians). So did I buy myself a copy of The Rings Of Saturn and insert it into my huge stack of books waiting to be read? No, I just randomly came across On The Natural History Of Destruction in a charity shop and bought it on impulse.
The book is a collection of essays, the first about the strange absence of Germany’s horrific wartime suffering from its cultural memory, and the others about specific writers’ engagement with the issue. I’ve read none of the work discussed, so essentially I was reading a novelist I’ve never read discussing several other novelists I’ve never read. It was a rewarding experience nevertheless, and in a way, all the more informative for my having no opinion on any of the writers. Being unable to fall back on my impressions of the work, or of what kind of author Sebald is himself, forced me into a, perhaps more abstract, but undoubtedly more fundamental and rigorous consideration of the ontology and epistemology of fiction and of writing in the broader sense.
The book is a moving and deeply humane work, informed throughout by a desire to understand Sebald’s native land’s response to its suffering, and by a profound sense of empathy. It is also an involving philosophical discussion of the etiology of war and totalitarianism; his observations on the inevitability of the bombing campaign once the infrastructure had been set in motion are particularly telling. He also makes some important points about the centrality of scapegoating minorities in fascist politics: for him, the death camps are a central expression of Nazism, not an incidental horror that might not have taken place had Germany been ‘racially pure’ to begin with.
This has been an intense and thought-provoking read, which has fed into my thinking about the thematic content of my own work, and has also renewed my desire to read Sebald’s fiction.