978-0-375-75657-3 / 9780375756573

On the Natural History of Destruction (Modern Library Paperbacks)


Publisher:Modern Library



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About the book:

The firestorms over Hamburg in the summer of 1943 were a previously unknown phenomenon. They supported towers of flame that rose two kilometers into the air, and unleashed rolling walls of fire that unfurled down city streets and across open spaces at speeds of up to 150 km/h. They were so hot that the aircrews dropping the bombs could feel the heat through the fuselage of their bombers. In his controversial collection of lectures and meditative essays, noted professor of literature and novelist W.G. Sebald (Austerlitz) asks why the devastating effects of Allied air raids on German civilian populations during the Second World War have been left largely undocumented in the German literary tradition, how the agonizing deaths of 600,000 of their countrymen have become confused with the guilt and accountability of a divided nation struggling with the post-war legacy of Hitlers Final Solution.

Is the dearth of literature pertaining to the destruction of German cities, as Sebald would suggest, really the fault of writers (many of whom were compelled to collude with the Third Reich during wartime) trying to defend their own reputations by sweeping the ashes of Germany under the rug? Or was it the calculated gesture of a people in the throes of self-pity coming upon the realization that they had forfeited the right to complain? For his part, Sebald, who portrays his countrymen as being consumed with order, seems not so interested in a history of destruction, but rather the process of destruction, the breakdown of order, and how those who experienced it looked the other way. As a polemicist, Sebald is in up to his neck, and while he spends a tad too much time on tiptoes as a result, he is comfortable in the pose. Comfy or not, its easy to imagine his German contemporaries taking strong exception to the criticisms by one who was both too young to experience the war first hand, and who lived most of his professional career outside the countrys borders (he taught literature in England for 30 years).

The constrained quality of the larger lectures portion exposes his conceits as a writer, prone as so many academics are to tangential patrols through the underbrush of their subject matter, hoping perhaps to flush out a supporting argument. Much more enjoyable from a strictly stylistic standpoint are his meditations, such as his withering (and occasionally hilarious) attack on the pretensions of reconstruction-era author Alfred Andersch, and his compassionate analysis of the work of philosopher, essayist, and Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry.

Contentiousness aside, or not, the now-deceased Sebald has one final item hed like us to stick in our strudel, a thought that underlines the collections function not just as an exploration of societal amnesia, but also as a sobering warning to the citizens of today: Perhaps we ought to remind ourselves of [the secrets of WWII] &when the project of creating a greater Europe, a project that has already failed twice, is entering a new phase, and the sphere of influence of the Deutschmark--history has a way of repeating itself--seems to extend almost precisely to the confines of the area occupied by the Wehrmacht in the year 1941. --Jamie OMeara

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