After Nature

After Nature

by W.G. Sebald

Random House

Originally published 1988 in German, this newly translated edition sheds light on W.G. Sebald’s earliest explorations of the themes he would return to again and again in his novels. Sebald, himself originally from Germany, settled in England in the late sixties and taught English literature for many years until his late blooming as a novelist that was initiated with this work. In all his works, as is the case with After Nature, one has to use the term novelist loosely. The works he created from The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo to The Emigrants and last year’s award winner, Austerlitz are their own unique genre. At times travelogues and at other times memoirs while simultaneously they utilize elements of fiction but are balanced with austere black and white photographs throughout. This assemblage of material serves as a type of bridge to relocate and retrieve the missing memories, the shadows and the artifacts of post-war Europe. Sebald’s works serve as a response in ways few, if any, German authors have attempted to remember the dead and missing from World War II and the holocaust. Sebald is never overt in his writings (and he has no time for the culture of mourning, so peculiar of our times) to make grand gestures regarding the deaths of the holocaust. Instead, his cool prose serves to indicate the absence and loss through their studied erudition, their careful meditation on people who have disappeared and the dissimilitude between our own memories and reality.

After Nature consists of a prose poem divided into three sections. The first section consists of a reflection on the work of the Renaissance painter, Matthias Grunewald. Grunewald, renowned for his realistic portraiture, especially regarding the suffering of Christ, is portrayed here as a man who is too aware of the nature of decay and suffering. He is a man who is perhaps, more aware of suffering, especially the suffering inflicted on the innocent and powerless by the powerful. A conclusion reinforced by Sebald’s description of Grunewald’s reaction to a peasant uprising that had been dealt with harshly.

“But 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.”

Yet, in Sebald’s fiction, disorder and fragility remains the state of things. The overwhelming scene of carnage and violence oftentimes leads individuals into retreat and a desire to escape. As Sebald recounts, for Grunewald, this leads to him almost abandoning his career and living as a hermit.

But, the question arises, what drove the legendary botanist, Georg Wilhem Steller to leave the safety of an academic career for the severe wilderness of the arctic during the 19th century? Grunewald, a painter, devoted his time to painting chapels that served the dying, their bodies afflicted with scourges like leprosy and syphilitic chancres. He took disorder and decay and sought to provide some semblance of order. Steller as well, a naturalist and biologist sought the fresh unexplored expanse of the arctic to catalog and classify. By the end of his life, Steller too becomes aware of the clash of interests between the powerful and powerless. He attempts to intervene on behalf of the exploited, indigenous people but this only leads to him being hounded to death by the Imperial powers. Sebald describes his 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.”

With these lines we finally venture into the third and final section, this section narrated and led by Sebald himself. Or, perhaps, Sebald’s other in so far his other works employ the narrator that may, or may not be Sebald himself. This final section is at times oblique and yet serves to refocus the previous sections as the author wanders through Manchester. His prose recounts the travels of his mother, as she fled the bombing of Dresden and as the firestorm consumed the city, became aware of her pregnancy. Gradually the narrative changes, moving from a reminiscence of the past through an address in the present to his daughter before concluding with an awareness of the future. In one of the most moving passages, towards the conclusion of the poem, the author meditates on the ineffable nature of life.

“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=EDt 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 All 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?”

After Nature, as Sebald’s first work, reflects the themes he would continue to explore. The prose retains its taciturn tone found elsewhere and yet it is surprisingly warm and captivating. The strange turns the narrative takes always retains its hold on the reader’s attention. Although it has its weak moments and may not be the first place to start exploring the works of Sebald, for those already initiated into his writings, this is a worthy addition to his canon.

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