I don't tend to euphemism in daily speech, and even less to Freudian slips. Yet sometime last spring, while chattering aimlessly about the uses of the first person, I said, "Before Sebald left, he'd invented a new first-person narrator." Which, I would have gone on to say, was so genuinely innovative that even acrobatic critics like James Wood and Susan Sontag seemed at a loss to describe it. After all, how does one talk about invention, the newly born, in a medium so wizened? I would have gone on to say this if I didn't stop short, startled by my euphemism, "before Sebald left." German novelist W.G. Sebald's sudden death in late 2001 was such a profound loss to those of us impassioned by what he'd (equally suddenly) brought to literature that one almost took it personally, as an affront to readers everywhere.
Under the circumstances, what can we make of Cynthia Ozick's eerily titled 1996 essay on Sebald, "The Posthumous Sublime"? At the time, I confess, I ranked it among those essays "at a loss" for critical approach. Her bold speculation that Sebald's 1996 novel The Emigrants was about German guilt, his guilt, smacked of conflation between author and narrator, biography and fictionóthe cardinal sin of modern literary criticism. I assumed she didn't know how else (or didn't care) to address Sebald's remarkable first person, the shadowy narrator who wanders through other peoples' stories the way Goethe wandered through the Italian landscape. Interestingly, the bans on biographical criticism are lifted after an author's death, and Ozick's prescient title claimed the artistic license to presume that a German writer born in 1944 must somehow still be "touched with a smudge, or taint of the old shameful history . . . the little tic of self-consciousness . . . there all the same, whether it is regretted or repudiated, examined or ignored, forgotten or relegated to a principled indifference."
On the Natural History of Destruction, a collection of essays about Germany's neglected history after World War II, was not intended to be published posthumously; nonetheless, as an open declaration of the poetics and political concerns of the author, it utterly vindicates Ozick's interpretation. A fellow novelist, she used his novel and a four-line biographical note to invent a character: W.G. Sebald. Here, the character speaks and reveals that indeed he was obsessed with the complex psychology of being German. He goes further still, defying Germans not to be equally obsessed.
Under examination in these essays is a national character defined by guilt, categorically circumscribed by large islands of collective amnesiaó"looking and looking away at the same time." The guilt is public and has beenócontinues to beóexorcised. The amnesia encompasses everything else about the war, specifically the fact that Germany lost and was destroyed in the process: "the extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia shown by a community that seemed to have emerged from a war of annihilation without any signs of psychological impairment." By way of illustrating the degree of annihilation, Sebald offers a perversely beautiful description of the firebombing of Hamburg, July 27, 1943. The capacity to bury the memory of such large-scale destruction stands in sharp contrast to the living history of the Holocaustóand puts Sebald on his guard. What will come of this repression? Quoting from a letter written by a survivor of the bombing of Berlinó"my trembling, my fears, my rageóstill here in my head"óSebald wonders how all this unexorcised grief will express itself. Though the bulk of these essays detail the destruction wrought on German civilians and cities while decrying the inadequate ("marked by half-consciousness or false consciousness") or nonexistent literary representation of this devastation, Sebald's abiding preoccupation is with Germany's unaccountable stoicism. Is it penance or repression? Is it healthy?