A On the Natural History of Destruction, by W.G. Sebald. New York: Random House. 224 pages. $23.95. BUY NOW

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In a moment of pure irony, Sebald responds to an account of a packed Berlin opera house just after the cease-fire: "Who could deny that the audiences of the time, eyes shining as they listened once more to the sound of music rising in the air all over the country, were moved by a sense of gratitude that they had been saved? Yet we may also wonder whether their breasts did not swell with perverse pride to think that no one in human history had ever played such overwhelming tunes or endured such suffering as the Germans." Germans rise phoenixlike from the flames of their razed citiesˇis this fortitude or callousness? One historian Sebald quotes claims it's "impossible to understand 'the mysterious energy of the Germans . . . if we refuse to realize that they have made a virtue of their deficiencies. Insensibility was the condition of their success.'" In Sebald's interpretation, willful oblivion in concert with selective memory becomes a Nietzschean exercise of powerˇwoefully similar to that which led Germany into collective delusions of grandeur in the first place.

One might protest that Germans didn't block out their sins, only their suffering. But Sebald makes the case that any national amnesia is a form of ahistoricism, and a country with Germany's record can't afford to flirt with ahistoricism. He claims this is especially pertinent at the dawn of the European Union, given Germany's monumental political and economic influence on that new coalition. Curiously, many European intellectuals consider the EU a safety against rising pockets of nationalism, as well as a triumphant reinforcement of the democratic system. And, as it turns out, Germany is one of the most lucid and humane voices in international politics today. By contrast, Italyˇalso devastated by Allied bombings, also cursed by its collaboration in genocideˇnever shrank from its demons in the postwar period. Neorealist cinema, for instance, constituted an artistically unassailable purge of exactly the sort Sebald finds lacking in German culture. Yet today in Italy there is a powerful historical revisionism afoot that seeks to demote the anti-Fascist partisan fighters from heroes to "terrorists" and maintains that Mussolini's only failing was to ally himself with Hitler. Which leads one to ask whether self-expression, the venting of grief, necessarily leads to historical conscience.

In the same way that Ozick gave in to the novelist's impulse to build a real man out of scant biographical clues and a gorgeous novel, Sebald builds a psychological trajectory for the German character. The twentieth century, after all, was a century of world war and psychology. His vision is bleak: If Germany doesn't emote it might explode. But to some extent, this preoccupation may be only an exquisite abstraction, a novelist's obsession with the formal rules of plotˇyet another attempt to bring order and serenity to a bewildering violent history that went up in flames one July night, not that many years ago.

Minna Proctor is working on a book about the idea of religious calling for Viking.


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