Sebald’s On Natural History of Destruction is a collection of essays on German literature and its handling of World War II incidents. The four essays in this book are:
- Air War and Literature, based on lectures given in Zürich in 1997
- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: On Alfred Andersch
- Against the Irreversible: On Jean Améry
- The Renorse of the Heart: On Memory and Cruelty in the Works of Peter Weiss
As mentioned above, the second essay, Between the devil and the deep blue sea is Sebald’s criticism of the mildly celebrated German author Alfred Andersch’s work. Even reading the epigraph gives an idea of what Sebald is going to say in the essay. It quotes a line from the cover of one of Andersch’s books where he is called a great German writer. Below the quote Sebald mentions that the words were written by Andersch himself.
So from the very onset, Seblad seems to be annoyed with Andersch’s sense of self-importance. His entire essay points out examples from Andersch’s work where he has twisted events and his memory of it to bring out a rather large self-image. Certainly from Sebald’s examples, Andersch seems to stand in a poor light. In his personal life, Andersch abandoned a Jewish wife right before holocaust reached its nadir thus compromising her security, he indulged in petty ego clashes with critics, and he spent three months in a concentration camp himself. Andersch’s work has dealt with many events in his life, but in neither has Andersch been honest, according to Sebald.
It is an interesting essay, particularly his criticism of the work Efrain makes me almost want to read Andersch. So far I have heard Andersch’s name only in the context of ‘internal-emigration’ – a term which I found delightful to hear. Sebald’s essay, however, takes away the enigma from this emigration and reduces it into an abeyance, an inertia to make the move.
I am a little surprised at classification of this essay as literary criticism – it focuses more on Andersch’s personal life and failings – his desertion in Italy and the divorce to his wife, his inability to take criticism. In comparison it speaks little of the literary quality of his work.
In the first essay of the book, Air, war and literature, Sebald has criticized German authors for maintaining silence on the bombing and complete destruction of the German cities in the last phase of World War II. Sebald’s demands from literature have been stringent in that essay, and that comes out in this essay as well. As in the previous essay, Sebald does not like Andersch taking a literary license to ‘fictionalize’ his accounts. In demanding a complete narration, Sebald seems to be very rigid, and arguably takes a restricted view of literature.
Surprisingly, this book is very Un-Sebaldian when it comes to its use of images. The book has very few images, and the lacuna is striking – especially when even in the description of Weiss’ paintings in the last essay Sebald keeps the pictures conspicuously absent. This could be a reason why I thought this work was less evocative than his other works, but I think Sebald’s rigid view of literature and its roles also had a significant part to play in my reaction to the work.