Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

W. G. Sebald's After Nature

The Maisonneuve Conversations series

W. G. Sebald was a German author and academic who spent most of his adult life in England, teaching at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in an automobile accident in 2001. He is best known for his novels—Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and The Emigrants—bleak, powerful pseudo-autobiographical essaylike considerations of Western culture, history and the human condition.

Published in a posthumous translation in 2003, the long poem After Nature (Knopf Canada, July 2003) was actually written in 1988, making it Sebald’s earliest literary work.

Jack Illingworth: My impulse is to begin this dialogue like a good little formalist and immediately start discussing the structure of After Nature. Of course, I know very little about contemporary German poetics, and have no more than a passing acquaintance with any German-language poets more contemporary than Paul Celan. But anyone who has read Sebald’s earlier works of fiction won’t find any big surprises here, as After Nature is essentially a long poem complement to Vertigo and The Emigrants. That is to say, it is a dour rumination on art and memory, murder, death and estrangement, divided into discrete sections that focus on historical figures and Sebald’s own fictionalized autobiography. So there’s nothing here to catch us unawares: we have a poem about Matthias Grünewald, the Renaissance painter; we have a biography of Georg Steller, the biologist-explorer; and we have an apparently autobiographical section about a postwar childhood in the Alps. I was, therefore, expecting the structure of the book to be distinctly arbitrary and discursive; again, this was my impression of his novels, and there was little reason to expect something different here.

However, the epigraph to Sebald’s first poem, the four final lines from Canto II of the Inferno, made me hope for a sort of Divine Comedy:

Now go, the will within us being one:
you be my guide, lord, master from this day,
I said to him; and when he, moved, led on
I entered on the steep wild-wooded way.

After Nature is a tripartite book, after all, so it would make sense for Sebald to use Dante’s words to Virgil to introduce an Inferno, a Purgatorio and a Paradiso. I’m not so sure about this now—mainly because the third poem, “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” is certainly not an account of an ordered heaven.

Nonetheless, I do think Sebald is trying for some sort of religion-animated significant form here. This is made pretty clear in the first poem, “As the Snow on the Alps,” through the account of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. If you haven’t sought out illustrations of it, you really must—either get thee to the library or look at the reasonable scans of it at Altarpieces, of course, are triptychs, and the Isenheim altarpiece is a threefold triptych. So, we have several varieties of Christian allegory at play at once here, working on what I would call both metaphysical and aesthetic levels. I’m still thinking through this, of course, but it’s a beginning.

Perhaps we should also rush straight in to discussing the translation, to the best of our abilities. Not only do I not read German, but I have not yet been able to track down a German text of After Nature, in order to at least see how closely Michael Hamburger has followed the syntax and lineation of the original. It seems to me that he must have been a stickler for syntax, for many moments in After Nature, particularly in “As the Snow on the Alps,” show that strange syntax that one sometimes sees in translations of languages with strong case-systems. This impression faded on repeated readings, and the whole poem developed something of the transparency of the translated novels, but nonetheless there is a sea of syntactical inversions to wade through. It’s rare to see such transparent brushes of grammar in translations, I think—usually the translator tries to obliterate them. What do you make of this?

Ray Hsu: You’re right about After Nature and how Sebald plays Christian allegory on both the metaphysical and aesthetic levels. In the same way that someone opens the stories of the altarpiece three times, each moving physically deeper into the work of art, the reader unfolds Sebald’s story over the course of three stories, each going deeper into the other. As Dante must move deeper into Hell in order to leave it. Maybe all we get each time is a cold Inferno: Sebald ends all three poems at the top of a snow-covered mountain.

At the same time, Sebald seems reluctant to step into the body or the art of Grünewald. Describing him, Sebald says that

Foremost at the picture’s edge he stands
above the world by a hand’s breadth
and is about to step over the frame’s
threshold. (5)

But Sebald still stands patiently at the threshold of the art he describes. It may have something to do with the way he approaches his ekphrastic poetry, where the poet patiently stands at the threshold of the painting, reverently touching the surface but afraid of pushing further. We get closest to Grünewald in the final section (VII), which sounds the least like a history lesson or a painting’s surface.

So then into Georg Wilhelm Steller, whose work of art is his De Bestiis Marinis (“his zoological masterpiece”) and his travels. The poetry here is as taciturn as Steller, words surrounded by the Arctic white space of the page. Here Sebald seems more familiar with Steller and travels with him as a kind of transition into assuming the seeming autobiographical familiarity of the third poem.

As my one German course continues to rust, I think the translation may be responsible for the long sentences rendered in “And if I remained by the outermost sea,” the second poem. The sentences hang clauses in a way that reminds me of Henry James and recalls Mark Twain’s quip about German sentences acting like detective novels (so convoluted that you don’t find out what happens until the end). But I think the sentences are relentless in a way that befits Steller’s single-minded dedication. The end-stops in these sections hit definitively, like Steller’s frozen, insane corpse.

Jack Illingworth: Do I detect a hint of antipathy here to Sebald’s “history lesson” and his surfaces of paintings?

It seems to me that literature about artists (be they painters, dancers, poets, composers, etc.) is nearly always doomed to failure. If one writes about a historical figure, one is bound to be a servant to their work; there’s no way for the written work to claim any primacy of expression. If, on the other hand, authors opt to create a fictional artist, they have to meet the extraordinarily difficult challenge of making their protagonist’s art real for the reader. Guy Davenport often succeeds in the former venture simply by virtue of prose, craftsmanship and sheer intelligence. Pasternak and Nabokov (no matter how cordially they disliked each other’s works) make the latter strategy work by providing poems for their heroes in Doctor Zhivago and Pale Fire. Michael Redhill and Thomas Mann found a middle way—Doctor Faustus fictionalizes some of Schoenberg’s techniques, and Martin Sloane builds new assemblages after the style (but not the biography) of Joseph Cornell. Sebald, however, spends most of his time pushing the reader’s eye around a series of invisible paintings. But to what end?

At least he doesn’t spend much time telling us what Grünewald’s figures are thinking. That’s one genre of verse that has very nearly worn itself out.

On, then, to Steller. I’m rather in love with this part of After Nature, but, as you know, I have a weakness for nineteenth-century zoologists. He’s certainly not one of the famous ones, although West Coasters who like to know the names of things will be familiar with him: the dark Pacific jays bear his name, as do an eider duck and a Siberian sea eagle large enough to occasionally be mistaken for a small airplane. The treatment of Steller’s life history pleases me; this is the sort of stuff that makes up a great deal of earnest Canadian novels, the kind featuring that lugubrious formal dialogue people seem to consider “historical.” I like the briskness of these pieces, the matter-of-fact, short cantos (few are longer than a single page), the scarcity of dialogue, the ease with which the poem slips into and out of a “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”-like grisliness:

 [...] Only once on the
shimmering surface ahead did the watch
make out something black
covered with countless seabirds.
Plumbing the depth, they approached
till it was clear that the island rock
was no more than a dead whale many times magnified
by the mirage’s play, adrift-belly up. (57) 

(When did till become a substitute for until? We should take that up with Hamburger.)

I’d like to hear your thoughts on the corpses in this section (all of Sebald’s books, it seems, have a very high body count). Not just Steller’s, but Bering’s—even as a living man he is drawn as a near-corpse, half-mad, profoundly depressed. As he drifts around the north Pacific in his bier-ship he reminds me of The Hunter Gracchus—that pair of Kafka stories that Sebald picks up in the most striking scenes in Vertigo. Gracchus is a hunter from the Black Forest, who dies by falling into a ravine while chasing a chamois. His funereal bark loses its way, however, and he is stuck wandering the earth, posting from port to port, visiting dignitaries and entertaining guests.

 It takes an uncannily
long time, Steller thinks,
for Bering to open
his eyes and look
at him. What is this
being called human?
A beast, shrouded
in deep mourning,
in a black coat
lined with
black fur. (56) 

Ray Hsu: Reading over some of the poems again, it strikes me that it isn’t the history lesson that bothers me. It’s that I expect someone writing on a life (historical and/or imaginary) to do it with a scalpel. Whether of the artist or the cultural moment, I hope that the writer finds the life a portal either deeper into the person or outward into the time.

And the style. One of the most successful poetic archaeologies I’ve seen in the last while is Christopher Logue’s War Music. Except in this book, I’ve never heard in modern terms how a god can kill a man. The piety in Sebald keeps him at the surface: it takes Heinrich Schliemann with a pen to get to Troy. Freud would have a field day.

But of Steller and bodies, I’d agree. Your initial remark about Dante is on the mark, especially insofar as Sebald finds creative ways to arrange corpses. Exhibition, interment, disposal. The spareness of this section I’d liken to the woodcuts of Barry Moser, who I remember most for a stunning series for an edition of Frankenstein. And the relentless wandering of Walton and his crew, explorers and scientists like Steller, makes an intuitive third point with the obsessive Ancient Mariner.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more the surface-scratching of the Grünewald section makes sense in terms of Renaissance obsession with perspective, when artists experimented with point of view in the visual arts. Which makes an easy contrast to the obsessively indifferent language Sebald often uses to describe things in Steller’s field of vision.

Although I love the idea that dying in nature renders us animals, as in your quote of Sebald’s portrait of Bering and in his description of Steller, who lies in the snow “like a fox beaten to death.” Makes me wonder where dignity is in Sebald’s cosmology.

Jack Illingworth: You bring up dignity. Interesting—for who aside from euthanasia advocates, the pious and eccentrics like us even thinks of it any more? And how often does it become something more than a quick rhetorical appeal? What the hell is it, anyway? I’ve been giving it a great deal of thought, and part of it is performative, I think, a social pose meant to indicate moral stability, stoicism, an unsullied conscience and a kind of grace. If it is transparently insincere it curdles into pomp. It is also, I think, an antique, something over which I fret, but that few of our contemporaries have any use for.

Enough of that—aside from that word: performative. Sebald does have a passion for watching people die, especially when their deaths are undignified. Disease, murder, disaster, drink, extermination, genocide—these are how people end in his books. To die with dignity one must enact one’s death, whether it be through the bogus romance of youthful suicide, the thornier act of euthanasia (where are the serious novels about that, I wonder?), a properly staged public execution (I’m thinking of the Crucifixion here; had the Romans discovered the totalitarian trick of the disappearance, where would that religion be?) or the antique tableau of the deathbed, with the audience of children, friends or admirers, the pithy exit line.

This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in a kind of internalized dignity, a moral condition; just that it has very little to do with the appearance of dignity—which seems to be what you’re looking for in these poems, if you’re holding Steller up as an icon.

Sebald’s world is a totalitarian one, where death is seldom a gesture. This makes sense to me, for I’m enough of a materialist to consider all deaths to be fundamentally undignified.  I’m straying too far from the poems; I have The Emigrants in mind as I think these matters through. If you have a moment, find a copy of The Rings of Saturn and read the third section, which begins with a discussion of the history of herring fishing. That mundane subject seems to me to be Sebald’s most succinct meditation on death, murder and dignity.

If not dignity, then what? Art, of course, and science, and Sebald’s dour humanism. (Another triptych, or is this just my own handy rhetoric?) It seems to me that one reason his empathy with Grünewald and Steller is so slight is this: he is more interested in the mechanics of their achievements (and their ultimate obscurity in human memory) than he is in making up stories about them, in fabricating their inner lives from scratch. I would argue that he does use a scalpel, but it is a queer one, the scalpel of the scientific collagist, who trims his images meticulously for their rearrangement but cuts (almost) nothing from virgin paper.

Or, perhaps, that is just what I want to see in him.

Let’s talk about the third poem, “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” which we’ve both been avoiding. It strikes me as the most conventionally “poetic” section of the book—personal and cultural history jumbled with a kind of slight surrealism imported from Celan and Lorca (and Dürer, Grünewald and Bruegel). Old Northern paintings, then, and the poetry that blossomed everywhere under the blight of fascism. How does he pull this one off—or does he?


Ray Hsu: About Sebald’s poetic illustrations of dying with dignity. Someone I know does a lot of interesting work on just that, and it’s prompted me to think further about the topic. Besides the fact that heroes seem to do this particularly well (I’m thinking of Beowulf in particular), women seem to do this well in literature also (I’m thinking of Poe’s rather earnest comment about the death of beautiful women), as do artist-heroes (and here’s Sebald, and I count Steller as a kind of broody scientist-artist).

There seems to be an exchange involved each time. With Beowulf, he dies but his people receive a dragon’s hoard of gold in return. With Sebald, the artist-hero always dies in a way that suggests tragedy and nothing, but is really transmuted into a beautiful portrait. The lack of appearance of dignity, for Sebald’s characters, turns out to be the reverse because we can recognize it as utterly tragic, unadorned and the worthier for our eyes.

Maybe that’s why we’re still so enamoured of destitution in death. Penniless Van Goghs and so forth.

About “Dark Night Sallies Forth,” section VI strikes me as the most lyrical of the bunch. Reminds me of Roo Borson’s poetry in the way it trusts words: like a hand leading you through the forest, but to the centre, where abandoned human constructs lie rotting. Although I’d agree with you that his visionary mode seems conventionally poetic in most of the sequence, I’d also say that VI is the best.

Jack Illingworth: It would not have occurred to me to liken any of After Nature to Roo Borson’s work, but, for some of these last poems, that idea makes a great deal of sense:  I’m thinking of how the Sebald-speaker addresses his daughter, taking her on an impossible tour of the bleakest landscapes of southeast England—

Come, my daughter, come on,
give me your hand, we’re leaving
the town, I’ll show you the mill
set twice each day in motion
by the sea’s current,
a groaning miraculous construct
of wheels and belts
that carries water power
right into stone, right
into the trickling dust and
into the bodies of spiders (105) 

—then moving into England’s warlike past at the Sutton Hoo graves, its warlike presence in the form of military installations and the “lonely spy” who “sits in his Dormobile / in the dunes, his headphones / pulled over his ears” (106).

I’m increasingly drawn to the next poem, however, the prayerlike piece envisioning Alexander’s triumph over Darius and the Persians, again through a painted image (this time hanging in a classroom) and a dream. It seems to me that Sebald almost claims the almost-abandoned podium of the vatic poet in this piece.

It should be a failed poem—the way in which Sebald dramatizes the cultural crush between Occident and Orient, openly displaying abstract history over a clash of men and horses, feels contrived to me, although somehow he gains my assent, partly through the chaplain’s explanation of the picture (and, by extension, the battle itself):

[...] It was,
he said, a demonstration
of the necessary destruction of all
the hordes coming up from the East,
and thus a contribution to the history
of salvation. Since then I have
read in another teacher’s writings
that we have death in front of us
rather like a picture of Alexander’s battle
on our schoolroom wall. (111-12) 

His ending, in which the picture becomes a kind of satellite photograph of the ancient world—Egypt, the Nile Delta, Sinai, the Red Sea

and, still farther in the distance,
towering up in the dwindling light,
the mountain ranges,
snow-covered and ice-bound
of the strange, unexplored,
African continent. (112-13) 

—has bemused me since my first reading of the book. I can’t quite catch his tone here, perhaps because he’s expressing so much at once, or maybe I can just do the evasive thing and blame the translator. Perhaps it is nostalgia, of a sort, for a time when conquests were local. A kind of false nostalgia proliferates in Sebald’s books; his preoccupation with history can’t help but raise it, even though all he finds in history is inhumanity, despair and art. But there’s more than this—he is moving the reader’s eyes away from the battle, into a landscape that is empty of people, empty even of vegetation. Ice on stones: this is Africa?

There is no colonial lust there. But is Sebald just looking at the human race and throwing up his hands in defeat? Or is there more to it?

Ray Hsu: Last thoughts. About the bird’s-eye view of the battle, I think you’re more than right about inhumanity, despair and art. But I think it’s the reverse: I think he finds confusion in the local and quietness in transcendence. In death, war and exploration, Sebald seems to respect those who can so fully absorb themselves in the local that they can excise all the chaos of life. But Sebald himself is left looking at these artifacts of the local, oleographs of battle scenes, suspicious of conclusions and yet drawn to the promise of finally being able to step back to make them.

Yes, he wants to reclaim the vatic podium—doesn’t every nostalgic poet?—but I think he’s also suspicious of it. The bird’s-eye view doesn’t take the form of Olympian gods looking down on Ilium, which is one way to do it, nor does it piggyback the rising sun to survey an Anglo-Saxon battle from on high. Instead, it takes the form of the serene cinematic eye watching the world from a perspective that can see “time stretched out and time speeded up” like a reel, a vision realistic and yet, sadly, art.

So yes, it’s a kind of defeat. All who take the podium are defeated somehow. But he knows this, and it’s also a dream-vision prayer (“Lord,” he says, “I dreamed that to see Alexander’s battle / I flew all the way to Munich”) that he might be able to justify seeing the world this way.