Amid Ruins: Reflections on Landscape and Memory in the Work of W.G. Sebald
By Alan Brake
“Amid Ruins: Reflections on Landscape and Memory in the Work of W.G. Sebald” is a critical essay collection that examines the themes of civic and individual memory in the landscape of Postwar Europe and beyond. Each chapter examines one of his major novels, and the prelude looks at his best-known and most controversial non-fiction essay.
In “Air War and Literature,” examined in the prelude, Sebald faults German writers, and German cultural production more broadly, for failing to accurately convey what the destruction of German cities by the Allied bombing campaign “actually meant.” Thirty years prior, Gerhard Richter painted a series of paintings that fit many of the aesthetic criteria Sebald developed. By placing these two figures in dialogue, one can sense the way in which they support each other’s assessments of the environment for cultural production in postwar Germany, while simultaneously correcting Richter’s evasions and Sebald’s overstatements on the taboo of representing the destruction of German cities.
In the final section of Vertigo, “Il ritorno in patria,” which is addressed in Chapter One, the narrator returns to his birthplace, the village of W. in Bavaria. More than thirty years have passed since he has visited the town, and he has grown estranged from his place of origin. The visit confirms his feelings toward the town and toward his own heritage, and his departure marks a final break from home and establishes his identity as a rootless traveler and as a “destabilizing” force in the cultural landscape.
Focused primarily on the “Max Weber” section of The Emigrants, which takes place in the birthplace of the industrial revolution, Manchester, England, Chapter Two examines the author’s the use of the urban walk as a narrative device as well as an operative mode. Retracing the steps of Freidich Engels, Sebald finds the seeds of Manchester’s undoing built into the fabric of the city. Alternately drawn to and terrified by the prospect of total destruction, Sebald, in The Rings of Saturn, traces the degradation and obliteration of the natural environment. This process, at its most violent, serves as a stand in for the Luftkrieg, but the destruction of the natural environment was also major concern of Sebald’s in its own right. As argued in Chapter Three, though he mourned the destruction of nature, he also acknowledged, with sadness, that that very destruction, ultimately, releases humanity from its selfinflicted suffering.
Sebald famously embedded a variety of visual material—photographs, drawing, letters, advertisements and other ephemera—in his novels. His use of this material becomes markedly more sophisticated in Austerlitz and, as discussed in Chapter Four, by creating a varied temporal experience for the reader, parallels recent thinking on the design of memorials.