Observer review: After Nature by WG Sebald

WG Sebald's finely-tuned prose poem, After Nature, raises questions of responsibility through what is not said

After Nature
WG Sebald
Hamish Hamilton £12.99, pp112

After Nature is a long 'prose poem'. Three poetic narratives from three time periods, connected through dislocated ideas of nation and cultural belonging, spiritual searching, ways of seeing nature, levels of participation and exclusion. A dialogue of conscience. A belonging that is never realisable, but that creates a need for searching.

The language is easy and rich. In the Sebald approach to the unredemptive construct we call 'nature', both sympathetic and antagonistic interactions carry the same rules: it's how they are interpreted that comes into focus. Nature itself becomes no more pliable to the sympathetic eye. The scientist sees as the artist sees - or might see.

The first of the narratives, 'As the Snow on the Alps', involves the artist Mathias Grünewald in the early 1500s. The central telling, 'And if I Remained by the Outermost Sea', is based on the eighteenth-century botanist GW Steller and his part in Bering's Alaskan expedition. And the final recounting is based on the author's persona of a contemporary self. This last section, 'Dark Night Sallies Forth', sees a fusion of the themes of migrations, departures, arrivals and 'revisitings' of histories: '...after leaving my remote home,/ I arrived there and took lodgings/ among the previous century's/ ruins.'

Grünewald's seeing as an artist is marred by a vision of loss, an 'asphyxiation', in a similar way to Steller's realisation in failure and disaster of '...the difference/ between nature and society.' The 'self' finale fuses portent and prophecy, confronts the fatalism of cultural and social inheritance, the ease with which things are forgotten, or are displaced from memory because they are associated with a shadow that knows no limits:

'...From there she
saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like
or what her feelings were
at this sight.'

The Michael Hamburger translation of After Nature has been eagerly awaited since Sebald's death in a car accident in 2001. There is a combination of metrical and non-metrical lines, with sections working effectively as free verse, others coming close to blank verse, and yet others clearly prose. The question of lineation becomes one of 'relief' as much as a denotation of units of meaning. It slows the reading down, even creates a sense of breath and rhythm.

Throughout, the process in which the voice 'describes, classifies, draws' is in and out of tune with the aspect of self that is overwhelmed by lyrical circumstance - 'Like starlings the wind drives us' - and the philosophical and spiritual questioning that surrounds such disjunction. A poem of fate and fatalism, it analyses and engages strangely and consistently.

After Nature is a finely tuned piece of writing that deals with how history is interpreted, with art, memory and the tension between the machine of the human construct and 'nature' in a way that is intertextual and familiar with Sebald's prose work. In fact, the poem, originally published in 1988, predates the publication of the prose work in its original German.

Sebald and, through him, Hamburger, has an knack of incorporating the real, the non-exclusionary aesthetic, the parlance of the ordinary person, into an environment of learning and 'high art'. Identity is formed by the unsaid as much as the said. This is not surprising given Sebald's confrontations with the silences across German society that followed the Second World War. Sebald's work is about freedoms of observation, of decoding and deciphering what constitutes the individual, family, society, as well as ideas of nation.

This book raises questions: how much insight have our explorations actually brought 'us'? How much can they bring us? Sebald was known for his intense dislike of commercialisations of the Holocaust, and After Nature clearly indicates that the crimes of history can't be silenced or made into something else. Questions of the 'we', the 'us' and 'they', beg questions of responsibility, of distancing, but are honestly confronted. The balance between the poetry and the prose of this work is sensitive, and more complex and highly realised than even the author might have realised.


John Kinsella

The GuardianTramp

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