Saturday, January 20, 2007

After Nature: W G Sebald

After Nature collects three long (each around thirty-forty pages) narrative poems by W G Sebald. It was his first book to be published in German apart from his literary criticism and essays. The English translation came only after his tragic death though postscript informs that the translation was approved by him before his death. Michael Hamburger, a published poet and literary critic who has translated Holderlin and Celan, did the translation. Hamburger was actually a close friend of Sebald and he makes a guest appearance as himself in The Rings of Saturn too. The translation here, as it is with other Sebald's books, reads extremely fluently.

The three poems are written in free verse, in fact it feels like reading his prose work itself. Just the lineation makes the experience of reading a little different by disturbing the natural flow of a sentence. But still it is easy to see that it was written by same Sebald who wrote The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn. In fact it is not just in prose style but also in content that it is similar to his prose works. Two out of three are fact ridden biographical portraits of remote and mostly forgotten figures and third is an autobiographical narrative which recounts some of his childhood experiences and of his experiences of living in Manchester, again something that he later wrote about in Vertigo and The Emigrants.

The two figures that Sebald writes about are, the medieval German painter Matthias Grunewald, whose grief laden life was the inspiration for most of his paintings that depicted suffering in religious terms, specially the crucifixion and the eighteenth century German botanist George Steller who went on a disastrous sea voyage from Russia to Alaska. They are both real historical figures and Sebald's scholarship in both the poems sounds scrupulous. But ultimately it is not the facts which count in the poem, it is the emphasis that Sebald gives on selective facts, as if everything was filtered through his own melancholic worldview, to describe how "natural" the process of death, destruction and dissolution is.

This is how an ecplise is seen by the painter and it is not difficult to see how Sebald projects his own interpretation on the events as perceived by the painter.

On the first of October the moon's shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Grünewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy bLuís of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter's memory.
These colours unfold as the reverse of
the spectrum in a different consistency
of the air, whose deoxygenated void
in the gasping breath of the figures
on the central Isenheim panel is enough
to portend our death by asphyxiation; after which
comes the mountain landscape of weeping
in which Grünewald with a pathetic gaze
into the future has prefigured
a planet utterly strange, chalk-coloured
behind the blackish-blue river.

and then:
Here in an evil state of erosion
and desolation the heritage of ruining
of life that in the end will consume
even the stones has been depicted.

from the Steller poem, describing how he died:
At Tyumen they carry him out of the sledge,
drag his half-petrified body
out of the ice into the fire,
into a furnace house.
Now begins alchimia,
Steller recognises the mortem improvisam,
the stroke and all its appendage,
sees his death, how it is mirrored
in the field-surgeon's monocle.
Such are you, doctores,
split lamps,
thus nature has her way
with a godless
Lutheran from Germany.

After Nature is a great companion piece to his great prose works and in a way an introduction too. Those looking for Poetry with a capital 'P' might be disappointed with all the facts and the history and the prosaic-ness in the poems but then it can also, and perhaps should be, read as something written in an experimental prose style.

Two reviews from The New York Times and The New Republic. It seems that people Sebald talks of are not that forgotten after all, wikipedia remembers them too. The entries on Matthias Grunewald, George Steller and Vitus Bering, on whose sea voyage Steller went.


Antonia said...

great alok, now that I am hanging out in my 'selfchosen-somehow-mandatory- due-to-homework-internetexile' and just thought I peek around see what's going on here, you post all the interesting stuff,Nabokov and Sebald and I don't have time for a decent reply. But keep that up, this is interesting stuff.
After Nature is the only Sebald I don't know. Hamburger is great actually, wonderful poetry he wrote.

Alok said...

intermittent hibernation is good for health. it keeps one energised!

the library has got Hamburger's collected poems and also a collection of essays which looked very interesting. will check them out.

Antonia said...

the hamburger essays are cool, I almost like them more than his poetry.
alok,is that so, that intermittent hibernation keeps one organized? I did not notice that ..yet :)Maybe I should practise more...

Alok said...

I have gone in hibernation too. No posts for three days!

Antonia said...

ok alok, I dig you out of the snow in three days in case an avalanche has closed your hibernation-cave.

Alok said...

thanks, I am out now and the new post is up too :)

I was stuck up with some office work. It is too boring...

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