w i t n e s s to w a r j o e l a g e e
In today’s world, personal truth is the only reality. To
Half a century ago, when I was fifteen years old, I read a collection of “reports”—that is what they were called on the flyleaf—titled Interview mit dem Tode, “An Interview with Death,” by an author named Hans Erich Nossack. I was living in Berlin then, surrounded by many ruins left over from World War II. It may be that the knowledge of so much violent death in my neighborhood not long ago was in part what attracted me to that title, even before I discovered how much of the book had to do with the enigma those ruins represented to me.
The reports were unlike anything I would have associated with that word. All but one of them were works of fiction, some of it quite fantastical, and the single piece of reportage proper, titled Der Untergang i—an account of the destruction of Hamburg by Allied bombers in July, 1943—gave way, intermittently, to passages written in the language of dreams and fairytales. This refusal to limit the meaning of “report” to the transmission of facts was, for me, a revelation almost as startling as the narrator’s voice, which was so personal, quiet, and tender, even when speaking about calamity. Although maybe that stillness was itself an after-effect of disaster:
I translated the essay on Hamburg when I was in my early thirties. I was living in New York then. I’m not sure why I took on this task. It was not with the intention of publishing the piece. Probably my motive was to share it with friends and my wife, for no other reason than that I liked it. But I can’t help thinking that my returning to Nossack’s book at that time, and my choosing to translate that part of it, had something to do with the war in Vietnam, or rather with the language in which that war was discussed: militant language for war and against it, rational language of numbers and quantities, analytical language, newspaper language, speechwriters’ language. In that Babel of rhetorics, I must have remembered the windless calm in Nossack’s account and opened his book to see how he had managed to speak of his city’s ordeal without complaint and without accusation, and yet with an authority that compels a reciprocal calm in the reader.
I did send the manuscript to some publishers a few years later. No one was interested. Previous translations of Nossack’s novels, though respectfully reviewed, had reached very few readers, as does most foreign fiction in America—that was one reason. But aside from that, I was told, Americans just weren’t prepared to sympathize with a German description of the suffering of Germans in World War II.
Three decades later, in November, 2002, Nossack’s name was brought to the attention of American readers when The New Yorker published an essay titled “Reflections: A Natural History Of Destruction” by the highly regarded and widely read German novelist W. G. Sebald. The article, based on a series of lectures Sebald had given in Zurich on “Air War And Literature,” criticized postwar German literature for consigning to near-total oblivion the horrors inflicted by Allied bombers on the defenseless population of cities like Hamburg and Dresden. “The darkest aspects of the final act of destruction,” Sebald wrote, “ . . . remained under a kind of taboo like a shameful family secret, a secret that perhaps could not even be privately acknowledged.” For nearly four decades after the war, he said, all public discussion of this enormous event was confined to the occasional delicate mention of “the catastrophe.” No small part of the blame had to be laid at the doorstep of those whose vocation it should have been to keep the collective memory alive—the writers. There were a few—five, in Sebald’s count—who did venture to break the taboo by writing about the bombs and the fires and the degradation of life in the ruins, but even here there was a tendency to gild the unbearable truth with metaphysical musings, Symbolist jargon, romantic grandiosity, or avantgardist language games. Only two authors—Heinrich Böll and Hans Erich Nossack—met Sebald’s criteria for a responsible literature in the face of total destruction, and it is Nossack’s short masterpiece, in the main, that is held up in Sebald’s essay as a worthy contribution to a “natural history of destruction.” ii
It is worth taking a closer look at Sebald’s thesis, because it espouses a program in which Nossack cannot be enlisted without misunderstanding him. “On The Natural History Of Destruction” was the proposed title for a report Solly Zuckerman, a doctor of medicine and zoology who had advised the British government on aerial bombing, had intended to write after visiting the ruined city of Cologne. Apparently he was so overwhelmed by what he had seen that he was unable to deliver the article. “My first view of Cologne,” he wrote decades later in his autobiography, “cried out for a more eloquent piece than I could ever have written.” iii Sebald, quoting him, does not speculate as to why the scientifically trained Zuckerman was unable to write an empirical report but proceeds to undertake the task himself: “How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin? With a summary of the technical, organizational, and political prerequisites for carrying out large-scale air raids? With a scientific account of the previously unknown phenomenon of the firestorms? With a pathographical record of typical modes of death, or with behaviorist studies of the instincts of flight and homecoming?” iv
I don’t imagine this is the type of eloquence Solly Zuckerman lacked. More likely he found himself unable to write because what he had to say could not be expressed in dispassionate, “objective” terms. Is it not conceivable that, in the necropolis that had once been Cologne, or more likely when he sat down to write his report in the less severely ruined city of London, the enormity of what he had witnessed rose up in him as an inchoate scream or lament, and that this urgency demanded of him that he speak from the fullness of the heart or not at all? I am guessing, of course. But that Nossack, three months after Hamburg was incinerated, found himself at just such a threshold is not a matter of conjecture:
This is not the voice of a neutral observer. It is the voice of a witness—not in the usual juridical sense, but in the confessional sense of religious parlance, though he brings no good news and says nothing of God: one who stands surety, with his soul and his life if needs be, for a truth that might otherwise not be believed.
Sebald praises Nossack for being, on the whole, “concerned with plain facts: the season of the year, the weather, . . . the physical and mental condition of refugees from the cities, the burnt-out scenery, chimneys that curiously remain standing, washing put out to dry on a rack outside the kitchen window . . .” etc.v
Here, for comparison, is Nossack:
These are not “plain facts.” It is the little word “I” at the start of his record and the presence, throughout, of a vulnerable conscience intent on being true to itself that make all the difference between objective reporting and authentic witness. That facts are nevertheless accounted for by such a witness—scrupulously—is self-evident. Why would he lie or embellish a truth that already exceeds the bounds of imagination? Those who did so in their writing—Sebald cites some egregious examples—were not close enough to the event to be chastened by its sheer horror. But let me not discount the part that imagination plays in Nossack’s chronicle. He uses it frequently and freely. There are passages that might be termed mystical or surreal because they depart from the plane of realistic description altogether. These are no less concerned with telling the truth than those that record concrete data and tangible facts. They are attempts at describing an experience for which no ready language exists, because it takes place on the other side of an abyss that divides those who have lost everything from those “who still have a past from which they derive their standard for tomorrow.” What comes across to us is an uncanny message of liberation: “We have become present.” It appears from Nossack’s account that for a brief period many survivors experienced a state of consciousness in which class prejudice and the masks of convention, fear of authority and the very notion of an enemy had fallen away, leaving only the lineaments of an archetypal humanity:
There are other surprises in Nossack’s narrative—the most estranging, perhaps, for a contemporary reader, being the absence of any mention of the Nazis or Germany’s guilt in provoking the retribution it was now receiving. I can only guess at the reasons for this. Nossack’s contempt for “the authorities,” for the state altogether, is too explicitly stated to allow for the explanation that he was motivated by caution. More likely, three months after an event whose violence had made a shambles of every pretension, every noble or ignoble aspiration, indeed every concept of order, his perspective was radically apolitical.
Strange, too, perhaps especially for readers of our time who live in a world of replaceable and disposable goods, is the almost keening tone of long passages of lament over the loss of things, from the most ordinary items of household use to works of art and objects of fine handicraft that “shared their existence” with Nossack and his wife. After all, many people lost children or spouses or friends; what is the loss of even the most treasured object compared to that? But maybe this is not so hard to understand if one tries to imagine the totality of the loss. “Nothing was left, not a single trinket of all the things that we loved and that belonged with us. If there had been such a little something, how we would have caressed it; it would have been imbued with the essence of all the other things.” Nothing. This word has a terrible resonance if one conceives it to mean what it does here: the absence of everything familiar, everything we call our own. Everything.
The impeccable witness to the destruction of Hamburg was an unreliable source of information about his own life—or perhaps I should say: his biography. For he made a distinction between the “statistical,” merely factual biography, dependably registered at various government agencies, and the “true” biography—“as ‘auto’ as possible”—that was his life’s work. The conventional biography was that of a coffee merchant and, later, a professional writer of considerable renown, a founding member of three academies and Vice President of a fourth, an active member of the P.E.N. Club, decorated with the Pour le Mérite Medal, the recipient of two of the most coveted literary prizes Germany had to offer—in short, a model citizen. The subject of the “inner” (auto-) biography was a loner who fished at night in the “exterritorial” waters of the imagination, always in search of his own truth—a poet. The poet told some fibs and half-truths about himself—a sterner judge would call them lies—in several letters, a speech, and occasional articles. The voluminous secondary literature that developed around him repeated these self-stylizations and amplified them into something of a myth, with Nossack’s tacit compliance. One of that myth’s ingredients was a legend according to which the Nazis imposed an edict denying him the right to publish. In fact he applied to them for that right, and they granted it, but then prevented him from publishing a volume of poems on the grounds that there was a shortage of paper. A second legend had it that everything he had written before the fall of Hamburg had been destroyed in the flames, while actually five plays and numerous poems were saved, probably with friends living outside of Hamburg. The motive for these mystifications is not easy to determine: he called himself “the best camouflaged writer in Germany.” But for truth of the kind that mattered to Nossack—the personal truth of a conscience engaged in scrupulous self-reckoning—we must turn to his work, not his public persona. Nossack spoke of the bombing of Hamburg as a new beginning for him, both personal and artistic. How could it not have been that? Here we don’t need to doubt his word. His earlier dramatic work was under the impress of Strindberg and the mystical expressionist Ernst Barlach, while the novels and stories he wrote afterwards are haunted (cheerfully sometimes) by the lure of a fundamental homelessness and anonymity that are Nossack’s point of departure in Der Untergang.
After his death in 1978, Nossack’s austere, introverted fiction fell into disfavor with an affluent generation that had no memory of the war and no interest in exploring the region Nossack called “the uninsurable.” He might well have been forgotten entirely if W. G. Sebald had not championed him and if Germans did not have the laudable custom of commemorating artists and writers of note on the occasion of their hundredth birthday. In January 2001, the month of his centenary, many newspapers carried stories about him, with titles like “Neither Right Nor Left” and “A Courageous And Sober Archeologist Of Conscience.” One writer mournfully identified him with a class of authors young readers discount as the kind “my grandmother used to read.” That is of course an assessment that applies equally to Kafka, Musil, and Camus, writers to whom Nossack has been frequently compared. At least two of his early works put him particularly in Camus’ company: the still untranslated novel Spiralevi and that luminous first collection of stories, Interview mit dem Tode, of which Der Untergang is the penultimate chapter.
Nossack’s conception of the writer’s role was, if anything, bleaker than Camus’. It was that of a combatant in a guerilla war for the preservation of human interiority, a scout who reconnoiters the social landscape and sends out messages to other clandestine resisters. Yet there was in those messages a serenity and even, in his later work, a contentment that seemed to say: “This silence, this emptiness that people dread, it’s an openness, one can live in it, it’s not so bad.” Not that he would say this outright: it would be too loud an assertion and could be misunderstood as mere counsel on how to get by. Still, something like that can be heard, here and there, in the eerie equanimity of the voice that speaks to us from the ruins of Hamburg. Its tone, especially in the concluding pages, bears no relation to what most of us know or can imagine of disaster. It is the voice of a man who has crossed the river Styx and returned from the land of the dead. He would not say this of himself outright either, but I believe it is true. Why else would the last “report” in his “Interview with Death” tell of Orpheus ascending from the Underworld? The poet’s steps halt at the threshold of life, he turns around and sees . . . “Eurydice,” we are prompted to say, because that’s how the story has always been told. But she whom he thinks to behold is Persephone, the Queen of the dead, before whose throne he had sung, and who had interceded for him with Hades, the King, to release the abducted Eurydice. Not that we are permitted to believe that the Queen really followed him. But from now on he will sing of her beauty—under camouflage, to be sure. The living are not to be trusted.
i The word is commonly translated as “destruction” or “downfall,” but its meaning here encompasses total collective ruin, with apocalyptic implications. Hence my choice of “The End” for the English title.
ii After its publication in book form (Luftkrieg und Literatur, Carl Hanser Verlag 1999), Sebald’s thesis was widely discussed and occasionally contested in Germany, notably by Volker Hage, who demonstrated that substantially more writers than those cited by Sebald had written about the trauma of aerial bombardment. (Volker Hage, Hamburg 1943. Literarische Zeugnisse zum Feuersturm. S. Fischer, 2003, and Zeugen der Zerstörung. Die Literaten und der Luftkrieg. Essays und Gespräche. S. Fischer, 2003.)
iii cited in W. G. Sebald, On The Natural History Of Destruction, Random House, 2003, p.31
iv Sebald, op. cit., p. 33. The questioning tone of these sentences suggests ambivalence, perhaps disapproval of what they propose, but with the very next sentence Sebald goes on to praise Nossack for having described the movements of refugees in such a way that they could indeed serve as material for a behaviorist study. This would be unobjectionable if he did not also chide him, in passing, for not adhering consistently to this documentary program. An unstated motif, throughout Sebald’s essay, appears to be a polemical claim for his own quasi-documentary esthetic as the only responsible way to contemplate the bitter truth of historical memory.
v Sebald, op.cit., p. 51
Foreword and translation © Joel Agee 2004