On the Natural History of Destruction, by W. G. Sebald

Once you get hooked on W. G. Sebald's work it is hard not to regard most other literature as frivolous. He is, however, an acquired taste, like single-malt scotch. The first words of his complex and heavy prose are hard to swallow, but even if you have to grimace as the words go down, you will find that nothing else tastes quite the same. Moreover, if you read too many of his novels at a time, rich in language but deficient in plot, they may leave you a bit disoriented. They will also leave a very lasting impression.

Sebald is the great anti-Proust of the 20th century. Proust paid tribute to the aristocrats who had been erased from history by World War I. As a young man he had wanted to join their world, and as a writer he knew he had to reconstruct that world in order to have any chance for self-understanding. Because he does not idealize the past, his aesthetic pursuit of memory is not nostalgic. He knows that the past can never be repeated, but he also knows that, as a general rule, the person we once were is infinitely more interesting than the person we have become.

For Sebald, who was born in Germany but spent all of his professional life teaching in England, the past is a burden, not a calling. Proust memorializes a lost world of aristocrats whose charms come from the graceful way they dissipate their fortunes. Sebald is haunted by a nation that set about systematically destroying much of the world, including itself. While Proust both loves and ridicules the aristocracy, Sebald's somber tone leaves you with no doubt about his essentially moral perspective. Sebald's characters are lost in the present because they have had their pasts taken from them. His books are full of long monologues by narrators steeped in sadness and estrangement. Writing before the Holocaust, Proust thought that if we could only recover the past, it could redeem us. Sebald's characters live in a past that is still with us, even though it is far beyond redemption.