Sentences — October 27, 2008, 10:22 am

Muted, Undone, Overcome

sebaldmasonsketch

“Finally, in the autumn of 1987″ writes W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, “a hurricane such as no one had ever experienced before passed over the land.” Sebald describes the particulars of that devastation in the penultimate section of his novel, a novel more mutedly but no less fundamentally post-apocaplyptic than Cormac McCarthy’s recent, excellent The Road. The apocalyse in McCarthy’s book is never designated: we fill it in as we like, whether with asteroid, plague, or nuclear nightmare. In Sebald’s novel, the apocalypse is called history, the ruined world only our current own.

Here’s what the narrator sees on the night of 16 October, 1987, as a hurricane that would fell 14,000,000 trees rises from the the Bay of Biscay and bears down on England:

I stood at the window and looked through the glass, which was strained almost to the breaking point, down towards the end of the garden, where the crowns of the large trees in the neighboring bishop’s park were bent and streaming like aquatic plants in a deep current. White clouds raced across in the darkness, and again and again the sky was lit up by a terrible flickering which, I later discovered, was caused by power lines touching each other. At some point I must have turned away for a while. At all events, I still remember that I did not believe my eyes when I looked out again and saw that where the currents of air had shortly beforehand been pouring through the black mass of trees, there was now just the paleness of the empty horizon. It seemed as if someone had pulled a curtain to one side to reveal a formless scene that bordered upon the underworld. And at the very moment that I registered the unaccustomed brightness of the night over the park, I know that everything down there had been destroyed. And yet I hoped that the ghastly emptiness could be explained by some other means, for in the mounting din of the storm I had heard none of the crashing sounds that go with the felling of timber. It was not until later that I realized that the trees, held to the last by their root systems, toppled only gradually, and because they were forced down so slowly their crowns, which were entangled with each other, did not shatter but remained virtually undamaged. In this way, entire tracts of woodland were pressed down flat as if they had been cornfields.

Sebald’s narrative, finely translated by Michael Hulse, progresses not by event and complication but by images. “Bent and streaming like aquatic plants in a deep current” is vivid and strange, the very picture of a world not adrift but at sea. A forrest primeval is “pressed down flat,” suggesting the weight of nothing worse than that of a careless hand. From blackness to blankness: at dawn, the narrator—Dante without a Virgil—leaves his bedroom and sets out on foot to survey ruin. “The ancient trees on either side of the path leading along the edge of the park were all lying on the ground as if in a swoon.” “Swoon:” in its Old English source, gesw?gen, the word means “overcome.” Much of Sebald’s work catalogues such swoonings, living things that—by inattention as much as by malice, by mindless forces as much as by calculating ones—have been muted, undone, overcome.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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