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.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Displaced in the D.R.·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“How is it possible that my birth certificate is invalid if I was born here?”
Photograph by Pierre Michel Jean
Article
The Quietest Place in the Universe·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Gaitskell and his colleagues are approaching the revelation of a new order, a new universe, in which even light will be known differently, and darkness as well.”
Painting by Sebastiaan Bremer
Article
The Test of Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“One by one his books dismantle the idea that art consoles, that art contains truths, that art expresses the soul. He insists on the artificiality and createdness of his narratives.”
Article
Saving the Whale, Again·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“While the other Wall Street behemoths are currently tapering their derivatives trading, Citi has been expanding its own.”
Illustration by Ross MacDonald
[Browsings]
On Broadway·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Photograph by the author

Chance that an American would give up at least one week of life to avoid taking a pill every day:

1 in 3

Iowa urologists reported that only a minor portion of locker-room teasing arises from “the presence of excess foreskin”; most teasing targets small penises.

A pair of Russian film directors asked President Vladimir Putin to invest $18 million in a new restaurant chain intended to drive McDonald’s out of the Russian market. “Every project these days,” a Russian television personality said of the proposal, “must be smothered in patriotic sauce.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today