But On the Natural History of Destruction has always felt like a challenge too far, especially if read out of context and it has been down to Mathilde Wolff - Monckeberg to offer me that context with her book, On the Other Side : Letters to My Children from Germany 1940-1946.
To be honest, it would have been much easier to avoid both of these and just stick to books about evacuated children in Cornwall (which I've loved too), somehow skirt around and evade the whole tragedy or else read it slant, but there is something extraordinarily compelling about Mathilde's letters and I felt I owed it to her courage to explore further.
Born in the Allgau Alps in May 1944, W.G.Sebald argues that he inherited a silence, a sense of a collective amnesia, an aura of something forbidden, a war that wasn't talked about and in particular a series of events which he examines in the first of four essays contained in this slim but incredibly hard-hitting volume.
One of the most controversial campaigns of the Second World War was the carpet bombing and destruction of many German cities by the RAF in the latter years of the war. The figures advanced by Sebald, even if guesstimates, are staggering; a million tons of bombs dropped, 131 towns and cities attacked, 600,000 German civilians 'fell victim' as Sebald puts it, 42.8 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Dresden.
Mathilde Wolff - Monckeberg wrote letters to her children from Hamburg, a city decimated in air raids during a long heat wave in July 1943.
The details of those raids are out there for anyone to read up on and Christopher Beauman in his excellent afterword to On the Other Side suggests three outstanding volumes which address the history and the morality of the strategy. I don't want to be drawn into the whys and wherefores because I think everyone has to reach their own personal understanding of it all.
Sebald proceeds to explore and prosecute his case with no small degree of disbelief verging on disdain in an attempt to identify exactly why so little of this punishing devastation had found its way into post-war German literature. Sensing feelings of a shared guilt, few writers seem to have fulfilled what Sebald sees as the writer's task,
'to keep the nation's collective memory alive.'Sebald's inherited silence is one also identified in reality by Janet Flanner, wartime writer for the New Yorker, and visiting Cologne after the bombing. Janet Flanner observed and reported first-hand the death throes of a once glorious city which now
'lay by its riverbanks...recumbent, without beauty, shapeless in the rubble of loneliness of complete physical defeat. Through its clogged streets trickles what is left of its life, a dwindled population in black and with bundles - the silent German people appropriate to the silent city.'
I'm very much a two-sides-of-the-story person and plenty in W.G.Sebald's book troubled me. Being aware of the storm of controversy On the Natural History of Destruction had stirred up on publication, I turned to The Emergence of Memory - Conversations with W.G.Sebald to explore this further.
I needed some balance to Sebald's anxieties because something within me was uncomfortable with his insistence, his expectation, that those who had lived through this devastation somehow had a duty to find the words to describe it, as Ruth Franklin suggests in this book, the need
'To resurrect a memory he never experienced.'
Surely this is about saying the unsayable and Ruth Franklin quotes German writer Dieter Forte's response to On the Natural History of Destruction which seems to confirm that,
'there is horror that exists beyond language...He overlooks my generation, the generation of the children in the big cities, who can remember, when they are able, when they can find words for it - and for that one must wait an entire lifetime.'
In three further essays Sebald examines the work of three German writers and it quickly becomes apparent which of them merits his respect and which his barely disguised disgust.
On the Natural History of Destruction has been one of those astonishingly powerful reads for where it has led my thinking, and though I know it might seem mystifying... a bit like taking myself off and rolling in barbed wire for fun...somehow I don't want to shy away from the more challenging reads.
This, another quote found at the Imperial War Museum, seemed to encompass all my thoughts about this book and Mathilde's, more of which soon,
'I pray on you to believe what I have said.
I reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it.
For most of it I have no words.'
Ed Murrow Buchenwald 1945