Monday, December 06, 2004

"Der Untergang"

Hans Erich Nossack, a 42-year-old novelist from Hamburg banned from publication by the Nazis, happened to be on the other side of the Elbe River on the hot July 1943 night when Hamburg died. He saw, heard, and smelled the city burn, but, more importantly, he became perhaps the only German writer alive during the war to attempt a record of what he saw, as plainly as possible, as Allied bombings methodically destroyed German cities. Within three months of the event, with smoke still curling from the ruins, Nossack penned his memoir.

His piece, "Der Untergang," has a title that perhaps can't be completely translated into English with its full range of meaning. Fortunately, the rest of the prose is not that difficult. Joel Agee seems to have done an excellent English translation, just published by University of Chicago Press as "The End: Hamburg 1943." Here is the moment the bombers arrive:

One didn’t dare to inhale for fear of breathing it in. It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height. We had already experienced two hundred or even more air raids, among them some very heavy ones, but this was something completely new. And yet there was an immediate recognition: this was what everyone had been waiting for, what had hung for months like a shadow over everything we did, making us weary. It was the end.

It's overall a terse memoir of annihilation, marred only occasionally by what the great modern German writer W.G. Sebald describes as Nossack's "unfortunate tendency to indulge in philosophical exaggeration and false notions of transcendence."

Passive voices, oblique constructions, headless sentences often are the opposite of good writing. But here, describing horrors all but indescribable, they are the skin between the raw nerve of human feeling and the awful salt of what is being told.

Sebald, too, used such distancing devices in "The Natural History of Destruction," his essay-book in which he describes the paltry German literary response to the country's destruction and singles out Nossack for praise. Nossack's Hamburg account, in fact, is the base for what is perhaps the most gripping passage in Sebald's book.

Just after midnight on July 27, the RAF, supported by 8th U.S. Air Force, launched Operation Gomorrah. Ten thousand tons of high-explosive incendiary bombs rained down on a vast residential area of Hamburg. Sebald lists the neighborhoods and districts, a mundane municipal catalogue, a list of bus stops. Then he tells what happened to them:

A now familiar sequence of events occurred: first all the doors and windows were torn from their frames and smashed by high-explosive bombs weighing four thousand pounds, then the attic floors of the buildings were ignited by lightweight incendiary mixtures, and at the same time firebombs weighing up to fifteen kilograms fell into the lower stories. Within minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at one-twenty a.m., a firestom of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising two thousand meters into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out at once.

The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing façades, the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at speed of over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tram car windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt. No one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died. When day broke, the summer dawn could not penetrate the leaden gloom above the city. The smoke had risen to a height of eight thousand meters, where it spread like a vast, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud. A wavering heat, which the bomber pilots said they had felt through the sides of their planes, continued to rise from the smoking, glowing mounds of stone.

He tells of a group of people locked in their bomb shelter, unable to escape when the coal bin next to it ignited, found weeks later huddled in the middle of the room where all had roasted to death. A diary entry from Aug. 20, 1943, also revived in Sebald's essay, describes a scene from the arrival of Hamburg refugees at a train station in upper Bavaria. A cardboard suitcase "falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carring about with her ...."

I'm glad an author whose post-war career consisted in large part of translating British and American words into German will finally have his day in English. I wish I could say more than that about it. It's difficult to celebrate the arrival of a new book when the subject is so awful. Not all writing lends itself to celebration. Non-fiction especially can be a tawdry business (look at any recent list of non-fiction bestsellers). Yet books like this justify the craft.