Hans Erich Nossack was a German novelist in his 40s, married but apparently childless, living in Hamburg, during World War II. He was neither a Nazi nor a heroic anti-Nazi. By sheer coincidence he and his wife had managed to get a little vacation cabin outside the city on the sultry July night the Allied bombers came in wave after wave and rained down fire on Hamburg. The Nossacks were far enough out to be beyond reach of the flames, but close enough to see and even hear it all.
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.
A short and straightforward book like this is the most devilish to translate, and the nearness of German and English makes the task more, not less, challenging.
There is a German equivalent of "the end," but it isn't the word Nossack took as his title. He called his book "Der Untergang." Literally, in English, "the undergoing." There is such a word in English, of course, but it means something different. You undergo an ordeal; you pass through some experience, like a dark night in a terror-filled forest, and you emerge, changed but alive, on the other side.
The German word is final in a way the English cannot be. It's like a torpedoed ship swallowed by the sea. Like the Latin equivalent, obitus, a going toward, a euphemism for "death," even in Roman times, and the source of our word obituary.
Even if undergoing had not the sense of "passage" in English, it has the wrong sound. The sonically unfortunate evolution of English gerundive endings into -ing, a weak and tinselly sound, renders that whole class of words mostly useless for poets or writers who aspire to a poetic quality. German -gang has the toll of a funeral bell.
The "Publishers Weekly" review seems to miss some important points:
What's missing from Nossack's account is any political or historical dimension: a reader coming to this book for primary knowledge would learn little about why the bombings took place, or why so many people accepted them with numb resignation instead of anger.
There is a yardstick for a book like this, in the modern American literary reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. What was written three months after that fact and dwelled on "why the bombings took place" and why people reacted as they did would be polemics or psychology. It would be impossible for a witness to write like that, so soon.
Oddly, the "PW" reviewer write, "The narrative is indeed clear-eyed and dispassionate, possessed of the emotional distance necessary to regard the terrible events in their totality."
It seems to me the book has not that quality at all. Yes, line by line it is a clear-eyed and dispassionate account. But there is a strange, almost insane, dislocation in it. As though you looked at a picture of an intact building, till you realized the picture had been turned and the building lay on its side.
After his wife, included throughout in a narrator's "we," every other person is a voiceless shadow. Even Nossack's neighbors and co-workers are a faceless group. The most dispassionate descriptions in the book are of human deaths: the group that huddled in a cellar and fried there is told in the kind of cold matter-of-factness you might use to describe the destruction of an anthill.
What breathes with soul and pain in this book is the lament for the lost things.
First, the buildings. Nossack and his wife, when they make their way back to the city, they go to his office to see if his papers have survived there, and they meet up with another worker who survived the night of the attack:
Suddenly we hesitated; our gaze had fallen through the back window onto Saint Catherine's Church. Shocked, we looked at each other. 'Yes, I cried when it caved in,' said the engineer, who was standing next to us. He told us the precise hour when it had happened. It didn't help when we tried to persuade ourselves: It's just a church, what about those hundreds of thousands of homes and the people, that's so much worse. I suppose it was a symbol. All of us who had worked there loved that steeple exceedingly, each in his own way, perhaps without knowing it.
"But nothing was left, not a single trinket of all the things that we loved and that belonged with us. If there had been such a little something, how we would have caressed it; it would have been imbued with the essence of all the other things. And when we walked on, we left a vacuum behind. And the apartment? Our belongings? It's just not possible. And suddenly it's all there again. You are visiting someone, they have a bookcase. Oh yes! We had so many books. Or they'll put on a record. Do you know this concerto? Yes, that's Handel, we have it ourselves, all we have to do is take it out of the closet. But you know, the Hallelujah Chorus, we play it only on Christmas Eve after setting up the crèche. It's a family tradition. It's Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy," but with pulverized furniture in place of a dead child. How can the level of passion be the same in each case? What's wrong with this man? Nossack asks the same question:
But these are just things! Imagine if you had lost your children or your wife. Yes, that is true, we say -- but it doesn't change anything. Was our way of living with things wrong, or just different? Who can say?
If some survivor -- someone who had worked in the WTC but stayed home sick that day -- wrote a poetic account of the things he had left in his desk and lost forever, hardly mentioning his co-workers and the others, we'd be rightly repulsed.
Yet however close we get to those lost lives, and we try and try, they have crossed over -- gone under. There is nothing now here, above ground, where they were but the wind and the night. We can never get into them in their final moments. No traveller returns to tell what they felt, falling, burning, crashing down.
Surely Nossack knew someone, some many, among the 30,000 people incinerated by the firestorm or crushed by falling brick walls.
Surely. And Wordsworth's poem is almost unbearable, if you pierce through the language and feel the emotion. It's contained in the formula of the sonnet's rules. The hard box that keeps the hot gush of tears from spilling out everywhere.
Nossack does not have the rigors of poetry. But he has his relation with objects, and into it he pours, and disguises, the unbearable sense of loss of so much life. His obsession with things is not a fetish, I think, it is a displacement that preserves sanity.
These things have their life from us, because at some time we bestowed our affection on them; they absorbed our warmth and harbored it gratefully in order to enrich us with it again in meager hours. We were responsible for them; they could only die with us. And now they stood on the other side of the abyss in the fire and cried after us, begging: Don't leave us! We knew it, we heard it, and dared not pronounce their names, because pity would have destroyed us.
INDEX - AUTHOR
He wrote this within three months after that night. Joel Agee, the translator, notes in his introduction that he actually did this translation in the 1960s, with the Vietnam war in mind. But no publisher wanted it then. The reason this book has been published in English now is W.G. Sebald's praise of it in "On the Natural History of Destruction." Well, that's not the job of someone writing while the ground is still too hot to touch in some parts of the city, and while the flies still buzz from awful stinking cellar holes that nobody has the courage to peer into. But then, as they go deeper into the ruined city in search of whatever is left of their belongings, the pangs of loss rise to a crescendo. They return to the building that had held their apartment, and found "just a small, much too small, heap of stones." Again, I think of all the literature to have come out of 9-11. We know so much about the people, the lost lives, that have been spun out for us from the obituaries that began to appear within days and ran day after day in the New York Times. People sometimes talk about the things lost in the attacks, the rupture of the New York skyline, for instance, but nobody makes that a central focus of the tragedy.