Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

Sebald and the Battle in the Air

AN ADMIRER OF W. G. Sebald, I know my way around the often intricate paths of all his major books up to and including the magnificent Austerlitz, but I had never read his little book about the Allied air war against Nazi Germany. I was put off by the reviews, which, even when they praised the book, did too good a job of outlining the essential fatuity of its thesis. According to Sebald, German literature after the war had never faced up to the subject of the bombing raids. That much was perhaps true, but Sebald had gone on to claim that the subject was therefore a lacuna in the German national consciousness. Since I have always been convinced that a national consciousness is formed by secondary writing rather than by serious writing, I put off reading the book: why spend time reading even a great writer when he was trying to make bricks without straw?

But finally the book came and got me, in the form of a thin Fischer paperback on Hugh’s bookstall in the Cambridge marketplace. Already before I had paid for it and taken it away, I was deep into Luftkrieg und Literatur. The prose, being Sebald’s, was exquisite. His manner of squeezing historical significance from objects and landscapes—a manner which has by now filtered down to such best sellers as Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes—was as seductive as ever. But the basic idea was, for him, uniquely nonprofound. He hadn’t even considered that the generation of young male readers in postwar Germany might have learned, while growing up, all about the air war from quite another source than serious literature. He grew up in Germany himself—he didn’t move to Britain until 1965—but he seems not to have read much of the unserious literature that his fellow Germans were reading in their childhood and adolescence: unserious literature in which the air raids were a prominent theme. In the kind of war-story magazines that seldom end up in libraries, there were sensationally illustrated articles about German night-fighter pilots flying into action against the RAF four-engine bombers that had come to devastate the German cities. The magazines were pulp, but the story they were telling was true, and young German boys—probably not the girls, but for anyone except the Russians the air war was a man’s world—did their first reading about the war the same way I did. Out there in Australia, I read Flames in the Sky, by Pierre Clostermann, and dozens of other books like it. In Germany, the youngsters read about such highly decorated night flyers as Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer, who shot down a scarcely believable 121 RAF bombers. Books with cheap titles like Luftwaffe at War showed young war buffs of the English-speaking world what the air war over Europe had been like. Except, apparently, for Sebald, Germans of my age saw books just like them: hundreds of photographs, but with the captions in their language instead of ours. Sometimes the captions were approximately informed junk, but in many cases they were expertly done. Put all that pulp and glossy publishing together and it added up to an information system: a system that helped prepare a young intelligence to make properly considered judgments later on. It was information that Sebald could have made something of, if he had seen enough of it. But it seems likely that he was shut off from informatively trivial publications by his exclusive concern with serious publications, and in this one area he ended up running thin on facts. In Austerlitz he can write a sublime cantata dedicated to Liverpool Street Station because he turned himself back into a wide-eyed young observer before he sat down to write. About that subject, to achieve his adult prose, he did the childish thing, and became a fan. About the air war, he didn’t have the same deep background.

On the market stall I picked up one of those elementary-looking, large-format illustrated war books in which it is a moot point whether the chapters are long captions or the captions are short chapters. Purporting to be an account of the Luftwaffe from 1933 to 1945, this one was called Hitler’s Eagles: an unpromising title. There was even less promise in the author’s name: Chris McNab. He sounded as if he might also have written picture books about motorcycles. But after only a quick skip-through, Hitler’s Eagles stood revealed as the work of an expert, so I broke my own embargo—no more picture books about anything—and took it home.

Most of the pictures of German planes and pilots I had seen before in the Nazi magazine Signal, from which a file of extracts is still on my shelves even after the most recent culling of my books. (My great source for that kind of stuff, incidentally, used to be one of the bookstalls under the arches at Friedrichstrasse railway station. I would go there whenever I was in Berlin, but since I got sick I have not been back.) There were only so many photographs of, say, Werner Hartmann, the Luftwaffe ace of aces who shot down an astonishing 352 enemy aircraft, most of them on the Eastern Front. By now all the photographs of him and his fellow aces have shown up somewhere; and likewise there will probably be no more previously unseen images of the Me262 jet fighters as they taxied out to use up the last few drops of Nazi Germany’s fuel. But the text is full of observation, judgment, and accurate detail, and those things are always new.

An excellent chapter on the night fighters tells us that in the last phase of the war they were pressed into service against the American bombers in daylight, with shocking losses. Weighed down by their radar equipment and aerials, they were easy meat for the American long-range day fighters. McNab has read the German sources and knows that in the group of Pathfinders assigned to mark the target for an RAF night raid, the leading plane was nicknamed the Zeremonienmeister (master of ceremonies). This is the kind of detail which tends to run thin in the more serious histories: their authors just aren’t thrilled enough by the machinery. You could call it Small Boys’ Knowledge: in my generation, the generation which is now growing old and getting ready to die, there were always small boys who could name the planes in the images. But for quite a while now a new generation has been in charge of communications, and they either don’t know or don’t care. It’s an inevitable declension: in my own time as a writer-narrator of television documentaries, few of the young researchers could understand why I got so exercised about footage of the wrong plane dropping bombs on the wrong place. Just as long as it was a plane and it was dropping bombs on something, they protested, it fitted my narrative. (They were equally puzzled when I flipped my lid at the spectacle of the wrong tanks going the wrong way in the wrong war.) And I suppose that, time having elapsed, they were bound not to see the point, just as I don’t care much whether the Roman chariots racing on screen are of the wrong type, as long as they don’t have exhaust pipes. (Strangely, Hollywood, which is famous for playing fast and loose with historical detail, was always fanatical about the authenticity of the hardware. The production design departments were hotbeds of pertinent knowledge; it was the dialogue that was anachronistic, and no studio mogul ever cared as long as the scene played well.) Apropos, the paper cover of Sebald’s little book about how the Germans have never known enough about the air war against the Reich carries a photograph that suggests he never knew enough about it either. If he okayed the cover picture, he okayed the wrong thing. The twin-engine planes flying low over the burned-out Reichstag are not American or British bombers. Almost certainly they are Russian, finally showing up over Berlin in the very last hours of the war. (Anyone familiar with that particular image knows that if you pull back a bit, there is a Russian tank in the foreground.) The Russian air force, mainly a tactical weapon to be used over the battleground, wasn’t really part of the Allied air attack on Germany that Sebald talks about. But the publisher’s art department was full of young people who didn’t know the difference between one aircraft and another, and I suppose we should be glad that the day will come when hardly anybody knows, except the kind of machine buff who could equally be compiling a picture book about the history of customized motorcycles in California.