Sebald echoed Nabokov in a letter to his friend Marie, when he sent her a photo of his sister Gertrud and his friend Sepp Willers taken six months or so before he was born. It’s outrageous, he told her, they clearly don’t miss me. And in After Nature he records a more serious glimpse into the eternity of darkness before his birth: an extreme collapse of time.
On August 23, 1943, he wrote, his mother was on her way home from Bamberg, where she had been staying with his father on leave. But during that night hundreds of aircraft flew in to attack Nürnberg. “Mother,” he went on,
got no further than
Fürth. From there she
saw Nürnberg in flames,
but cannot recall now
what the burning town looked like or what her feelings were
at this sight.
He does not explain—he never explains—but this is plainly another case of trauma, unable to be registered or recalled. The first trauma of his own life. For on the same day his mother realized that she was with child, and the child was himself. And years later, in Vienna, when he saw Altdorfer’s painting of the city of Sodom on fire,
I had the strange feeling
of having seen all of it
before, and a little later, crossing to Floridsdorf
on the Bridge of Peace,
I nearly went out of my mind.
Perhaps, like so much in Sebald, this is pure quotation, an echo of Nabokov and no more? But his mother, Rosa, did travel through Nürnberg on the 27th (not 28th) of August, and stay in Fürth; and during the night of 27th and 28th there was a huge air raid on Nürnberg: 1,500 tons of bombs were dropped and thousands of civilians died.
It was a cloudless night, and very dark, because there was a new moon, but the firestorms blazed so fiercely that a scarlet light lit up the sky as high as the bombers dropping their loads. Rosa told the story many times to her children, and it was certainly true. The only detail that Sebald changed was the fact that he and his mother were not alone, since Gertrud, aged three, was with them. She doesn’t remember the scene, only her mother’s story of it; and, rationally, the same was true of her unborn brother. Except that he was W. G. Sebald, and his imagination would be soaked in the blood of that war. Whatever was true of the handful of cells he was in August 1943, it would nearly drive him out of his mind.