catastrophic stories

Brualitat in Stein [Brutality in Stone] (1961), a collaboration between Alexander Kluge (writer, filmmaker) and Peter Schamoni (filmmaker)

W.G. Sebald, in his essay “Between History and Natural History: On the literary description of total destruction,” considers the work of West German writer, Alexander Kluge. Kluge’s book, New Stories. Nos 1-18 (1977) takes on the prodigious task of examining the aftermath of the destruction of German cities during World War II. Although it makes use of personal recollections of air attack, interviews with military officials and primary source documents, the book is neither a history in the traditional sense, nor is it a traditional novel. Sebald pays attention to Kluge’s method of presenting this diverse material, arguing that confronting catastrophic experience in writing requires the author to challenge and “break out” of the structure and form of the novel, which “owes its allegiance to bourgeois concepts.”

Here is what Sebald has to say about Kluge’s attempt to account for the experience of living in ruined cities:

Kluge’s way of providing his documentary material with vectors through his presentation of it transfers what he quotes into the context of our own present. Kluge does not allow the data to merely stand as an account of a past catastrophe… the most unmediated document… loses its unmediated character via the processes of reflection the text sets up. History is no longer the past but also the present in which the reader must act. The information Kluge’s style thus imparts to readers about the concrete circumstances of their present existence, and possible prospects for the future, marks him out as an author who, on the perimeter of a civilization to all appearances intent on its own end, is working to revive the collective memory of his contemporaries who “with the obviously inborn desire for narrative, have lost the psychological power to remember even within the destroyed city itself.”


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