In his work On the natural history of destruction, W.G.Sebald offers shocking statistics on the number of lives lost in the aerial bombing of German cities by Allied forces at the end of the second World War, and goes on to discuss how inadequate the German response has been to this calamity (in terms of discussing it openly and through literature). The essay consists mainly of generalizations, and one misses the details of how life in post-war Germany was, how people living among the rubble in the destroyed cities managed with those extreme conditions, both physical and emotional.
This detail emerged, in the form of letters written by people living in both East and West Berlin in the years after the war, in a book I just completed: Vikram Seth’s Two Lives. One West-Berliner writes in early 1946:
What have the Nazi criminals made of Germany? A heap of rubble, ruins and ashes. Destitution everywhere and indescribable hunger and misery… A frequently occuring case: two schoolchildren (brothers) have between them only one pair of shoes (torn, naturally). In the summer, they go barefoot. In the winter they take it in turns to go to school; only one can go, the other must remain at home….
But we are working at it; one hopes that the children will someday build a better, peaceful Germany…
This morning once again I had cause to be quite unhappy. A very clean little old woman, her face full of wrinkles, came to the door. She could have been your mother or mine. I gave her a small coin and a slice of bread, which one has to do many times a day, because there is great hardship, especially among the old…..What really shocks me is the fact that old people, grown helpless, have to suffer for the guilt of ambitious creatures…
Yet another makes a request to a friend in London:
If I am not abusing your kindness, I would say that Mrs.v.Gliszczynski would thank you very much if you could send her a pair of stockings, used of course, and some underwear (undies) also worn, if you have some. She possesses one single pair of stockings, in an awful state and no means to get any here – We unhappily lost all and everything by the bombs!
These portraits, obtained through the letters of friends of Aunty Henny (Seth’s great-aunt), form one of the many facets that make this double biography both illuminating and enjoyable. Historical relevance aside, Two Lives offers the reader an intimate portrait of two (three, if one counts the bits and pieces of the author’s life that emerge) individuals – Seth’s great-uncle and aunt – whose lives spanned most of the twentieth century. As Seth, reflecting upon images of their lives at the end of the book, says:
Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found. The strange journeys we undertake on our earthly pilgrimage, the joy and suffering we taste or confer, the chance events that cleave us together or apart, what a complex trace they leave: so personal as to be almost incommunicable, so fugitive as to be almost irrecoverable. Yet seeing through a glass, howevery darkly, is to be less blind.
Seen through the glass crafted by a gifted writer like Seth, even trivial details acquire a quality of significance in the world that surrounds lives it illuminates. Seth combines memoir, biography and history with great skill, distancing himself in some places and bringing himself to focus in others, to add yet another genre to the incredible variety he has explored with his published works. What next, one wonders.