In 1997 W G Sebald gave a series of lectures in which he deplored the inadequate response of German literature to German sufferings in the Second World War. He concentrated on the bombing of cities by the RAF, in which over half a million Germans died, and seven and a half million were left homeless. This was not the only untold story, but it was the most apocalyptic: an inferno of firestorms that left hundreds of thousands of shrivelled, charcoaled corpses, and whole cities turned into moonscapes overnight. To imagine this we must multiply 9/11 from one morning to five years, from two towers to 131 towns and cities, and from 3,000 to 600,000 dead.
The lectures were published in German in 1999, and in English in 2003, as The Natural History of Destruction. From the start they gave rise to controversy, especially in Germany, but also here. Sebald was pointing out a taboo, and then breaking it; and he was reminding us that we