In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk.
My copy of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – of which these are the opening words – is a first edition of the English translation from 1998. In fine condition these now fetch high prices, something that was pointed out to me as I stashed it in a knapsack last summer, and set off with two friends to retrace part of Sebald’s route along the Suffolk coast. They had brought later paperbacks which preserve the elegant typesetting of the original, but on standard rectangular pages. The first Harvill printing, however, is laid out on thick, smooth, almost-square cream paper, with French wraps covered by a Whistler painting of a sand-coloured beach sunset.
It’s a beautiful example of high-minded publishing. But as I browsed the opening chapters on the train from Norwich to Lowestoft, I wondered about the later editions’ high estimate of Sebald’s merit. ‘Is literary greatness still possible?’ Susan Sontag asks. ‘One of the few answers available to English-speaking readers is the work of W. G. Sebald’. To begin a late twentieth-century travelogue with an allusion to the ‘dog days’ – when the Romans believed that Sirius, the Dog Star, augmented the sun’s heat – has always seemed to me a touch of genius. Yet Sebald’s laboured description of Lowestoft – ‘Nothing but amusement arcades, bingo halls, betting shops, video stores, pubs that emit a sour reek of beer from their dark doorways, cheap markets, and seedy bed-and-breakfast establishments – loses my sympathy. When we arrived in Lowestoft last summer, children were gleefully running around the concrete square of a public fountain, screaming as jets of water jumped up at them.
The improbability of encountering such a scene in The Rings of Saturn reminded me of an entry in Alan Bennett’s London Review of Books Diary from 2002:
I persevere with Sebald but the contrivance of it, particularly his un-peopling of the landscape, never fails to irritate. ‘It was alread afternoon, six in the evening when I reached the outskirts of Lowestoft. Not a living soul was about in the long streets.’ . . . The fact is, in Sebald nobody is ever about. This may be poetic but it seems to me a short cut to significance.
Then I could not help thinking (as Sebald himself likes to say) of Craig Brown’s Private Eye parody of the book as postcards from a existentialist Eeyore:
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