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:
It was a dark, overcast day when I arrived on the beach with my bucket and spade, or it would have been if the sun had not been blazing down on me
Such sceptical thoughts stayed with me during our walk, and increased my appreciation of all the things that seemed un-Sebaldian in the landscape: shop-mobility scooters negotiating a cliff path around a retirement home; a cheerful graffiti penis carved into the cliffs at Pakefield; and a heroically chichi eaterie stuck out on a windswept corner of the village of Kessingland, where I ate squid rings served with chilli sauce (at his gloomy hotel in Lowestoft, Sebald consumes an evening meal of ‘what feigned to be fish’).
Yet rereading on the train home, and again since, I’ve come to define my admiration for The Rings of Saturn more clearly against this carefree experience. As Henry James said of the novel, Sebald’s semi-fictional account of his travels is a ‘personal impression of life’, the value of which is its ‘intensity’ and ‘air of reality (solidity of specification)’. The reality that the book breathes is not modern Suffolk but the museum of one man’s mind. Its opening sentence explains that the walk was undertaken ‘in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work’. But the trip is a busman’s holiday for the professional scholar. The air of unreality that hangs about Sebald’s empty seaside towns only clears the page for the solid specificity with which he explores them as living ruins.
It is important to appreciate the deliberately fictional – and even fabling – quality of the first-person narrative of The Rings of Saturn. The Norwich-based narrator is undoubtedly a doppelgänger of W. G. Sebald, Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia, and ponderous abhorrer of the modern world. (Even in the 1990s he refused a computer in his university office, and wrote by hand rather than be ‘locked up with a machine muttering under its breath at me’.) Professor Sebald plots and writes the book. But his off-duty twin who wanders within its twilit world – feeling ‘like a criminal wanted worldwide’ as he buys chips at the ‘brightly lit counter’ of a McDonald’s – is a more helpless soul.
Writer and wanderer merge in the final chapter, where Sebald reflects on the pre-industrial silk-weavers of Norwich, ‘harnessed to [their] machines’:
Weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy . . . It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.
The observation offers in miniature a confession and recapitulation of Sebald’s compositional methods. Having floated the idea that literary men and silk-weavers have ‘much in common’, he lets it drift down through two sentences before tying it up with the final word: ‘thread’. The underlying etymological link between ‘textile’ and ‘text is left unpointed. Instead, the scholar’s musing turns back from the abstract to the solid: specifically, ‘the marvellous strips of colour stuck into the silk pattern books now kept in a Norwich museum ‘the edges and gaps filled with mysterious signs and symbols’.
Sebald’s text is arranged so that – turning the page at this point – the reader now encounters a reproduction of two pages from such a book, showing irregular columns of fabric decorated by curly handwritten annotations. Picking up his thread on the verso, the narrator continues:
These catalogues of samples, the pages of which seem to me to be leaves from the only true book which none of our textual and pictorial works can even begin to rival, were to be found in the offices of importers throughout Europe.
The artist’s vision is secreted in the professor’s statement, as Sebald’s parenthesis about ‘the only true book’ declares the melancholic aesthetic of his work. Freely mixing words and pictures throughout, The Rings of Saturn is an exquisite scrapbook of the after-the-fact, its faded yet vivid photographs set like silk scraps into paragraphs of arabesque, antiquarian prose.
Rereading reveals how apparently rambling chapters are woven into patterns that radiate cross-referenced significance, in silent imitation of the unwritten book of all human history. One of many symbols threaded through Sebald’s catalogue of curiosities is the unearthly glow. This is introduced in the second chapter’s description of Somerleyton Hall, the Victorian mansion near Lowestoft, which in its heyday illuminated the night with ‘the white flames’ of the gas burners in its glasshouses. The claim is corroborated by a grainy archive illustration, in which the house’s bright halo seems to blur the entire structure, ominously foreshadowing its later destruction by fire. The idea of eerie light is picked up in the next chapter, where Sebald describes the luminous properties of the herring, Lowestoft’s livelihood until stocks were overfished. En masse, their scales were said by fishermen to float on the sea, ‘shimmering like tiny silver tiles by day and sometimes at dusk resembling ashes or snow’, and, after death, mysteriously to glow of their own accord, a phenomenon once investigated as a source of urban illumination.
The theme of man’s vainglorious ‘conquest of darkness’ is eventually drawn from the margins to the heart of the matter in the final chapter. The silk pattern book from the busy workshops of eighteenth-century Norwich – also said to be visible at night from miles around – leads to a history of sericulture in the author’s native Germany. This eventually brings him back to the fascist state of his childhood, where, he discovers, self-sufficiency in silk was attempted by the Nazis, ‘with that peculiar thoroughness they brought to everything they touched’. The final artefact described by the book is a Third Reich schools information film – unearthed while searching for one on herring – which presents the efficient hatching, feeding and killing of silkworms under ‘snow-white’ laboratory conditions.
With this image, the book reaches the bleak irony that each erudite chapter circles: the silken idealism of civilization cannot be extricated from the ‘traces of destruction’. Yet the peculiar thoroughness of Sebald’s investigation into the crumbling Anglian shoreline accumulates its own momentum out of the blank despair with which the book begins. A year after his walk, the narrator finds himself staring out of a hospital window in Norwich ‘in a state of almost total immobility’. But bodily inertia leads to mental re-adventure: ‘it wa then that I began in my thoughts to write these pages’.
Far from being someone for whom no one else is ever around, Sebald’s loner is a patient auditor to other haunted figures: William Hazel, the gardener at Somerleyton, who is obsessed with the carpet-bombing of Germany from Suffolk airfields; Algernon Swinburne, the Victorian poet who claimed to see a ‘greenish glow’ over the sea where the medieval port of Dunwich once stood; and Mr Squirrel, an amnesiac from the village of Middleton, who, in order to play the part of ‘Gentleman’, managed to learn two solemn lines from King Lear, which he then repeats in everyday life. Chief among Sebald’s cast of sympathetic eccentrics, however, is Sir Thomas Browne, seventeenth-century Norwich essayist of the shoreline between imagination and science, for whose lost skull the narrator searches when he leaves hospital. Browne’s learned eloquence, Sebald notes, ‘can be held back by the force of gravitation’, but when successful rises through ‘the circles of his spiralling prose’ – an apt description of his own talent for centrifugal elaboration.
The final sentence of the book spirals from Nazi silk back to Browne, son of a silk merchant, and his supposed observation – ‘in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find’ – that
in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvases depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.
I, too, have been unable to find this poignant passage in Browne’s Vulgar Errors. Yet, like the imagination of the scholar-poet who seems to have fabricated it – and who died in 2001 – it is now perpetually woven into the rich pattern book that is The Rings of Saturn.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Jeremy Noel-Tod 2008