The Rings of Saturn—W G Sebald

18 September 2018
Chapters 1-6
Despite having first read this shortly after the English translation was published, I could remember only two things about it when I picked it up again, maybe 15 years later. These are descriptions, one of Somerleyton Hall, a place I happened to drive past on some visits I was making to the area at the time, and the other of the total destruction of the prosperous port of Dunwich in storm-surges over several centuries. I’ve re-read both of these now—the first is in Chapter 2, while Sebald is making his way to his first run-down hotel in Lowestoft, where the fish in batter is as appalling as the effect of the collapse of the fishing industry in the town… but it’s taken him until Chapter 6 to reach Dunwich, a little over a day’s walk south. He takes his time, because sights and memories trigger apparently almost random associations. Except, really, he’s presenting what are clearly consciously interconnected references that combine to offer… what, exactly?

My impression at first—and, indeed, in my memories of having read the book a long time ago—was of some kind of random collage. But the pattern that’s emerging seems to illustrate something of Sebald’s very particular mindset. In the first sentence of the book, he tells us that his motive in undertaking his walk along the Suffolk coast was ‘in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I finish a long stint of work. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then.’ If this sounds hopeful—and if we skim over that ‘up to a point’—all seems well. A temporary sense of anomie, or whatever, is replaced by a ‘carefree’ mood. But no: ‘in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction.’ He describes how, a year later, he has been taken to hospital ‘in a state of almost total immobility’—we never know what brought this on, except he needed surgery—and during this time he thinks back to his walking tour.

The first chapter is based on his time in the hospital, but it sets the pattern for journey that follows. The first of many photographs in the book is of an empty sky seen through a bleakly plain, rectangular hospital window—it’s hard to imagine a more forlorn image—but soon, he is off on the first of the mental excursions that fill far more pages than details of the actual walk. The second photograph is as straightforward a memento mori as one could hope for, the skull of the man whose work he’s describing, resting on a little library of the books he wrote in life. This is Thomas Browne, an author with direct links to Norwich, where Sebald was a teacher and where he is now in hospital. The very skull was kept for a time in the same hospital, a close enough link to justify this particular digression.

Had enough of death yet? Browne hasn’t, and nor has Sebald. Browne studied medicine in Amsterdam in the 17th Century and, Sebald tries persuade us, was probably present at the anatomy lesson immortalised in Rembrandt’s painting of that name. It’s the third photograph, and it turns into another contemplation, not only of death, but of changing (or unchanging) attitudes to what happens to our mortal remains after we die. Or after we pass beyond Hamlet’s ‘bourn from which no traveller returns,’ as Sebald quotes. And… so on, for six or seven more pages. One of Browne’s most famous works was Urn Burial, so things have moved on from attitudes to corpses to Browne’s contemplation of burial rites. Sebald picks out some of the more engaging of these—this book is always an interesting read, because he does this all the time—and ends the chapter with Browne’s search for any sign that the idea of the transmigration of the soul might have some basis in scientific fact. Perhaps inevitably, he ends on a question. ‘That piece of silk’—it could almost have been anything, but silk is a theme in this book—‘what does it mean?’

It comes as no surprise at all that in Chapter 2, when his Suffolk walking-trip begins, he focuses on a big house whose best days were short-lived, and have been over for a very long time. The present owner, a pleasant enough man, drives the miniature train in the grounds—Sebald takes an almost childish delight in linking this with some Chinese emperor—and sells tickets for the house tour. And we get the story of how, briefly, an ambitious property developer made this corner of Norfolk a fashionable destination. Its glasshouses and conservatories were so astonishingly well-lit that, ‘seemingly weightless in their filigree grace, [they] shed their radiance on the dark,’ and Sebald includes a grainy contemporary illustration to prove it. But, sic transit and all that, the very gas-lights that illuminated them led to them all being burnt to the ground. And Sebald is focusing on this particular place for another reason. There’s a link, by way of a long conversation with the gardener, with the carpet-bombing raids of World War II—so he can spend some time on the appalling consequences of those other conflagrations.

Sometimes disasters, accidental or deliberate, are described in an almost matter-of-fact way. At other times, Sebald uses all his skills as a writer to evoke the destructive power of nature, as at Dunwich, or the unbearably destructive power of humanity at its worst. In another chapter, when the British found themselves in one of the most perfect created landscapes in the world, with literally hundreds of beautiful wooden pagodas and palaces… guess what they did. What else would they do in this book? And Joseph Conrad’s connection with (I think) Southwold gives Sebald the chance to reference the granddaddy of 20th Century pessimism, Heart of Darkness. On the way, he brings all his power of description and disgust to bear down on the decades-long atrocity that was Belgian rule in the Congo. Conrad had been there to take up a job, but returned to Europe in a state of shock as soon as he arrived.  Sebald’s evocation of it, including the way de facto slaves would simply wander off to die and the statistic that 500,000 did just this every year, we can imagine exactly why Conrad would be moved to write his masterpiece.

There are plenty of other things in Sebald’s cabinet of gloomy curiosities…. But it’s time to read on.

21 September
Chapters 7-10—to the end
As I read these chapters I kept thinking back to how Sebald had set out his stall on the first page of the book. It seems that the whole enterprise is an illustration of that ‘paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction’—as though, for nearly 300 pages, he’s showing us what he means. I don’t think the timing or order of his presentation of terrible things really matters, and he fits them in wherever he can make a connection with a place he’s visited. The atrocities perpetrated by the single most vicious colonial regime in history, the Belgians in the Congo from the end of the 19th Century; the Nazi death camps; the carpet-bombing of German cities; the wholesale clearance of forests, from Britain since the medieval period until there was little woodland left to the burning of tens of thousands of square miles of the Amazon rainforest…. The arrival of humanity wherever there are trees, Sebald suggests at one point, is always accompanied by such deforestation. It’s just one facet of what adds up to a deeply pessimistic read. We mess things up—or, if we build anything, it never lasts.

In Chapter 7, unusually, Sebald visits somebody who is actually making something. Alleluia. It’s a one-hundredth scale model that has so far taken 20 years. But, inevitably, it’s a model of a great structure that was destroyed only 100 years after it was built. He visits another maker, of sorts, his friend the poet Michael Hamburger. But, in Sebald’s presentation of him, he’s reached a kind of impasse in his life. He no longer uses the big desk he worked at for years, because the room is so cold. And both in this episode and one in which he commemorates the Victorian poet Edward Fitzgerald, it often becomes blurred whether the thoughts we are reading are Sebald’s, or those of the men he is writing about. The ageing Hamburger is not at a good stage in his life, and Fitzgerald chose the life of a recluse. Sebald is… Sebald, so as either one of the melancholic poets speaks, his choice not to use speech marks really pays off. It’s impossible to tell where one forlorn consciousness ends and another takes over.

In other words, this isn’t merely a list of terrible things. It seems to be what I suggested, Sebald’s way of letting the reader into his mindset at the time of the walk. It isn’t a journal, and it isn’t travel writing. It’s an attempt, two or three years after the event, to show how the mind of the depressive (or melancholic, or whatever) will seek out whatever confirms its own take on the world. Great temples are destroyed—the model in Chapter 7 is of the magnificent one built by Herod Jerusalem—and great ports sink into the sands, while humanity goes about the business of destroying every culture and eco-system it discovers. And things don’t improve when the walking tour is over and Sebald is back home. What the reader might expect to be a highly comfortable and satisfying life in rural Norfolk contains bitter memories of its own. In the 1970s, Dutch Elm Disease destroyed the most beautiful trees, and a decade later the most notorious hurricane suffered in England in the 20th Century smashed down all the rest. You couldn’t make it up—but if, like Sebald, you turn your attention to particular facts, you don’t need to.

Interestingly, A S Byatt didn’t need to make up the hurricane scene in Possession either. Just like Sebald, who isn’t a novelist, she uses the one in October 1987 as both a literal and metaphorical cataclysm, in order to start bringing things to a satisfying conclusion. Readers can’t argue with factual events like that—although, of course, Byatt’s motive is to play the kind of literary joke that her novel is full of. Sebald’s meditation definitely isn’t full of jokes and, as ever, he couldn’t be more serious. And it isn’t only the empty-looking view, denuded of trees, that’s disturbing. Ever since, the strong sunlight has played havoc with the sensitive ecology that had existed beneath the tree canopy. Of course it has. And you can forget bird-life—which lets him end the chapter on a characteristically Sebaldian note: ‘Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows’—cue heartfelt description of larks rising, and occasional visits from nightingales— ‘there was now not a living sound.’

In my memory—it’s a few days since I finished reading—that was the end of the book. But, in fact, now that Sebald is back home in Norfolk he can spend the final chapter focusing on the silk industry there. He arrives not only by way of exotic tales of China and the Silk Road, but also via the half-baked authoritarian attempts in Germany to force the peasantry into sericulture…. It’s a doomed venture, obviously, but in Norwich it’s successful. So he can end on an upbeat note, yes? As if. Far better to focus instead on the tradition in Holland of draping black silk over mirrors and even pictures, ‘so that the soul … would not be distracted on its final journey either of a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.’

So Sebald has managed to end not only with death, not only with loss, but with both together. That’s our boy.