Change and decay in all around we see. As one of W.G. Sebald’s epigraphs points out, the rings of Saturn are probably fragments of a moon, broken up by tidal effect when its orbit decayed.
In August 1992, we are told, Sebald walked through coastal Suffolk. Possibly because of the ‘paralysing horror’ caused in him by the traces of destruction he observed, a year later he was admitted to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital ‘in a state of almost total immobility’. We might like to know more about his condition (the reference to Gregor Samsa and his little legs doesn’t help much), its diagnosis and how it was treated. But Sebald prefers to let other people, other events and objects, speak for him. An exquisite sound picture of two night nurses points to his peculiar and remarkable gift: ‘Of the everyday matters they chatted about I understood very little. All I heard was the rise and fall of their voices, a kind of warbling such as comes from the throats of birds, a perfect, fluting sound, part celestial and part the song of sirens.’
Sebald, Professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia, had read that the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, antiquary, lover of mysteries, connoisseur of odds and ends, was kept in the museum of that same hospital. He failed to find it, or the museum, and it turned out that the skull had subsequently been buried with the rest of Browne’s body in the Norwich church of St Peter Mancroft. There follows a disquisition on the life and work of Sir Thomas, a man close to Sebald’s heart, and his nearest precursor in cast of mind, lightly (if arcanely) learned and enormously curious, including the possibility or probability of his having been present at the dissection in Amsterdam in January 1632 of the corpse of a hanged criminal, as immortalised in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, which is duly reproduced.
Here, as elsewhere, Sebald’s words run into those of others, without benefit of quotation marks. Seamless, or unseemly? Mildly disconcerting, but the practice adds to the dreamlike effect of much of the writing; past blends with present, the individual becomes representative. ‘It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.’ The glories of Somerleyton Hall, once ‘an oriental palace in a fairy tale’, have passed away, its stationmaster, its servants, its house guests, its cases of hock and Bordeaux, its boxes of corsets and crinolines ... Now the Hall is open to a paying public who arrive in their own cars. From time to time a comical moment relieves Sebald’s pictures of decline and dereliction; here he spots a miniature train, bearing sightseers (‘they reminded me of dressed-up circus dogs or seals’), and driven by the present Lord Somerleyton, his ticket satchel slung about him. Later, in a section on the Belgian Congo linking Joseph Conrad (who improved his English by reading the Lowestoft newspapers) with Roger Casement (whom Conrad much admired for his integrity), Sebald remarks on the ‘distinctive ugliness’ of Belgium and the stunted growth of its inhabitants. On one visit to Brussels he encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than he would normally come across in the course of a year. (Shades of Baudelaire, whose kindliest finding was: ‘Les chiens seuls sont vivants; ils sont les nègres de la Belgique.’) These phenomena he attributes to the appalling exploitation of the Congo colony, the iniquity of the fathers visited on the children. Sir Thomas Browne, on the other hand, accounted it an offence against charity to reproach whole nations ‘by an uncharitable logic’.
That Sebald’s links are often tenuous doesn’t matter. As he puts it, he cannot ‘help thinking’, and one thought leads to another. The bridge over the River Blyth was built in 1875 for a narrow-gauge railway running between Halesworth and Southwold. Local historians believe that the little train itself was originally made for an unspecified Chinese emperor. This thought leads Sebald to the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-64 (‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’, more than twenty million dead), backwards to the Opium War, forwards to the laying waste by British soldiers of the Yuan Ming Yuan gardens (an ‘earthly paradise’), and to the child emperor, Kuang-hsu (born in 1871, interested in mechanical toys), and his formidable aunt, the Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi (enamoured of silkworms, one of Sebald’s preoccupations). It may have been – Sebald imagines – that the Dowager Empress cancelled the order for the miniature court train intended for Kuang-hsu when the latter was bold enough to oppose her views. (Historically, this falling out happened in the late 1890s.) And thence to Swinburne, whose life was ‘coterminous to the year’ (well, very nearly) with that of the Dowager Empress, and whose rambles with Watts-Dunton between Southwold and Dunwich had a sedative effect on the poet’s overwrought nerves. The thread breaks off with a visitor to The Pines, on Putney Hill, likening Swinburne to the silkworm, Bombyx mori, because of how he munched his way steadily through his food and how, waking from a post prandial nap, he burst into life and, ‘flapping his hands, flitted about his library, like a startled moth’.
Nothing in this lengthy excursus is unduly far-fetched, though not all of it seems worth the fetching. More engaging is a visit to the village of Middleton, and to the poet and critic Michael Hamburger, whose dreams and memories might have been created expressly for this book. ‘Why it was that on my first visit to Michael’s house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain.’ Empathy is often inexplicable. The next journey is to Bredfield, birthplace of Edward Fitzgerald, and thus of Omar Khayyám as we know him in English. Of FitzGerald’s versions of the Rubáiyát, Sebald observes finely that they ‘feign an anonymity that disdains even the least claim to authorship, and draw us, word by word, to an invisible point where the medieval orient and the fading occident can come together in a way never allowed them by the calamitous course of history’.
Seductive as Sebald’s melancholy is, on occasion one wonders if it isn’t a little too determined. Was Lowestoft, in its heyday, as splendid a seaside resort as he claims? Is it now quite as utterly derelict as he declares, with nearly a quarter of the population illiterate and every week some bankrupt or jobless individual hanging himself? (As far as I can tell, he normally respects the fine line between fact and fiction. As Jonathan Coe noted in reviewing Sebald’s ‘novel’ The Emigrants in this paper, the authorial voice impresses us as one we come to recognise and feel we can trust.) Not too surprisingly, near Lowestoft station a hearse overtakes him, and he is put in mind of the young German in Amsterdam, two centuries back, who marvelled over the ostentatious wealth of a merchant and shortly afterwards met the same man’s funeral cortège. The story as told by Johann Peter Hebel is rather different. When the young German asks the name of the merchant, the Dutch cannot understand him, and reply: ‘Kannitverstan’; when he asks the name of the dead man, he is told the same. Poor Mr Kannitverstan, what use to him are all his riches now? Hebel’s tale bears on an amusing linguistic misapprehension; Sebald cites the anecdote as a memento mori, another illustration of mutability and the vanity of human wishes.
‘Whenever one is imagining a bright future, the next disaster is just around the corner.’ (Or, as Sir Thomas Browne had it, ‘When all looks fair about, and thou seest not a cloud so big as a hand to threaten thee, forget not the wheel of things.’) Sir Cuthbert Quilter’s Bawdsey, an ‘Anglo-Indian fairy-tale palace in the dunes’, together with the presence of the German Empress in Felixstowe and the royal yacht Hohenzollern lying at anchor, might have seen the beginnings of a global alliance between Britain and Germany. But war broke out, and both the Kaiser and the fairy-tale palace fell into desuetude. A more cheering story is that of Thomas Abrams, an erstwhile farmer and a Methodist lay preacher, who has worked on a model of the Temple of Jerusalem for twenty years. His neighbours, doing nicely out of agricultural subsidies, reckoned him barmy, and even members of his family doubted his soundness of mind. But latterly archaeologists from all over the world have come to see his work, and publishers and television producers have besieged his gates. The advent of Lord Rothschild in a limousine conclusively restored his good name. Was he inspired by divine revelation, asked an American evangelist. No, he replied, for in that case, he wouldn’t have needed to keep making alterations: it was all down to research and long, hard work. The Temple, Mr Abrams notes, lasted a bare hundred years; maybe his re-creation will last longer. For Mr Abrams, success was just around the corner.
That a feeling of monotony should set in is the price of the book’s quiddity. Even the author’s patron saint, St Sebolt, spreads a little gloom: on his wedding night, they say, he informed his bride that while their bodies were adorned that day, on the morrow they would be food for worms. (We are rather surprised, and oddly pleased for him, to hear that Sebald had ‘a run of good luck’ at the casino in Lindau.) Fishing boats lie abandoned, windmills along the coast have disappeared, ‘and when those bright little points faded away, the whole region, so to speak, faded with them’. Dutch elm disease has taken its toll, and so, too, has the hurricane of 1987; like men, trees flourish as a flower of the field, for as soon as the wind goes over them, they are gone. Yet we should remember that such things were the most precious; and – paradoxically, or indeed not surprisingly – The Rings of Saturn is decidedly elevating in comparison with the lowering effect of the run of books. There are worse things than melancholy.
The most entrancing passages here are Sebald’s sudden visions and images (in which he seems to have been well served by the translator) and their hallucinatory yet authentic power. (Though some other adjective than ‘entrancing’ is needed for the photograph from the Forties of Bosnians, Serbs and Jews ‘hanged in rows like crows or magpies’, a black spot of time.) For instance, a mallard illuminated by a flash of lightning, in minute detail, down to the pores in its eyelid; cars on motorways, seen from a light plane, ‘like beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity’; in The Hague, the apparition of an American limousine bearing ‘a pimp in a white suit, wearing gold-framed sunglasses and on his head a ludicrous Tyrolean hat’; the scratchy sound of a transistor radio, on the beach near Lowestoft, ‘as if the pebbles being dragged back by the waves were talking to each other’; a demented quail in a deserted aviary in the grounds of Somerleyton, ‘running to and fro along the edge of the cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it couldn’t comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix’; a meal in a hotel said to be ‘of a superior description’ by the wanderer’s guidebook, published shortly after the turn of the century: ‘The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it’; the Orfordness landscape, with its deserted concrete bunkers and scrap metal, the detritus of what was once an establishment for secret weapons research, looking like the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe: no wonder that when a hare started up from the grass at Sebald’s feet, there was no telling which of them was the more terrified.
Orbits decay; and life itself, Sir Thomas Browne surmised, is but the shadow of death. All things die so that others may live, whether for better or for worse. ‘The discovery of the terrible reality hidden in this narration has a shattering power,’ the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung proclaims of the present book. Perhaps that’s a trifle over the top. In fact as a guidebook of a distinctly superior description, The Rings of Saturn should recommend itself to the tourist industry. In the nicest sense Sebald has turned the North Sea back into the German Ocean.