The strange and beautiful rings of the planet Saturn were first observed by Galileo when he noted through his telescope a peculiar object that appeared to have ears. They consist of fragmentary lumps of ice of vastly differing size which orbit the planet and are perhaps the atomised debris of a former moon. There is, as is usually the case, some dispute over this, with some scientists favouring a theory which creates the rings at the same time as the planet itself was formed. This is not an astronomy lecture however, so feel free to check out this wonder of the solar system for yourself. The recent programme by Professor Brian Cox was excellent.
The inevitable passing of the doomed Saturnine moon, together with its seemingly antiquarian remains, plainly proved too much of a symbolic temptation for the writer W.G. Sebald. His peculiar book about a part fictional, part factual, coastal walk he undertook in the 1990s from Lowestoft to Felixstowe seems to breathe in the particulates of the ring system and exhale them as words. This is no ordinary traveller’s tale. It is fascinating, disturbing, beautiful, and quite frankly boring in almost equal measure. It is undoubtedly a fine example of contemporary literature. Whether its epiphanies are worthy of Proust as some reviewer suggests on the back cover, well only time will tell. What are these annoying review snippets on the back covers of books? Do they really help to sell more books? I suppose they must.
For those who know nothing of Sebald or his work I can tell you that he was a German exile, born though in 1944, not Jewish, both of which are important if one wishes to begin to understand him, and for thirty years was professor of Modern German Literature at the University of East Anglia. He died in a car accident in 2001. As is incumbent upon every one of us sooner or later, he has been materially merged with the universe, if we accept that is, the objective existence of atomic particles.
His literary achievement is such that he was being considered for a Nobel Prize but they are not awarded posthumously. I’m not certain that the prize means very much anymore, except financially, seeing as the whole show is ridiculously politicised. There is plenty of evidence in The Rings of Saturn that Sebald’s politics are of the correct variety. To say that I am hardly an expert on Sebald is to rather understate it. The Rings is the only book of his that I have read and I am not sure that I wish to read another. Type him or the novel into Google and you will, as expected, turn up far more erudite reviews than this one, full of terminology, cultural name-dropping, and literary theory, of the type that presumably kept Sebald himself pretty busy in the Humanities faculty of UEA. If you are a bit thick, like yours truly, you will struggle to understand much of it.
Will Self recently called him the ‘Good German’ whatever that means, as if all of us here in England teeter every moment on the verge of a Basil Fawlty impression of Hitler. Not all of us, but I’m sure W.G. experienced a fair amount, including quite possibly seeing that episode of Fawlty Towers when it was aired sometime in the 1970s. As the father of the German family says in that famous sketch: ‘it is not funny for the German people’ or words to that effect. Indeed. And the preoccupation of Sebald, as an artist, seems to have been to try to come to terms with that fact.
I might be unsophisticated but when I think of a ‘good’ German in that context I think of Oskar Schindler. I realise that Self was setting Sebald up as some kind of a counter to Albert Speer but Sebald was not ‘Inside the Third Reich’. We may cast ourselves in the William Wilberforce role but the uncomfortable fact is that most of us are not like William Wilberforce or Oskar Schindler. How many of us are far more like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the movie ‘Good’, a weak man who becomes entangled in the Nazi regime, as much out of vanity as anything, betrays his Jewish friend, even though later when it is far too late, tries to make amends, visits the death camps and realises with horror what he has been a part of. The movie is based on a well-known stage play and I thoroughly recommend it. Mortensen is superb. Sebald does not have blood on his hands and his need to wash them, albeit not quite in the manner of Lady Macbeth, is a personal one.
There is small mention of the Holocaust in The Rings of Saturn but it is effectively there, not only as a miasma of atmosphere, but in the mention of the peculiar case of Major George Wyndham Le Strange, the inheritor of Henstead Hall, near Benacre Broad, south of Lowestoft. Sebald tells us that the Major was part of the tank regiment that liberated Belsen. Following his return to Suffolk, the Major became increasingly eccentric until he went quietly mad. Given what he must have seen, perhaps it was the only rational response he could make, which seems to be what we are to take from it. Whether this is a factual or fictional episode I have not been able to ascertain and it hardly matters. There is a real Henstead Hall and Le Strange is a known landowning Norfolk family. This section is terse and includes a grainy black and white photograph of what appear to be piles of bodies in a wood. These odd photographs which punctuate the narrative are part of Sebald’s method and are highly effective in authenticating his account. In other words they are presented as evidence, even if the provenance of the exhibits is questionable. Several historical characters appear on stage, cued by certain objects or places that the narrator encounters, as he walks the Suffolk coast. The journey is a psychological one with particular fragments of human geography serving as a stimulus.
Print by Jan Malaszek.
The Norfolk doctor Thomas Browne, whose Urn Burial, is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of English prose in the seventeenth century tradition, is a very important figure and appears near the beginning. It is not only The Preacher’s ‘all is vanity, all is vanity’, echo that is significant, the rise and fall of civilisations, the rise and fall of human beings back into dust, but also the Platonist idea of the world as the counterfeit of another reality. The ghosts in Sebald’s book have as much solidity as the living or as little. Take a walk along Shingle Street near Orford Ness, on a bleak December day and it is quite easy to imagine one’s substance as mercurially silver and grey as the sea. Meditate for long and ingots of lead begin to form in the soul. Lead of course, the dense blue-grey element that the alchemists associated astrologically with Saturn, and the one perhaps, most appropriate from which to cast a sculpture depicting the weight of history.
Browne’s work is perhaps not so well-known as that of his contemporary, Robert Burton, author of the Anatomy of Melancholy. The mention of the latter, for me, puts Sebald’s undoubted achievement in context. This massive tome of learning and wit constructed from the seemingly infinite number of fragments orbiting Burton’s mind is particularly relevant seeing that, as much as anything, The Rings of Saturn is a modern study in melancholy. Burton though was from Leicestershire and had a clerical living in Oxford. He does not need therefore to appear in Suffolk. Otherwise I should have thought him impossible to pass over.
In line with the melancholic nature of the work, which takes place at the end of August, during the ‘dog days’ of the year, there is much in the book which might be construed as ‘anti-human’. Sebald balances the atrocities of the Holocaust with a kind of historical exhibition which includes the carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities, European imperialism, in which not surprisingly his adoptive country features rather prominently, particularly with regard to Ireland, and other horrors of which perhaps the megalomanic Chinese Dowager is the most curious. An Englishman can well understand one of the more obvious emotional movers behind Sebald’s atrocity exhibition. But I shall have to leave it to a second post.