I have mug from the Science Museum with the solar system on it. It includes much useful information. The sort of information that one might need at a moment’s notice. Such as the fact that the planet Saturn has a diameter of 74, 564 miles and is 884, 700, 000 miles from the sun. The distance from Lowestoft to Felixstowe is about 50 miles. This gives some idea of an imagination which expands a simple tramp along the Suffolk coast to the scale of interplanetary distances. The mug, which I am very fond of, also tells me that Saturn has 21 moons, which means that the mug is out of date as we are now up to around 60. Find out about the Cassini mission to Saturn here. A few of these moons seem like pretty obstinate customers in that they insist on orbiting the planet in the opposite direction to the majority which fall in line with the spin of Saturn itself. It is interesting that these moons tend, I think, to be found on the outer fringes, and seem to have been captured by Saturn’s ponderous mass, almost against their will. In other words they can be seen as exiled moons.
‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. So says Stephen Daedalus, the young intellectually vain alter ego of James Joyce, in Ulysses. It is a pronouncement with which the narrator of The Rings of Saturn seems to be in agreement, citing history as little more than a series of calamities. Our horrors are to be displayed, our achievements should they threaten to give us comfort, are to be swept away by time. Melancholy poets have always been drawn to Dunwich, the narrator of The Rings tells us with no trace of irony, after a digression on Swinburne, whose febrile nature seems only a more showy version of the narrator’s own.
One of the amusing things about the book for those who are familiar with the landscape is the melodrama of episodes such as the narrator’s stroll on Dunwich Heath which he manages to turn into the Blair Witch Project. Know where the sea is, which is eastward, and you should be good, the Suffolk reader thinks. Every arrival is an enigma, senescence is the inheritor of every country house, and decline the fate of every town. There is typically ‘not a soul about’. Clearly the protagonist of The Rings, if he can be described as such, has never attempted to get his car into Walberswick after eleven on a summer’s day. But then, it is precisely these kind of things that undercut the memoir and signify the book as fiction or a state of mind.
Dunwich, the thriving port of the Middle Ages which lost a war with the sea. It is a site of black dog pilgrimage and an invisible monument to the transience of human endeavor. Sebald includes a couple of germane photographs at this point in the by now familiar black and white style. One shows the ruin of All Saints church which slipped over the edge of the cliff in 1919. Most of the people buried in the churchyard now have a sea burial whether they wanted one or not. Should Saint Peter come looking for these bones at the end of time he will need his fishing boat. Some gravestones still cling to the cliff edge. It surely is a lugubrious spot even in the sunshine. The last time I was there it was spring and the hawthorns were in full bloom. The ruins of Greyfriars Abbey still survive because they are a reasonable distance from the beach. How long it will take the sea to reach the ghosts of these departed Franciscans is anybody’s guess. I took this photograph.
In time the middle of the arch might fall through and a stack be left in the same manner as will surely happen to Durdle Door in Dorset. It was important for W.G. Sebald that the included photographs should not stand out unduly from the text. Not only as a writer does he not want it to be ‘all about the images’ but also the greyness of them, the indistinctness of them, suits the writing, which although containing many sentences of beauty is as flat as certain expanses of East Anglia. The style is formal and in truth the only dramatisation is through the quoted writings of others and the occasional encounter. This allows the book to gain an almost titanic density despite being only around 300 pages long.
The introduction of Joseph Conrad, Polish exile, sea captain, and eminent English writer, who chose England in a way that Sebald electing to write in German perhaps did not, serves as an excuse to present an exhibit of the ‘opening up’ of the Belgian Congo. The interesting history of Roger Casement follows, the British diplomat and man of conscience, who highlighted inhumanities not only in the Congo, but also in Brazil, and then in Ireland. He was hung for treason, after an attempt to get German help for the Irish Republicans, prior to the Easter Rising. The narrator draws the conclusion that it was Casement’s homosexuality (clearly used against him in the trial) which led him to identify with ‘the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement, and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power’. I am undecided whether this is a valid thing to say or merely a liberal autonomic reflex of the kind that presumably goes as unremarked as breathing in comparative literature departments across the land. I’ll let you make the call.
In the person of Roger Casement, Sebald, whose name would not be out of place in an Anglo-Saxon historical novel, is able to call England to account, and there is undeniably, although understandably, something of the who are you to judge us feeling about this. I suggest that there is solace to be gained from meditating on the appalling behaviour of others in addition to your own, as well as from the distancing effect of historical perspective. This ‘ponderous Saxon’ (to quote Ulysses again) who also happens to be partly Irish can surely recognise such a manoeuvre. The problem it seems to me is that in the confessional, the priest is not interested in hearing about the sins of others, he is interested only in absolving you from your own.
I want to leave you with another image that is assuredly not in the Sebald style, or at least his style as it presents itself in The Rings of Saturn. It is by arguably the greatest of all English painters, J.M.W. Turner. This small painting of Dunwich, Suffolk, was one of eight drawings in body colour on grey paper, engraved for a work entitled, The East Coast of England. It was painted around 1830 when the ruins of All Saints church were still to be seen on the cliff. I’ll let the picture say the rest.