90. W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Psychogeographers, Phil Smith tells us, don’t like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (21). Smith isn’t so keen on it himself. As he walks the route of Sebald’s pedestrian journey in Suffolk, he becomes “increasingly suspicious of Sebald’s exploration”: his assumption had been that The Rings of Saturn was supposed to be “a deep engagement” with landscape, but it isn’t, or else there is “a mismatch between Sebald’s complex intellectualism and his idea of what an embodied engagement with a landscape is. In fact, he thinks The Rings of Saturn is merely based on “cursory desk-based research” (85). Sebald, though, is neither a psychogeographer nor a mythogeographer, and rather than being a book about Sebald’s walk through Suffolk, or the landscape in which Sebald walked, or the emotional effects of that landscape on Sebald, it is a complex meditation on death and destruction. The walk, I would argue, is the occasion for that meditation, and that meditation is what’s important in the text, rather than the walk itself. I’d go so far as to say that mediation is the text.
Smith notes that Sebald is interested in catastrophe—that’s one of the key words in the book’s conclusion—but suggests that he “sees everything but the catastrophe of class” (70). Sebald, Smith contends, “is unaware of, or opposed to, the idea that there operates a system that always tends toward, and thrives upon, crisis. . . . Instead, Sebald is super-sensitised to the surprise of tragedy” (70). I’m not sure that’s entirely true, and as I write this summary I’m going to be looking for examples of Sebald’s awareness of class; I’m also not convinced that Sebald is actually interested in tragedy, unless that is a way of saying that he has a melancholic or pessimistic view of the world. Rather, I think he reads human history through the lens of the Second World War and the Holocaust, looking for similar examples of human brutality and evil and expanding those examples to an almost cosmological scope. In fact, one could argue that the actual subject of The Rings of Saturn is the Holocaust, and that it therefore prefigures Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz.
One of the reasons I wanted to reread Sebald’s book for this project is that I’ve been casting around for models I could use to present the results of the walks I intend to take. Sebald would be one of those models, if only I could write the way he does. Over the course of his paragraphs, which go on for pages and pages, he shifts from one topic to another, from where he is walking to memories of other journeys to dreams to historical or literary figures that obsess him. It’s impossible to place The Rings of Saturn within a specific genre, either. Sometimes it’s a memoir; other times it seems to be fictional. It contains literary criticism and history and travel writing. It’s all of these things, and yet it’s none of them: it is itself, sui generis, and needs to be approached from that perspective.
The Rings of Saturn begins with two epigraphs, one from a letter written by Joseph Conrad to Marguerite Poradowska in 1890, about the time he was the captain of a river steamer in the Belgian Congo, and the other from a German encyclopedia entry on the rings of the planet Saturn. Conrad’s letter reads, in French, “Il faut surtout pardonner à ces âmes malheureuses qui ont élu de faire le pèlerinage à pied, qui côtoient le rivage et regardent sans comprehendre l’horreur de la lutte, la joie de vaincre ni le profond désespoir des vaincus” (n.p.). In English (reaching back to my fractured high-school French), that comes out as “One must pardon these unfortunate souls who have chosen to make the pilgrimage on foot, who go along the shore and regard without comprehending the horror of the struggle, the joy of subjugation and the profound despair of the defeated.” The subtitle of the first German edition of The Rings of Saturn was “Eine englische Wallfahrt,” which translates as “an English pilgrimage,” but when it was translated into English (Sebald always wrote in German, his first language) that subtitle was dropped. So the word “pèlerinage” here refers back to that (absent) subtitle, and to Sebald’s own walking journey. But I wonder if Conrad isn’t describing the genocide he witnessed in the Congo, which Sebald discusses in this text. There is something truly horrific in his words, especially in the suggestion that those who subjugate others experience joy. If I’m right, Conrad is describing human brutality and violence. Who the pilgrims are, though, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps they were people who walked along the Congo River instead of taking a steamboat? Or is that too literal? Why use the word “pèlerinage” at all, if not to evoke an ironic disjunction against the suggestion of violence in the rest of the sentence? In Heart of Darkness, Conrad uses the word “pilgrim” to refer to European employees of the company his narrator, Marlow, is working for. Is he using the word in the same way in this letter? I’m not sure, but it seems likely. In any case, this quotation prefigures the human violence, and the recurrent references to death, that saturate The Rings of Saturn.
The description of the rings of Saturn is more straightforward and (obviously) related to the book’s title. The rings, according to the encyclopedia Sebald is quoting, “consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect” (n.p.). Rather than human violence, this explanation is a description of natural violence, even cosmological violence, and we see that in Sebald’s accounts of the 1987 hurricane that destroyed forests in East Anglia, or the erosion that caused the destruction of the village of Dunwich. The catastrophes humans experience are not always of their own making, and those catastrophes affect other living beings as well. Saturn probably has mythological echoes as well; the Roman god Saturn (as Wikipedia tells me: I’m no expert on classical mythology), while associated with peace, plenty, and feasting, carried a sickle or scythe, as Death does, and was often conflated with Cronus, suggesting the passing of time (with its inevitable overtones of death). We see that association later in the text, in a passage quoted from the work of Thomas Browne, one of the writers who fascinates Sebald. He writes, “As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning in the dark” (78), and this reminds him of Browne’s meditation on that phenomenon:
The huntsmen are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Gardens of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn—an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness. (78-79)
As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that much of The Rings of Saturn consists of long quotations from other writers, typically presented without quotation marks. More to the point, though, the conflation of passing time, death, and Saturn’s scythe suggests that the title, and the second epigraph, like the first one, refer to death and destruction.
But I am getting ahead of myself. In this long and detailed summary—and it has to be long and detailed so that I can follow the twists and turns of the text. I wanted to walk myself through Sebald’s text in order to pick out examples of death and destruction, yes, but also to follow the drift (literally) of Sebald’s thinking. That means starting at the beginning. At the beginning of the first chapter, we learn that Sebald begins his walk in “the dogs days” of August 1992, after finishing “a long stint of work” (3), which may refer to his book The Emigrants, which was published in German that year. He goes on the walk, he writes, “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work,” and he reports that his hope “was realized, up to a point”: “for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast” (3). But looking back, Sebald (or his narrator—how close Sebald is to that narrator is an open question), writes, “I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star,” because “in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place” (3). He wonders if it was because of that horror that, “a year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility” (3). It seems very likely, given the way this text is saturated with examples of death and destruction, that Sebald’s breakdown occurred as a result of that “paralysing horror.”
It was at that point that he began writing this book, he states, at a point when he was “overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot” (3-4). All he could see was a “colourless patch of sky framed in the window” (4). He wanted to look out of that window, and that evening he dragged himself over to it, “despite the pain,” and “[i]n the posture of a creature that has raised itself erect for the first time,” he “stood leaning against the glass” (5). His posture reminds him of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who “climbs the armchair and looks out of his room, no longer remembering (so Kafka’s narrative goes) the sense of liberation that gazing out of the window had formerly given him” (5). Like Gregor Samsa, Sebald’s narrator states that the “familiar city” visible through the hospital room window had become “an utterly alien place”: “it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble,” he writes, “from which the tenebrous masses of multistorey carparks rose up like immense boulders” (5)—a description that merges Norwich with Dunwich, the village or town destroyed by the North Sea’s erosion of the cliff on which it stood. The only human figure outside is a nurse, and an ambulance with its lights flashing is approaching the hospital’s emergency ward. There was, the narrator recalls, an “artificial silence”: “All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears” (5).
Now, a year later, Sebald’s narrator is assembling the notes he began writing in that hospital room, and he thinks of a former colleague, Michael Parkinson, “one of the most innocent people I have ver met,” a man without self-interest and with modest needs “which some considered bordered on eccentricity” (6). The previous May, Michael “was found dead in his bed, lying on his side and already quite rigid, his face curiously mottled with red blotches” (6). That death affected another colleague, Janine Dakyns, deeply. Like Michael, Janine was an eccentric scholar whose office was so filled with papers and books on Flaubert that she had to work in an easy chair in the middle of the room. Sebald’s narrator once suggested to her that “sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Dürer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction,” but Janine responded that what appeared to be chaos was actually a perfect form of order (9). Janine had referred Sebald’s narrator to Anthony Batty Shaw when, after leaving the hospital, he began his research on Thomas Browne, whose skull was supposed to be kept in the museum of the Norfolk and Norwich hospital. Shaw had written an article on Browne and knew that his skull had been reburied after its disinterment in 1840. This leads the narrator into a discussion of Browne’s life and writing. What I find fascinating here is that over the course of one paragraph, covering several pages, there is a movement from a colleague who died suddenly, to another almost entombed by her books and papers, to Browne, a medical doctor and writer in the seventeenth century who attended a public dissection of the corpse of an executed thief, Aris Kindt, that is represented by Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson. In that painting, the deceased’s hand is the wrong way around. “It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder,” Sebald’s narrator suggests. Rather, that “unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt,” and it indicates that Rembrandt’s sympathies lie with the victim rather than the members of the Guild of Surgeons who surround his corpse (17). Rembrandt alone, the narrator continues, “sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes” (17).
The narrator then recalls Browne’s contention that a white mist rises from a body that is opened after death, a mist that, while we are alive, “clouds our brain with sleep and dreaming” (17). That suggestion reminds the narrator of his own foggy consciousness as he lies in a hospital room after surgery—not the hospital visit when he began writing this book, I think, but a different one. He only became aware of his body and his surroundings around dawn. Outside the window, he saw a vapour trail in the sky. “At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life,” the narrator states. He seems to be troubled by the fact that the aircraft making that trail was invisible, like the passengers inside it. This takes him back to Browne, “who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond” (18). And, like Sebald, Browne’s writing is complex, filled with quotations and “labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” (19). Browne saw the tiniest details of things, but he believed that “all knowledge is enveloped in darkness” (19). He was particularly interested in a figure called the quincunx, a structure he saw everywhere in the natural world, a kind of unifying principle. (Sebald, who illustrates his books with various photographs he has taken and archival material, provides an example of the quincunx.) And yet, Browne “was often distracted from his investigations into the isomorphic line of the quincunx by singular phenomena that fired his curiousity,” including “beings both real and imaginary,” ranging from chameleons and ostriches to basilisks, unicorns, and amphisbaenae (snakes with two heads). “Browne refutes the existence of the fabled creatures,” the narrator tells us, “but the astonishing monsters that we know to be properly part of the natural world leave us with a suspicion that even the most fantastical beasts might not be mere inventions” (22). That suggestion leads the narrator to Jorge Luis Borges and his 1967 book Libro de los seres imaginarios, a compendium of imaginary beings, including the shapeshifting Baldanders, which change into many things, including “a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet”—one of the references to silk that litter Sebald’s text (23). Suddenly the narrator returns to Browne, who believed that “nothing endures,” that “[o]n every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation” (23-24). Browne wrote a book about burial urns in which he argued that little fuel is required to cremate a human body, and he details the odd objects that have been found in such urns. “For Browne, things of this kind, unspoiled by the passage of time, are symbols of the indestructibility of the human soul assured by scripture,” which Browne “perhaps secretly doubts” (26). The chapter begins with a question about a piece of purple silk found in one of the urns Browne discusses: “what does it mean?” (26).
The second chapter begins with the start of Sebald’s walk. He takes a train from Norwich towards Lowestoft, passing “some ruined conical brick buildings, like relics of an extinct civilization,” that are all that remains of windmills that were shut down after the First World War. He gets off the train at the halt for Somerleyton Hall. The narrator reflects on the fact that everything that great house would have required would have been brought by that railway, but that “now there was nothing any more. . . . It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes” (31). Now Somerleyton Hall, like other country houses, is open to visitors who pay an entrance fee. Most of them arrive by car. The few who arrive by train, and who don’t want to walk all the way around to the main gate, have to “climb the wall like some interloper and struggle through the thicket before reaching the park” (32). Sebald’s narrator immediately espies “a curious object lesson from the history of evolution, which at times repeats its earlier conceits with a certain sense of irony,” because “when I emerged from the trees I beheld a miniature train puffing through the fields with a number of people sitting on it,” and the driver was “the present Lord Somerleyton” himself (32).
Sebald’s narrator relates the history of Somerleyton, which was rebuilt after 1843 by Sir Morton Peto, an entrepreneur and speculator who made his money in construction and railways. The “comfort and extravagance” of Peto’s new country residence “would eclipse everything the nation had hitherto seen” (33). It featured “incomparable glasshouses,” lit at night by gaslight, that were considered a wonder (34). However, “Somerleyton strikes the visitor of today no longer as an oriental palace in a fairy tale,” the narrator states, referring to Coleridge’s poem about Kubla Khan (35). The glass-covered walks and palm house were destroyed in a fire in 1913. The servants are gone, and “[t]he suites of rooms now make a somewhat disused, dispirited impression” (35). As he walks through the Hall, he is “variously reminded of a pawnbroker’s or an auction hall,” although the great collection of oddities it contains eventually wins him over (36). When the Hall was first constructed, and everything “was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste,” the Hall must have been “uninviting,” but “how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion” (36). The grounds, with their mature cedars and sequoias and plane trees, are a “contrast to the waning splendour of the house” (37). Sebald gets lost in the estate’s yew maze, and later he meets the gardener, William Hazel, who tells him about the 67 airfields that were built in East Anglia after 1940. In just over three years, Hazel tells him, the American Eighth Airforce alone “used a billion gallons of fuel, dropped seven hundred and thirty-two thousand tons of bombs, and lost almost nine thousand aircraft and fifty thousand men” (38). Hazel would watch the bomber squadrons heading out every evening, and before he went to sleep he pictured the burning German cities. He shows Sebald a map of Germany and points out the cities that were destroyed. When Hazel served in the army of occupation in the 1950s, he was surprised that Germans had not written about the bombings—the subject of Sebald’s book On the Natural History of Destruction. Hazel also tells him about the crash of two American fighters on the estate in early 1945; the pilots’ remains “were buried here in the grounds” (40).
Sebald leaves Somerleyton and walks to Lowestoft, past Blundeston prison. When he arrives in the town centre, he is “disheartened” (41). He had been there before and found it pleasant, but “it seemed incomprehensible . . . that in such a relatively short period of time the place could have become so run down” (41). Unemployment is very high and “nearly every week some bankrupt or unemployed person hangs himself” (42). Sebald knew all of this before, but seeing it is another thing entirely. Smith objects to Sebald’s characterization of Lowestoft, stating that it’s not the wasteland Sebald makes it out to be (68), but of course things could have changed between Sebald’s visit in 1992 and Smith’s in (I think) 2011. According to Sebald’s narrator, though, “there is no sign of an end to the encroaching misery” (42), which might be an accurate description of a town devastated by Thatcherism and neoliberal economic policies, but might also be a misreading of the potential for resistance and resurgence there as well. I don’t know. It is hard, of course, to come to know a place intimately as a visitor, and it’s possible that Sebald’s melancholia, or the bad food he was served at the Albion Hotel, might have coloured his impressions of Lowestoft. The following morning, when he leaves the town, it has “reawoken to life” (44), although that life includes a hearse containing a corpse outside the train station. That hearse reminds Sebald of “that working lad from Tuttlingen” who had joined a funeral cortège in Amsterdam 200 years before, perhaps envying the wealth in that city’s port but conscious that the rich merchant ended up in the same “narrow grave” as everyone else (44-45). (I don’t know where that story comes from.) Sebald thinks of how Lowestoft has declined since its time as a society resort in the nineteenth century, as his late friend Frederick Farrar, who had been born in the town, once told him. That connection leads to a brief biography of Frederick, who had somehow set fire to his dressing gown one morning while walking in the garden and died of his burns. The connection between burning German cities and Frederick’s death is clear. Frederick had told Sebald that because “the common folk” were not admitted to the annual charity ball, they “rowed out to the end of the pier in a hundred or more boats and barges,” and “from their bobbing, drifting vantage points,” watched “as fashionable society swirled to the sound of the orchestra, seemingly borne aloft in a surge of light above the water, which was dark and at that time in early autumn usually swathed in mist” (47-48). Frederick told Sebald, “If I now look back at those times . . . it is as if I were seeing everything through flowing white veils” (48). He recalls his family walking down the beach and says he that once he “even dreamed of that scene,” and that his family seemed “like the court of King James II in exile on the coast of The Hague” (48). There is some attention to class here—Frederick’s family had servants, so they must have been wealthy, and by finding a way to watch the ball perhaps “the common folk” are engaged in a kind of envious resistance—but I think Sebald is more concerned with how things change through the passage of time, and with the distance between events and our memories of them.
At the beginning of the book’s third chapter, Sebald’s narrator sees “all manner of tent-like structures made of poles and cordage, sailcloth and oilskin, along the pebble beach” south of Lowestoft (51). These are shelters of fishermen. The narrator has heard that these men don’t speak to each other, and he imagines them watching the sea “quite alone and dependent on no one but himself” (52). Today no one makes a living fishing; the boats are abandoned and falling apart, partly because of pollution in the North Sea. He remembers films about herrings that were shown in school when he was young; in them, the herring was an “emblem . . . of the indestructibility of nature” (53). At one time, the herring nets “were made of coarse Persian silk and dyed black” (56) (another reference to silk). The purpose of the herring, it seems, is to be eaten: if not by humans, then by other fish. Huge quantities were caught, and as a result,
the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels. (57)
One oddity of these fish is that when they die, they begin to glow. In the 1870s, two English scientists investigated this phenomenon hoping that it “would lead to a formula for an organic source of light that had the capacity to regenerate itself,” but they were disappointed (59).
In the early afternoon, Sebald reaches Benacre Broad, a brackish lake separated from the North Sea by “a bank of shingle” and that will, no doubt, disappear one night during a storm (59). “But that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity,” the narrator recalls:
The veils of mist that drifted inland that morning had cleared, the vault of the sky was empty and blue, not the slightest breeze was stirring, the trees looked painted, and not a single bird flew across the velvet-brown water. It was as if the world were under a bell jar, until great cumulus clouds brewed up out of the west casting a grey shadow upon the earth. (59)
That shadow reminds him of an article he had clipped from a newspaper several months before, on the death of Major George Wyndham Le Strange, whose manor house stood beyond the lake and who had been part of the liberation of Bergen Belsen in April 1945. A photograph of Bergen Belsen (I think) follows; the piled bodies resemble the mounds of herring in postcard of Lowestoft reproduced several pages earlier. Le Strange was a wealthy and eccentric man, who left his entire fortune to his housekeeper, whose job, in part, was to take meals with her employer in total silence. The narrator relates several odd stories he had heard about Le Strange; he tells us he doesn’t now what to make of them.
Sebald keeps walking south. At Covehithe, he sees dead trees by the sea; they had fallen from the cliffs years before, and their “barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand” (64). A sailboat in the sea keeps him company. He reaches a large field where a hundred pigs are sleeping. He climbs the electric fence and strokes one of the animals: “When I stood up, it closed its eye once more with an expression of profound submissiveness” (66). The pigs remind him of the New Testament story of the Gadarene man whose evil spirits were cast by Jesus into a heard of swine, which then fell off a cliff and drowned in the sea. What, he wonders, was the point of that story? He watches the sand martins flying; in childhood, he would imagine that “the world was held together” by the swallows in flight (67). That memory leads to a mention of Borges’s book Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a few birds save an amphitheatre. But it is the sand martins that engross Sebald’s attention, until he looks over the edge of the cliff and espies a couple apparently having sex: “Misshapen, like some great mollusc washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being, a many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils” (68). That association upsets him, and he leaves the place, heading along the beach towards Southwold in the distance. It begins to rain just before he reaches the town, and, the narrator tells us, “I turned to look back down the deserted stretch I had come by, and could no longer have said whether I had really seen the pale sea monster at the foot of the Covehithe cliffs or whether I had imagined it” (69).
That uncertainty brings him back to the Borges story he mentioned before. The narrator of the tale remembers “the observation of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar, that the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings” (70). The source of that story is supposedly an entry in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, but it cannot be found there; it seems to exist only in one copy of the encyclopedia, owned by the narrator. Do any of the places the narrator is describing actually exist? In a note added to the text, the reader learns that one of those places, Tlön has, although fictional, completely changed the earth by becoming the only subject of learning. Everything else will disappear: “The world will be Tlön” (71). However, the narrator doesn’t care; he is going to continue to work on his translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. What is the link between Borges’s strange apocalypse and Browne’s text on funerary urns? What is Sebald doing? How is Borges’s tale connected to Sebald’s concerns? It’s very hard to say.
At the beginning of the fourth chapter, the rain has stopped and Sebald is taking a walk around Southwold. The town is deserted. He says that he would not have been surprised if he suddenly saw the Dutch fleet offshore, as they were on May 28, 1672, the date of a naval battle between the Dutch and the English that led to a tremendous loss of life, including that of the English commander, the Earl of Sandwich. That battle was the beginning of the Netherlands’ decline as an imperial power. Sebald thinks of the passing of time and the people lying asleep as if dead, “levelled by the scythe of Saturn,” and looks out to see at the clouds, which remind him of mountains (78-79). He recalls that years before, in a dream, he walked the length of a remote and unfamiliar mountain range, which, he realizes, was the Vallüla massif, which he had seen from a bus years before. “I suppose it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality,” he suggests (79). But, he continues, “there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer” (80).
“Just as these things have always been beyond my understanding,” he continues, “so too I found it impossible to believe, as I sat on Gunhill in Southwold that evening, that just one year earlier I had been looking across to England from a beach in Holland” (80). What follows is an account of a rather miserable night spent in The Hague, where he looked at Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson in the Mauritshuis the following morning. Governor Johann Maurits, whom the museum is named after, had lived in Brazil for seven years and, Sebald’s narrator tells us, “when “the house was opened in May 1644, three hundred years before I was born, eleven Indians the Governor had brought with him from Brazil performed a dance on the cobbled square in front of the new building, conveying to the townspeople some sense of the foreign lands to which the power of the community now extended” (83). That reference to colonial history, which enabled the art collection which was the reason for Sebald’s visit, isn’t, I think, just an aside. That evening, in Amsterdam, he makes notes on his European journey, now almost over, which includes stories about his namesake, St. Sebolt, and the miracles he had performed. The following day, at Schiphol airport, the atmosphere is “so strangely muted” that it is as if the passengers “were under sedation or moving through time stretched and expanded” (89). He comes across a description in Lévis-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques of a street in São Paulo “where the colourfully painted wooden villas and residences, built at the turn of the century by the wealthy in a kind of Swiss fantasy style, were falling to pieces in gardens overgrown with eucalyptus and mango trees” (89). Perhap, he thinks, that’s why the airport “seemed to me that morning like an ante room of that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” (89)—in other words, like death. The connection between that street and the eleven “Indians” is made, I think, through the story that those dancers, “about whom nothing else is known, have long since disappeared, as soundless as shadows” (83). These images of death and disrepair are linked by their geographical location.
On the small plane from Amsterdam to Norwich, Sebald looks out of the window at the ground below. He notices that one never sees human beings from the air, “only the things they have made and in which they are hiding” (91). “And yet,” the narrator continues,
they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that once worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today’s tock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. (91-92)
“If we view ourselves from a great height,” he continues, “it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end” (92). No wonder psychogeographers are frustrated by The Rings of Saturn; in this long reminiscence, Sebald’s walk has entirely disappeared, although I would argue that the themes of his text (death, decay, time) have been present throughout.
The evening is getting chilly, and so Sebald goes to the Sailors’ Reading Room, now primarily a maritime museum. It is his “favourite haunt” in the town, a place to read and write or just look at the sea (93). He returns the following morning to make notes on what he’d seen the preceding day. He leafs through the log of the Southwold, a patrol ship, from the autumn of 1914, and discovers a photographic history of the First World War that includes photographs of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, which started the war. That afternoon, reading a newspaper, he runs across an article about the Croatian Ustasha, a police force that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. The article describes a photograph of a group of Ustasha “sawing off the head of a Serb named Branco Jungic” (96). “This happened at Jasenovac camp on the Sava,” the narrator continues. “Seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed there alone in ways that made even the hair of the Reich’s experts stand on end, as some of them are said to have admitted when they were amongst themselves” (96-97). The Ustasha also murdered as many as 90,000 people during a campaign against Tito’s partisans. The history of these massacres is recounted in 50,000 documents abandoned by the Germans and Croats in 1945 and stored in an archive that was the headquarters of the Heeresgruppe E intelligence division in 1942. “In this connection,” the narrator continues,
one might also add that one of the Heeresgruppe E intelligence offices at that time was a young Viennese lawyer whose chief task was to draw up memoranda relating to the necessary resettlements, described as imperative for humanitarian reasons. For this commendable paperwork he was awarded by Croatian head of state Ante Pavelić the silver medal of the crown of King Zvonomir, with oak leaves. (98-99)
The postwar career of this bureaucrat of genocide led him to becoming the Secretary General of the United Nations. Of course, Sebald is talking about Kurt Waldheim. A recording of Waldheim’s voice speaking words of greeting “for the benefit of any extra-terrestrials that may happen to share our universe” is now “approaching the outer limits of our solar system aboard the space probe Voyager II” (99). The bitter ironies of that statement need little explanation. It is as if Sebald is suggesting that the best person to represent us in space is someone who participated in a genocide, because that defines what humans are and do.
Sebald’s fifth chapter recounts a documentary about Roger Casement he fell asleep watching in Southwold. Casement was executed by the British for treason in 1916. And that documentary leads to a discussion of Joseph Conrad’s biography, especially his experience in the Belgian Congo, because both men were linked through their writing on the Belgian Congo. Conrad, born Josef Korzeniowski to Polish parents, learned English, in part, by reading Lowestoft newspapers while sailing on a coastal steamer that travelled between Lowestoft and Newcastle. In 1890, he went to work for the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo as the captain of a river steamer. The Congo was then a Belgian colony, and King Leopold received the profits of “its inexhaustible wealth” through trading companies such as the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo—profits “built on a system of slave labour which was sanctioned by all the shareholders and all the Europeans contracted to work in the new colony” (118-19). An estimated 500,000 people died of overwork or disease. Conrad was appalled by what he saw and turned back. “Tout m’est antipathique ici, he wrote to Marguerite Poradowska, les hommes et les chose, mais surtout les hommes,” Sebald’s narrator tells us. “Je regrette d’être venu ici” (121). When he arrived back in Brussels, he “now saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies, and all the passers-by in the streets seemed to him to bear that dark Congolese secret within them” (122). Sebald recalls his first visit to that city in 1964, and suggests that “the very definition of Belgian ugliness” is “the Lion Monument and the so-called historical memorial site of the Battle of Waterloo” (123). The panorama there suggests to Sebald “the representation of history”: it ignores the dead and wounded of that battle (125). “Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains?” he wondered then. “Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?” (125).
In 1903, Roger Casement wrote a memorandum on what was happening in the Belgian Congo for Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne, giving “an exact account” the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people every year in the colony (127). Casement was praised and rewarded for his work, but under pressure from King Leopold, the British government did nothing. Later, Casement was transferred to South America, where he discovered conditions that resembled those in the Congo, “with the difference that here the controlling agent was not Belgian trading associations but the Amazon Company, the head office of which was in the city of London” (128). The Foreign Office tried to deal with the matter by knighting Casement. “But Casement was not prepared to switch to the side of the powerful,” Sebald’s narrator states; “quite the contrary, he was increasingly preoccupied with the nature and origins of that power and the imperialist mentality that resulted from it” (129). He became involved in “the Irish question”—he had been born in that country—and argued for Home Rule (129). In early 1915, he travelled secretly to Berlin “to urge the government of the German Reich to supply arms to the Irish army of liberation and persuade Irish prisoners of war in Germany to form an Irish brigade” (130). Neither effort was successful, and Casement returned to Ireland, where he was arrested. Excerpts of Casement’s diary were circulated, which indicated that he was gay. “We may draw from this the conclusion that it was precisely Casement’s homosexuality that sensitized him to 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” (134). He was found guilty and hanged; his remains were not recovered until 1965, when they were exhumed “from the lime pit in the courtyard of Pentonville Prison into which his both had been thrown” (134). Devoting an entire chapter to the stories of these two men demonstrates that Sebald’s primary concern in this text is not his walk; rather, it is the human history of genocide, including colonial genocide, and war. The walk is just an excuse, I think, for a meditation on what human beings are capable of doing to each other.
Sebald’s sixth chapter, like the fifth, focuses on a violent history: this time, the wars and imperial interferences in nineteenth-century China. It begins with a bridge over the River Blyth that was constructed in 1875 for a narrow-gauge railway that had originally been built for the Emperor of China. That train leads Sebald to a recounting of Chinese history: the Taiping rebellion and its bloody suppression with the assistance of British army that had occupied China in the middle of the century, which included the destruction of “the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan near Peking” (144) witnessed by, among others, British engineer Charles George Gordon, “who was later to die a famous death in the seize of Khartoum,” another British imperial adventure (146). China came to be ruled by the Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi, who cared little about her subjects, as many as 20 million of whom died of starvation and exhaustion between 1876 and 1879. All the Dowager Empress seemed to care about were her silkworms (another of the many references silk in the text). The train that crossed the River Blyth had been ordered for the child Emperor Kuang-hsu, but it was never delivered. Instead, Kuang-hsu was imprisoned in one of the moated palaces in the Forbidden City, and after his death in 1908, his doctor speculated that he had been poisoned. The Dowager Empress died the following day. As she was dying, she said that “she realized that history consists of nothing but misfortune and the troubles that afflict us, so that in all our days on earth we never know one single moment that is genuinely free of fear” (153). Sebald himself could have written that statement.
From here, the text leaps back to Borges and Tlön, where the denial of time is one of the key tenets of philosophy. And that leads back to Thomas Browne, who suggested that “[t]he night of time . . . far surpasseth the day” (154). “Thoughts of this kind were in my head too as I walked along the disused railway line a little way beyond the bridge across the Blyth, and then dropped from the higher ground to the level of the marsh that extends southward from Walberswick as far as Dunwich, which now consists of a few houses only,” Sebald’s narrator states (154). Dunwich was an important port during the Middle Ages, but “[a]ll of it has gone under, quite literally, and is now below the sea, beneath alluvial sand and gravel, over an area of two or three square miles” (155). On New Year’s Eve in 1285, a storm tide devastated the lower town and the port: “There were fallen walls, debris, ruins, broken timbers, shattered ships’ hulls, and sodden masses of loam, pebbles, sand and water everywhere” (157-58). The citizens rebuilt, and in January 1328 another powerful storm destroyed the lower town. “Over the centuries that followed, catastrophic incursions of the sea into the land of this kind happened time and time again,” Sebald’s narrator tells us, and “[l]ittle by little the people of Dunwich accepted the inevitability of the process,” moving west away from the sea (158). That westward movement, he continues, is “one of the fundamental patterns of human behaviour,” particularly in North and South America: “In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by overcropping and new areas to the west are opened up” (158-59). That is a description of the ecological destruction and deforestation caused by colonialism in Brazil, though, rather than something inherent in humanity, I would think. In any case, today Dunwich “has dissolved into water, sand and thin air” (159). For that reason, it “became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets in the Victorian Age,” including Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the chapter now shifts to become a biography of Swinburne and a description of his poetry, in which “[l]ike ashes the low cliffs crumble and the banks drop down into dust” (160). When Swinburne was old, a visitor compared him to “the ashy grey silkworm” (165) because of the way he ate or because of the way he woke from his afternoon nap.
“It had grown uncommonly sultry and dark when at midday, after resting on the beach, I climbed to Dunwich Heath, which lies forlorn above the sea,” the seventh chapter begins (169). As Sebald turns inland, so do his thoughts, and he considers the destruction of “the dense forests that extended over the entire British Isles after the last Ice Age” (169). Similar destruction is taking place now, the narrator continues, in Borneo or the Amazon. In Europe, the trees were cut down for construction and shipbuilding, and to make charcoal, which was required to make iron. “Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn,” the narrator continues:
From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of these lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has been all combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. (170)
Human civilization “has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more and more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away” (170). The narrator discusses both deliberate fires and accidental ones—wild fires that consume forests—suggesting this passage is both a description of a fundamental truth of our civilization, a depiction of its excesses, and, perhaps, a kind of apocalyptic vision.
Sebald gets lost crossing Dunwich Heath, and geographical confusion becomes temporal: “to my astonishment, not to say horror, I found myself back again at the same tangled thicket from which I had emerged about an hour before, or, as it now seemed to me, in some distant past” (171). He begins to panic; his surroundings “became oppressive and unnerving” (172). Suddenly he finds himself under an oak tree in a country lane, not sure how he got there, and, he states, “the horizon was spinning all around as if I had jumped off a merry-go-round” (172). Months later he dreams about Dunwich Heath, a dream which combines that dreary place with “a little Chinese pavilion” like the one in the yew maze at Somerleyton, and he knew, “with absolute certainty,” that the pattern of the maze “represented a cross section of my brain” (173). Beyond the maze, night fell. “I saw that, to the south, entire headlands had broken off the coast and sunk beneath the waves,” and “a battery of searchlights” reminded him of the War (174). Below the cliff were the shattered ruins of a house, and “a solitary old man with a wild mane of hair was kneeling beside his dead daughter” (174). This dream, or nightmare, combines almost everything Sebald has written about so far in his text.
Sebald reaches the village of Middleton, where he visits the writer Michael Hamburger. Like Sebald, Hamburger was born in Germany and emigrated to England—although he came in 1933, rather than 1966. “How little there has remained in me of my native country,” Hamburger writes in his memoirs (177). During a return visit to Berlin in 1947, Hamburger “came upon a cleared site where the bricks retrieved from the ruins had been stacked in long, precise rows, ten by ten by ten, a thousand to every stacked cube, or rather nine hundred and ninety-nine, since the thousandth brick in every pile was stood upright on top, be it as a token of expiation or to facilitate the counting” (179). Not a soul is in sight, only the millions of bricks. It is a powerful image of the aftermath of the city’s destruction.
It is late afternoon when Sebald arrives at Hamburger’s house. They have tea. Sebald reflects on the connections between his life and Hamburger’s. In a way, he imagines that they are doubles:
The fact that I first passed through British customs thirty-three years after Michael, that I am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did, that I am bent over my writing in Norfolk and he in Suffolk, that we are both distrustful of our work and both suffer from an allergy to alcohol—none of these things are particularly strange. But 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 as precisely as he does, I cannot explain. (182-83)
Sebald has a “strange feeling” in the room in which Hamburger no longer works because it is too cold,
as if it were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacles cases, my letters and my writing materials. In the porch that led to the garden, I felt again as if I or someone akin to me had long gone about his business there. (183-84)
He did not pursue these thoughts, however, “perhaps because it is not possible to pursue them without losing one’s sanity” (185). However, in Hamburger’s memoirs he learns that they both met the same man, Stanley Kerry: Hamburger in the army, and Sebald when he first arrived in England in 1966. “When I now think back to Stanley Kerry,” he states, “it seems incomprehensible that the paths of Michael’s life and mine should have intersected in the person of that extraordinarily shy man and that at the time we met him, in 1944 and 1966 respectively, we were both twenty-two” (187). Sebald’s narrator tells us,
No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency. . . . The physical sensation closest to this feeling of repetition, which sometimes lasts for several minutes and can be quite disconcerting, is that of the peculiar numbness brought on by a heavy loss of blood, often resulting in a temporary inability to think, to speak or to move one’s limbs, as though, without being aware of it, one had suffered a stroke. Perhaps there is in this as yet unexplained phenomenon of apparent duplication some kind of anticipation of the end, a venture into the void, a sort of disengagement, which, like a gramophone repeatedly playing the same sequence of notes, has less to do with damage to the machine itself than with an irreparable defect in its programme. (187-88)
That physical feeling, though, with its accompanying immobility, reminds me of the condition which sent Sebald to hospital a year after he walked in Suffolk. He has this feeling several times while visiting Hamburger that afternoon. Later, when Hamburger’s wife, Anne, calls a taxi for Sebald, she returns and relates a dream she had woken from after her rest: in it, Sebald had ordered a taxi for her, and as it sped through the forest, she saw everything growing in that forest “with absolute clarity and in meticulous detail impossible to put into words” (189). At the chapter ends, Sebald has his own moment of clear vision, which he finds horrifying: “by the faint light that fell from the living-room window into the well I saw, with a shudder that went to the roots of my hair, a beetle rowing across the surface of the water, from one dark shore to the other” (190). All of this is very strange, and while the image of repetition is perhaps easy to interpret (the repeated disasters and violence of human history, or the repeated movements of weavers of silk), Anne’s dream and Sebald’s horror at the sight of the beetle in the well are harder to understand. Something is definitely happening here, though, and it has nothing to do with Sebald’s walk—or, at least, the walk is the occasion for it and nothing more.
At the beginning of the eighth chapter, Sebald has returned to the Crown Hotel in Southwold (no doubt the reason for the taxi; it would seem that there were no accommodations available in Middleton). He meets a Dutchman named Cornelis de Jong there, who tells him “that many important museums, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague or the Tate Gallery in London, were originally endowed by the sugar dynasties or were in some other way connected with the sugar trade” (194). In other words, those museums cannot be unlinked from a history of slavery and colonialism. The next morning, Sebold drives down to Woodbridge with de Jong, who is interested in buying a farm in the area. The poet Edward FitzGerald grew up nearby, at Boulge Park, and as Sebald walks around that estate, he thinks about FitzGerald’s life. The estate where he was born was destroyed by a German V-bomb in 1944. In the neglected park, the oak trees are dying, and the FitzGerald family graveyard is neglected. FitzGerald’s childhood seems to have been miserable—his nanny and tutor “tended to take out on their charges their suppressed rage at the disrespect many a time shown them by their masters” (198-99)—and it was defined by fear and boredom. The year that FitzGerald’s only finished poem, a translation of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, was published, his best friend, William Browne, died from injuries sustained in a hunting accident. Afterwards, FitzGerald withdrew into himself. He complained that the local landowners were cutting down trees and tearing up hedgerows. He died in 1883.
Those reflections seemed to take the entire day, or they stand in for whatever Sebald did or saw during that day’s walk, because he writes, “[t]he shadows were lengthening as I walked in from Boulge Park to Woodbridge, where I put up for the night at the Bull Inn” (207). That night, he dreams of playing dominoes with FitzGerald, although the game takes place not at the FitzGerald estate, but at a country house in Ireland where he was a guest of the eccentric owners some years before. It is the only place in the area where he can stay during what seems to have been a walking holiday. The room he is given is dusty; the walls have “traces of whitewash with bluish streaks like the skin of a dying body” (210), and he is given an army cot to sleep on. “Whenever I rested on that bed over the next few days,” he recalls, “my consciousness began to dissolve at the edges, so that at times I could hardly have said how I had got there or indeed where I was. Repeatedly I felt as if I were lying in a traumatic fever in some kind of field hospital” (210). One night his hosts show home movies of the estate during better days, and then Mrs. Ashbury, the head of the family, tells Sebald stories she had heard from her husband about the Irish Civil War, in which the rebels burned estates as a way to drive out the landowners. After the Second World War, with no income and no prospect of selling the estate, the Ashburys and their house deteriorated together. This story leaves Sebald with the sense that it was “an unspoken invitation to stay there with them and share in a life that was becoming more innocent with every day that passed” (220). Years later, Sebald thinks that he sees the daughter, Catherine, in Berlin, onstage, performing in a play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. “Be still, my heart,” Sebald’s narrator concludes. “The tranquil evening will draw its mantle over our ailing senses. . . .” (222).
Walking from Woodbridge to Orford, Sebald thinks about the way that estates used to be used almost exclusively for hunting. Animals and birds were killed in such numbers that an estate’s management “was thus governed by considerations of what was necessary to maintain and increase the stocks of game” (223). Thousands of pheasants were raised in pens and then let loose later into hunting preserves. “There were times when six thousand pheasants were gunned down in a single day, not to mention the other fowl, hares and rabbits” at just one estate, Sudbourne Hall (223). In addition, the coastal towns became holiday destinations, particularly for German tourists, and hotels and spas “mushroomed from the barren land” (225). When the First World War was declared,
the German hotel employees were sent back home, there were no more summer visitors, and one morning a zeppelin like an airborne whale appeared over the coast, while across the Channel train after train with troops and equipment rolled to the front, whole tracts of land were ploughed up by mortar fire, and the death strip between the front lines was strewn with phosphorescent corpses. (226)
Like herrings, here human dead phosphoresce as well. After the war, the hunting estates declined and either were left to fall down or were sold off for other purposes, “as boys’ homes, approved schools, insane asylums, old people’s homes, or reception camps for refugees from the Third Reich” (227). One estate became the location of the research team that developed radar. “To this day,” Sebald’s narrator continues,
the area between Woodbridge and the sea remains full of military installations. Time and again, as one walks across the wide plains, one passes barracks, gateways and fenced-off areas where, behind thin plantations of Scots pines, weapons are concealed in camouflaged hangars and grass-covered bunkers, the weapons with which, if an emergency should arise, whole countries and continents can be transformed into smoking heaps of stone and ash in no time. (227-28)
It’s fitting, then, that not far from Orford, the sky darkens and a wind blows dust “across the arid land in sinister spirals” (228). He can see nothing “for what must have been an hour” (229). When the storm lifts, he tells us, “I crawled out of the hollow that had formed around me like the last survivor of a caravan that had come to grief in the desert” (229).
Orford is home to more military installations; the looming threat of conflict and death follows Sebald everywhere. There are seven martello towers on the coast between Felixstowe and Orford, defensive works built after Napoleon threatened to invade Britain. Radar was developed nearby. And there are rumours of “a horrifying incident in Shingle Street for which no government could accept public responsibility” (231): whether an accident with a biological weapon “designed to make whole regions uninhabitable,” or a malfunction with a weapon designed to make the sea boil, no one can say (231). The reason for such rumours may be that the Ministry of Defence conducted weapons research on the island of Orfordness. Those installations are now closed, and Sebald hires a local fisherman to take him across to look around. People still avoid the island, he tells Sebald, because “they couldn’t stand the god-forsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere” (234). On the island, Sebald’s narrator states,
The day was dull and oppressive, and there was so little breeze that not even the ears of the delicate quaking grass were nodding. It was as if I were passing through an undiscovered country, and I still remember that I felt, at the same time, both utterly liberated and deeply despondent. With each step that I took, the emptiness within and the emptiness without grew ever greater and the silence more profound. (234)
Sebald is experiencing that “god-forsaken loneliness,” it seems, which makes him think of death, that “undiscovered country.” He is “frightened almost to death” by a hare running past him: “It must have been cowering there as I approached, heart pounding as it waited, until it was almost too late to get away with its life. In that very fraction of a second when its paralysed state turned into panic and flight, its fear cut right through me” (234). There is a kind of emotional merging or transference between Sebald and the hare, which has “a curiously human expression on its face that was rigid with terror and strangely divided,” and “in its eyes, turning to look back as it fled and almost popping out of its head with fright, I see myself, become one with it” (235). It took half an hour for “the blood [to] cease its clamour in my veins,” Sebald reports (235). He stands on the bridge that leads to the former research establishment: “ahead lay nothing but destruction” (235). “From a distance, the concrete shells, shored up with stones, in which for most of my lifetime hundred of boffins had been at worked devising new weapons systems, looked (probably because of their odd conical shape) like the tumuli in which the mighty and powerful were buried in prehistoric times with all their tools and utensils, silver and gold,” he continues (235-36). Other buildings “resembled temples or pagodas” (236). “But the closer I came to these ruins,” Sebald’s narrator states,
the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words. (237)
It is as if Sebald is describing the remains of a death camp: hooks, showerheads, ramps, iron rails. Which, in a way, given the purpose of the research that was conducted there, he is. However, there is a change as he waits for the fisherman to return, as the evening sun emerges from behind the clouds and “[t]he roofs and towers of Orford showed among the tree tops, seeming to close that I could touch them. There, I thought, I was once at home. And then, through the growing dazzle of the light in my eyes, I suddenly saw, amidst the darkening colours, the sails of long-vanished windmills turning heavily in the wind” (237). He is detached from the present, adrift in memories of a time before he was born.
At the start of chapter nine, Sebald takes a bus to Yoxford, where he begins to walk northwest along an old Roman road. He walks through a deserted land for four hours, and states, “I knew then as little as I know now whether walking in this solitary way was more of a pleasure or a pain” (241). He arrives at the lane that leads to Chestnut Tree Farm, “an ancient moated house, where Thomas Abrams has been working on a model of the Temple of Jerusalem for a good twenty years” (242). He has a long conversation with Abrams, who drives him to Harleston, where he is staying at an inn called the Saracen’s Head. The next morning he walks east into an area that the locals call The Saints because each village is named after the patron saints of their churches. “My own feeling, as I walked over the featureless plain, was that I might well lose my bearings in The Saints, so often was I forced to change direction or strike out across country due to the labyrinthine system of footpaths and the many places where a right of way marked on the map had been ploughed up or was now overgrown” (249-50). He relates a story about a young French nobleman, the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, a refugee, who stayed with a local clergyman during the French Revolution. The Vicomte’s life, as related in his memoirs, “unfolded against the background of the momentous upheavals of those years: the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, his own exile, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Monarchy all were part of this interminable play performed upon the world’s stage, a play which took its toll on the privileged observer no less than on the nameless masses” (256). He recounts the Vicomte’s description of battles, and concludes, “such colourful accounts of military spectacles and large-scale operations form what might be called the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next” (256).
Sebald continues walking, from Ilketshall St. Margaret to Bungay. He pauses in the churchyard at Ditchingham, “the very last stop on my walk through the county of Suffolk” (261). He decides to walk to a pub where he would be able to phone home to be picked up. He considers the park at Ditchingham, which would have been laid out about the time the Vicomte was staying in the area. Most of the trees that were planted then have since disappeared: the elms due to Dutch elm disease, which became endemic in the area in the late 1970s. The crowns of the ash trees and the oak trees are also thinning, and the beeches were suffering from drought. All the poplars had died. And the 1987 hurricane had destroyed an estimated 14 million mature hardwood trees in one night. He recalls his own experience of that storm and its aftermath: without trees in which to roost, the birds disappear, and instead of the dawn chorus and the occasional nightingale in the evenings, “there was now not a living sound” (268).
The final chapter returns to Thomas Browne and his strange book Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita, an imaginary catalogue of objects and antiquities and works of art. Among the objects included are “a number of pieces delineating the worst inhumanities in tortures for the observer” (273) and a cane that was used by two Persian friars to smuggle the first eggs of the silkworm out of China and into the West. The remainder of the chapter is a history of the production of silk from ancient times. He notes that “a great number of people, at least in some places, spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights, and reminiscent of instruments of torture or cages” (282). Not surprisingly, weavers suffered from melancholy, and their eyesight suffered from looking at the complex patterns they were creating. “On the other hand,” Sebald’s narrator continues, “we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced in the factories of Norwich in the decades before the Industrial Revolution began . . . were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by nature itself, like the plumage of birds” (283). One of the master dyers in Germany was Sebald’s namesake, a man named Seybolt—but that’s not the reason for his interest in silk. He watches a documentary about silk production in the Third Reich, a material that would be important “in the dawning era of aerial warfare,” since parachutes were then made of silk (293). Finally, Sebald tells us that he completed writing this book on 13 April 1995. What else happened on that day in history? Among other events, the Amritsar massacre took place in 1919; the war in Europe was drawing to an end in 1945; and it was also the exact day when his father-in-law died. “Now, as I write, and think more about our history, which is but a long account of calamities,” he states, “it occurs to me that at one time the only acceptable expression of profound grief, for ladies of the upper classes, was to wear heavy robes of black silk taffeta or black crêpe de chine” (295-96). I think that might be the reason that silk runs through this book: its importance as mourning wear. But also, Thomas Browne, the son of a silk merchant, noted that it was customary to “drape black mourning ribbons” (presumably made of silk) “over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or 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 for ever” (296). Those are the book’s last words. They are, if not hopeful, at least an expression of the earth’s beauty, which is lost to us when we die. That, I think, is as positive as Sebald gets.
So, The Rings of Saturn is about a walk, yes, but that walk is an opportunity for a meditation on death and destruction—both the result of human agency, and the result of natural forces. It’s many other things as well. If I were to read this book again (and no doubt I will), I would perhaps find other things happening in it. I might, for instance, track every single mention of silk, silkworms, or mulberry trees. I might follow up on the discussions of Borges and Sir Thomas Brown and Edward FitzGerald and Algernon Swinburne. There is so much happening in this strange text, so many layers and levels through which it can be approached. And that can only be a good thing, from my perspective.
This is also the last book on walking that I’ll be writing about, at least for a while. I need to move on to other topics, other areas of my reading list. That’s unfortunate, in a way, because I discover new books about walking almost every day. But it’s time to learn about other things.
Sebald, W.G. Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, Vintage, 2002.
——. The Emigrants, translated by Michael Hulse, New Directions, 1997.
——. The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse, New Directions, 1999.
Smith, Phil. On Walking . . . and Stalking Sebald: A Guide to Going Beyond Wandering Around Looking At Stuff, Triarchy, 2014.