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The Rings of Saturn
W. G. Sebald
Translated by Michael Hulse
New Directions, $23.95

by Edwin Frank

W. G. Sebald is a German writer long resident in England. He has written poetry, criticism, and over the last decade or so, three novels, for which he has been rewarded several prestigious German literary prizes. The Rings of Saturn, just published in English translation, is his most recent book. An earlier work, The Emigrants, appeared in this country two years ago, when it was greeted in almost rapturous fashion.

Sebald's subject in The Emigrants--the Holocaust--has long seemed as exhausted as it remains painful. Sebald renews it through a peculiarly indirect approach: in telling the stories of four people whose lives had been caught in the Nazi mangle, he does not so much revisit wartime horrors as suggest something of their incalculable but still devastating after-effects. Sebald's subjects are people who have not been only spared the Holocaust but who, all things considered, could be said to be lucky--people nearly passed over by terrible history. Yet after the war they find themselves in a world rendered unrecognizable, indeed unendurable by that very experience. Two end as suicides, one goes mad. In The Emigrantsmemory has been compromised, destroyed in a sense, by being turned into a condition of unappeasable remorse; there is no right way either to turn away from or to acknowledge the horror of what has gone before.

In various ways, then, that book was a story of haunting, a ghost story in a sense, and true to the conventions of that genre, Sebald went out of his way to substantiate its reality. The tone was measured, the descriptions exact; photographs scattered throughout even gave the appearance of a work of documentation (their presence, though, proved disconcerting; identified, if at all, only in passing, the photographs suggested experience's elusiveness as much as its indelibility). At the same time, the book insisted on its status as fiction: unlikely, seemingly impossible correspondences existed between its different parts--most notably a recurrent sighting by the various characters of a Russian with a butterfly net whom the reader recognized as Nabokov, a refugee from terror turned master of invention--that gave the whole a quality of very conscious artifice. For all the grim facts in its background (how are we to take those photographs?), the book had a weirdly chimerical character. Poignantly, Sebald reminded the reader that the dead, the murdered, have no life except in the imagination--though it remains helpless to do anything except reaffirm the reality of their loss.

The Emigrantswas artfully conceived to reflect the limits of its own concern. It was also beautifully written, in long gradually disgressive paragraphs that suggested quiet attention, someone gathering his thoughts. So too is The Rings of Saturn,a book most simply described as an account of a walking tour the author took some years ago in the English county of East Anglia, at the end of which--though this is explained at the beginning of the book--he suffered a nervous collapse. The book tracks the itinerary of that journey (again, photographs are included, giving it the slightly naive aspect of a travel album) and speaks of things seen and people met along the way, while including a range of memories and reflections that have suggested themselves in retrospect. Though the whole arrangement seems rather happenstance to begin with, it has the relentless unity of obsession.

The book is, as the title announces, a study in melancholy. Taking its keynote from the "Hydriotaphia, or Urne Buriall," of Sir Thomas Browne--the extraordinary baroque disquisition which the seventeenth-century physician and essayist, himself a native of East Anglia, wrote in response to the local discovery of an unidentified ancient gravesite--The Rings of Saturnis a meditation on historical loss and the possibly restorative powers of art. Above all, it is a rumination on the mysterious community of the living and the dead.

True to its origin, the book is rambling affair. Sebald recounts the rise and fall of great houses and communities; he considers the lives of a variety of literary figures at one time or another resident in East Anglia, among them Browne, Swinburne, Edward Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Michael Hamburger, and Chateaubriand. He speaks of such historical figures as Roger Casement and the terrible Dowager Empress of nineteenth-century China. Economic growth and decline fascinates Sebald, and so he discourses on the changing fortunes of the herring industry, once a mainstay of England's North Sea communities, and turns at various points in the book to the subject of the international silk industry. He visits a man who has devoted years of his life to constructing a perfect replica of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (an episode that, like much else in the book, echoes The Emigrants, where the painter Max Ferber describes a childhood meeting with a Jewish itinerant who went from ghetto to ghetto exhibiting such a model: "And I, said Ferber, bent down over the diminutive temple and realized, for the first time in my life, what a true work of art looks like.")

The book is full of strange matter: Sebald records, for example, a 19th-century scientific proposal to turn the phosphorescence of dead herring into a means of urban illumination. But as it proceeds the simple recitation of numbers marks, as it were, a bass line of factual horror: "the Kozara campaign against Tito's partisans . . . in the course of which between sixty and ninety thousand people were killed in so-called acts of war"; "in some parts of the Congo, the indigenous peoples were all but eradicated . . . Every year from 1890 to 1900, an estimated five hundred thousand of these nameless victims . . . lost their lives"; "the Taiping rebellion . . . more than twenty million died in just fifteen years"; and so on. In Sebald's hyperbolic, though all too matter-of-fact, elaboration on Browne's theme, a single English county turns out to contain an inconceivable world of devastation.

For all that, the book's tenor is muted. Sebald is strangely removed from the ruin he obsessively envisions and combs over:

The small propeller plane that services the route from Amsterdam to Norwich first climbed toward the sun before turning west. Spread out beneath us lay one of the most densely-populated regions in Europe, with endless terraces, sprawling satellite towns, business parks and shining glass houses which looked like large quadrangular ice floes drifting across this corner of the continent where no patch is left to its own devices. Over the centuries the land has been regulated, cultivated and built on until the whole region was transformed into geometrical pattern. The roads, water channels and railway tracks ran in straight lines and gentle curves past fields and plantations, basins and reservoirs. Like beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity, cars glided along the lanes of the motorways, while the ships moving up and down river appeared as if they had been halted for ever. Embedded in this even fabric lay a manor surrounded by its park, the relic of an earlier age. I watched the shadow of the plane hastening below us across hedges and fences, rows of poplars and canals. Along a line that seemed to have been drawn with a ruler a tractor crawled toward a field of stubble, dividing it into one lighter and one darker half. Nowhere, however, was a single human being to be seen. No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphis after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as if there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding.

Though later, visiting a panoramic depiction of the battle of Waterloo, this remove becomes an object of moral scrutiny:

This then, I thought, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

But then, given the impossibility of any uncompromised or just view of history, withdrawal is in a sense the only option. To that extent the frozen planet of melancholy, whose rings, as Sebald's epigraph notes, are composed of the rubble of a destroyed moon, becomes a kind of haven from earthly terror.

Whether such a distancing from suffering is meant to be resisted as a temptation or simply conceded as a necessity is unclear. Nonetheless, lacking the substantial interest in other people's lives that sustained The Emigrants, Sebald's new book reveals a tendency to luxuriate in sorrow--an off-putting, and very German, mixture of solemnity and sentimentality. Sebald seems to reproach himself for something like this though when he remembers an earlier visit to the German shrine of his patron saint, who performed the miracle of making a fire from icicles:

This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one's wretched heart is still aglow.

And yet for all that The Rings of Saturnalso displays a frightening, almost inhuman, conviction. Sir Thomas Browne, Sebald notes at the beginning of the book, remarks on the fabled survival, over the centuries, of a piece of silk in the urn of Patroclus, for Browne a "symbol of the indestructibility of the human soul as assured by scripture." Silk and its manufacture, as I have said, is an ongoing preoccupation throughout the book. Echoing Browne, this symbolizes the curious inter-relation of the corrupt and the incorruptible; equally it is a metaphor for how the book itself weaves separate threads into its singular substance. At the end, however, the theme is simply funereal.

[Browne] remarks in a passage of the "Pseudodoxia Epidemica" that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, 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 forever.

I do not know how to read this except as the book disowning itself, observing, as best it can, the decencies of mourning with a gesture towards the renunciation not only of memory, but of experience itself.

The Rings of Saturnis an enigmatic, obsessive, fascinating, sometimes beautiful book. A successor to The Emigrants, it is in many ways a less satisfying work. But then it is not clear that it is meant to satisfy. The earlier book, Sebald now seems to be saying, offered too much comfort. And yet what he is up to here seems to be larger, and stranger, than an act of revision. For on the far side of remorse, anger, sorrow, hope, sympathy--the whole errant scope of human concern--he appears to propose, even prescribe, a more radical affiliation. Against the violent legacies of nations and the relentless self-approbation of the living, he refers us to the silent community, the perfect deprivation, of the dead. This is a very ancient idea. It shows the reach and limit of Sebald's imagination that today we can hardly say what it means.

Originally published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Boston Review

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