Review: Shannon Burnson W. G. Sebald

The Rings of Saturn: A Lasting Chronicle of Mourning

‘You drive fast,’ Engelhard says. His face is windswept and slightly burnt. The afternoon is hot but the air is fresh. I shrug. ‘But you look well,’ he adds, grabbing my hand. I follow as he lumbers along the thin path to the small stone cottage, aware for the first time of the fragility of his gait. ‘We have planted all of these just this summer,’ he says, making a circular gesture. ‘They are all native. This is why I need to be here so often lately – to water the new plants.’ He breathes labouriously as we walk, but there is something playful in his expression. He seems keen to show me around.

The plants have the look of being almost there. They’re not quite green and moist and not quite brown and dry. He leads me up the path to a tattered wooden door. Inside, the ceiling is low. Engelhard, who is taller than me, can only just stand upright without scraping his head along the panels. He guides me through a hallway on the other side of the kitchen. There is only room enough for us to walk one in front of the other. ‘This part has been extended,’ he says over his shoulder. As he lumbers along he raps his knuckles against the timbre wall, which makes a hollow sound. He directs me into a bedroom and points to an old, framed and faded map. ‘Over a hundred and fifty years ago,’ he says, pointing to the date on the margin. ‘And here we are,’ he adds, running his finger along an unmarked area on the coast of South Australia, near Rapid Bay. ‘Very close, you see?’

I do see.

‘This is where they landed,’ he says, pointing to another spot on the map. ‘Just a small walk from where we are standing. I’ll show you later on.’

We turn back to the hallway. The cottage seems bigger from inside, and I find the shift in perspective dizzying. I gesture for Engelhard to show the way.

He leads us outside the cottage and around the back, carrying a pot of tea in one hand and two small teacups in the other. We settle down on opposite sides of a rickety outside table. Its surface is adorned with black scratchmarks and smears of brown, weathered discolouration.

The year is 2005. We have met to discuss my proposal for postgraduate study, and the prospect of writing a cross-disciplinary thesis on pre-war German literature in translation.

There is a German-language book in the centre of the table. On the front cover, a man is hiking up a narrow country road. The cover is sunbleached and its pages have been warmed by the hot air. Its title, Die Ringe des Saturn, seems incongruous. An eccentric German book, I assume, in keeping with Engelhard’s eclectic tastes. I flick through the pages absentmindedly, until I arrive at the author photo. I study the image closely. Surely enough, there is my host’s moustachioed twin, staring back at me. I have no idea what to make of the resemblance.

‘You should read this book,’ Engelhard says, after slurping down some tea. Then he takes the volume from my hands and waves it in the air.

Winifred Georg Maximilian Sebald — Max to his friends — was born in Wertach, Bavaria, in 1944, during the Second World War, and spent his early years on the German side of the rural, alpine border between Germany and Austria; a place where, he said, the twentieth century only began in the 1960s. He studied at the University of Frieburg before heading to England where he would ultimately spend most of his life teaching, first in Manchester, then in East Anglia where he was a lecturer in German literature, then Chair of European Literature before co-founding the British Centre of Literary Translation. His first book of prose, Vertigo, was published in German in 1990 and in English a decade later; the last book Sebald published while he was alive, Austerlitz, was released in German and English in the same year, in 2001. He wrote his published prose in German but could speak and write in English better than most native speakers. By all accounts Sebald worked closely with the English-language translators of his novels, to the point of adding and excluding whole passages.

Despite his decades away from Germany, Sebald said of his home country (in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel): ‘I know it’s my country… Although of course I come from the edges, as it were, the southern edges of Germany…. I hardly knew Germany… one didn’t travel much in the mid-sixties.’ Sebald knew Freiburg and had been to Munich once or twice. Frankfurt, Hanover and Berlin were, he said, ‘totally alien’ to him. ‘So in a sense,’ he added

it’s not my country. But because of its peculiar history and the bad dive that history took in this century or, to be more precise, from about 1870 onwards, because of that, I feel you can’t simply abdicate and say, well, it’s nothing to do with me. I have inherited that backpack and I have to carry it whether I like it or not.

Speaking of his family’s circumstances during the Nazi years, Sebald told Carole Angier,

I come from a very conventional, Catholic, anti-Communist background. The kind of semi-working class, petit bourgeois background typical of those who supported the fascist regime, who went to war not just blindly but with a degree of enthusiasm.

Since it was first published in Germany twenty years ago, The Rings of Saturn has spawned an enduring wave of critical and creative responses, culminating in Grant Gee’s 2012 documentary Patience (After Sebald) – an eccentric homage. Rings is not a novel in the standard form; it is part travelogue, part memoir, part essay-meditation and part fiction. It’s a riff and an improvisation on found and obsessed-over material, and a close reading of place, territories, time, texts and history. Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘chronicler’—an inventive storyteller who produces speculative and instructive versions of unverifiable histories—applies well to Sebald’s writing. The narrator is a version of Sebald but not quite the same as the flesh-and-blood author, and I suspect, in a paranoid way, that even the photograph of Sebald posing casually in front of a Lebanese cedar, near the end of the chronicle, is in some way distorted—perhaps reversed, as in a mirror image.

Sebald said of The Emigrants, which was published a few years before Rings but shares many of its features:

it’s a form of prose fiction. I imagine it exists more frequently on the European continent than in the Anglo-Saxon world, i.e., dialogue plays hardly any part at all. Everything is related round various corners in a periscopic sort of way. In that sense it doesn’t conform to the patterns that standard fiction has established… But what exactly to call it, I don’t know.

Sebald could be describing his own peculiar nineteenth-century German prose style when he writes in Rings of Thomas Browne:

In common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation.

The archaic diction, complex syntax and Proustian expansiveness of Sebald’s sentences imbues them with the power to produce varying perspectives — bogged down by gravity or rising to dizzying heights. In an interview with Michael Silverblatt, Sebald said of his own prose style:

It’s not of this time. There are hypotactical syntax forms in these sentences which have been abandoned by practically all the writers now for reasons of convenience. Also because simply they are no longer accustomed to it. But if you dip into any form of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century discursive prose—the English essayists, for instance—these forms exist in previous ages of literature and they have simply fallen into disrepair.

Sebald writes about disrepair, erosion and decay in The Rings of Saturn in syntactical forms that are themselves leftovers — ghosts — of a previous time. Sebald ends the first chapter with:

And since the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature, Browne scrutinises that which escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for transmigration he has so often observed in caterpillars and moths. That purple piece of silk he refers to, then, in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean?

Throught the rest of the narrative, Sebald scrutinises a series of ruins or decaying spaces, tracing transmigrations, but also a history of complicity with brutality and destruction. There is no more pertinent example of this than the thread of silk the narrator follows down the ages, like Theseus retracing his steps out of the labyrinth after confronting the Minotaur.

The motif of ‘following the thread’ is stylistically reinforced throughout the chronicle; the hypotactical approach, marked by the repeated use of connecting words between clauses or sentences, builds a series of logical and associative relationships. This produces a kind of momentum from one clause to the next, as well as suspension — momentum via connection and modification; suspension because the final destination of the sentence, its last clause, is required in order to complete its sense. The result is that, as readers we see the thread of the sentence in front of us, and we follow it, but our destination is only apparent once we arrive; and it is only from that final vantage point that we can begin to comprehend the true nature of the journey.

In the narrator’s case, the thread that is supposed to lead him away from the psychological Minotaur instead brings him face-to-face with the monster’s historical double, since a series of brutalities in China, the former Yugoslavia, the Congo and India are associatively linked to the Holocaust. For a German of Sebald’s generation — and, we might add, for anyone who can trace their beginnings to political, social or economic oppression — there is no way out of this labyrinth.

But the labyrinth is not without its pleasures: otherworldly beauty, strangely stimulating coincidence, and of course, magnificently evocative prose are abundant in The Rings of Saturn and provide necessary contrast. As Sebald explained to Silverblatt:

Walter Benjamin at one point says that there is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific. And from that, by extrapolation, one could conclude that perhaps in order to get the full measure of the horrific, one needs to remind the reader of beatific moments in life, because if you existed solely with your imagination in the world of the concentration camps, then you would somehow not be able to sense it. And so it requires that contrast. The old-fashionedness of the diction or of the narrative tone is therefore nothing to do with nostalgia for a better age that’s gone past but is simply something that, as it were, heightens the awareness of that which we have managed to engineer in this century.

Sebald is talking not just about contrast here but perspective; he borrows redundant forms and disused voices in order to perceive and present twentieth-century calamities from a different vantage point.

The labyrinthine structure of the chronicle produces an extraordinary eclecticism and generates a vast web of associations. In a single chapter, Sebald weaves together an account of Joseph Conrad’s early life; the Belgian colonisation of the Congo; Kafka’s uncle’s colonial triumph; the Hague’s financial stain; the narrator’s disgust at contemporary Belgium; the battle of Waterloo and its obscene memorial; Roger Casement’s report on the Congo; South American human rights abuses; the international economy of slavery; and Casement’s fight for Irish independence, his journey to Germany and return in a German submarine, and ultimately his conviction, in an English court, for treason. As the narrator informs us:

In order to pre-empt any petitions for pardon that might have been made by persons of influence, excerpts from what was known as the Black Diary, a kind of chronicle of the accused’s homosexual relations found when Casement’s home was searched, were forwarded to the King of England, the President of the United States, and the Pope.

Casement is executed, and Sebald speculates that the stain on his reputation — his homosexuality — ‘was precisely… what sensitised him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement and destruction, across borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power.’ Casement’s homosexuality is another of Sebald’s marginal vantage points, which serve to sensitise the viewer to cultural and political oppression.

Re-reading The Rings of Saturn ten years after my first encounter with it, I find the opening chapter particularlty striking. It begins in the first person retrospective narrative voice: ‘In August 1992…’—at the end of summer, moving into Autumn— ‘…when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the country of Suffolk…’ ‘Dog Days’ already provides a symbol to work with: it is a time of evil-omen and unpredictable weather, when natural destruction is customarily expected. Further down the page another temporal setting is introduced: the narrator, we learn, was admitted to hospital a year to the day after beginning his walking tour. The anniversary coincides with his ‘almost total immobility’, and the memory of his walking tour is mediated by this anniversary experience. He says that he ‘became 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.’

While the narrator initially informs us, ‘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,’ this is not the impression we have of the narrator’s trek while reading The Rings of Saturn. What is published is far from carefree. Sebald writes:

At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also 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.

What begins as a carefree walk seems heavily influenced by subsequent experience: the sense of a dimming world as he awaits surgery, paralysed, a year later, and more besides.

With the next shift in time—only a page later—the narrator situates us in the present: ‘Now that I begin to assemble my notes,’ he writes, ‘more than a year after my discharge from hospital’— we’re now positioned sometime after April, perhaps in the Autumnal, melancholy season— ‘I cannot help thinking of Michael Parkinson who was, as I stood watching the city fade into the dying light still alive in his small house in Portersfield Road…’ The Parkinson sketched by the narrator is a solitary, good-natured bachelor beset with academic pressures. He continues: ‘But then last May Michael, who had not been seen for some days, was found dead in his bed, lying on his side and already quite rigid, his face curiously mottled with red blotches.’ We read on: ‘The inquest concluded that he had died of unknown causes, a verdict to which I added the words, in the deep dark hours of the night.’  The narrator seems to believe that Michael committed suicide. This is significant, even though it’s glossed over. Anyone who has known someone who committed suicide will know that this is the way with suicides: their absence is profound, the effect of the act immense, but their death can only be glossed over. There is a conspiracy of silence around their absence; and the grievousness of Michael’s departure, for the narrator, is only compounded by the death of Janine, a Flaubert scholar, from cancer a few weeks later. The narrator identifies with Janine as much as with Parkinson, if not more; he too is ‘guided by a fascination for obscure detail rather than by the self-evident.’ It seems that the narrator has spent a great deal of time with Janine, discussing Flaubert and observing the shifting tectonic plates of her paper-laden office.

An unusual image, in the context of the broader narrative, emerges here. We read: ‘And it occurred to me that at dusk, when all of this paper seemed to gather into itself the pallor of the fading light, it was like the snow in the fields, long ago, beneath the ink black sky.’ So the narrator — a kind of mirror-image Sebald — perceives in Janine’s enclosed room a connection with his distant childhood in the Bavarian Alps. The image therefore suggests that these two scholar-innocents are hazily linked, in his mind, to the narrator’s own childhood, cordoned off from history and contemporary life. Sebald continues, ‘Once when I remarked that sitting there amidst her papers she resembled the angel in Duhrer’s Melancholia, steadfast among the instruments of destruction…’ Janine, for whatever reason, has taken on this quality of assuredness in the face of the chaos that surrounds her; and Michael seems to have occupied a similar symbolic function — one of refuge from dark, contemporary forces — in the narrator’s consciousness.

Sebald offers no anguished expressions of despair about their sudden demise. There are no exclamation marks, no thumping the table, no serious effort to personalise their absence or to evoke, in a direct way, the effect that their loss has had on the narrator. Yet, if we attend to these early pages closely, we can’t help but register the significance of these losses; it does, in fact, seem to be a primary point of mediation between the carefree initial experience of the walk and the deeply melancholic version that we read, terminating in a meditation on mourning and mourning attire in the final section. It is arguable, therefore, that The Rings of Saturn is a mental revision of a pleasant walking tour of Suffolk, as seen through a glass, darkly.

The next major mediating presence in the chronicle, or fog in the mirror, is Thomas Browne, the son of a silk merchant, the melancholy essayist who may have once witnessed the gruesome dissection of the thief, Aris Kindt, ‘before a paying public drawn from the upper classes,’ as represented by Rembrandt in his painting of the Guild of Surgeons — capturing, as Sebald has it — by way of a genealogical method akin to Foucault’s, ‘a demonstration of the undaunted investigative zeal in the new sciences; but,’ he continues, ‘it also represented (though this surely would have been refuted) the archaic ritual of dismembering a corpse, of harrowing the flesh of the delinquent even beyond death, a procedure then still part of the ordained punishment.’ The underside of scientific progress is presented as medieval punishment played out almost unconsciously, just as the underside of artistic production is shown to be the working-to-death of Congolese slaves in far-off Africa for the sugar and rubber industry.

Rembrandt Harmensz
Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 216.5 cm × 169.5 cm.

None of the figures in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) look at the body before them: ‘Though the body is open to contemplation, it is, in a sense, excluded, and in the same way the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real.’ Sebald then teases out the distortions—including the distorted hand—in his analysis of the painting. Rembrandt alone, we are told, ‘sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man’s eyes.’ Sebald here re-establishes the motif of perspective:

We have no evidence to tell us from which angle Thomas Browne watched the dissection, if, as I believe, he was among the onlookers in the anatomy theatre in Amsterdam, or indeed what he might have seen there. Perhaps, as Browne says in a later note about the great fog that shrouded large parts of England and Holland on the 27th of November 1674, it was the white mist that rises from within a body opened presently after death, and which during our lifetime, so he adds, clouds our brain when asleep and dreaming.

The fog, then, distorts our view in a way symbolically linked to mortality. Sebald continues: ‘I still recall how my own consciousness was veiled by the same sort of fog as I lay in my hospital room once more after surgery late in the evening.’ In the next page the narrator recalls the sensation of waking in the hospital, ‘and, as the first light brightened the sky, I saw the vapour trail cross the segment framed by window’ – another kind of fog, which is first registered as a good omen, but appears different under the retrospective lens: ‘but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life.’ The question is: What could he possibly be referring to? What is the fissure?

There’s no sure answer, but within the dramatic scope of this narrative, the deaths of Michael and Janine, occurring between his surgery and the process of assembling his notes for the chronicle, mark the elaboration, at least, of the narrator’s fissure; their deaths cast a particular fog over his world, his memory, and his experience, and from this point on the dominant mode is melancholy edging towards despair. In a foreword to one of his collections of essays on Austrian literature, Sebald wrote of the melancholic literary mode:

melancholy, the contemplation of the movement of misfortune, has nothing in common with the wish to die. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so at the level of art, where it is anything but reactive or reactionary. When, with rigid gaze, it [melancholy] goes over again just how things could have happened, it becomes clear that the dynamic of inconsolability and that of knowledge are identical in their execution. The description of misfortune includes within itself the possibility of its own overcoming.

The Rings of Saturn is work of oblique mourning, encountering its object again and again in distorted forms. All of Sebald’s hobbyists and scholars, all the images of desolation and depopulation, are presented in a melancholic register, crisscrossing through space and history yet framed by the narrative’s beginning and end: the premature death of two colleagues, as ‘Sebald’ begins to write in 1994, and the Holocaust that marked him at birth, folding over and rearing its head as the narrator completes his chronicle on April 13, 1995.

The Rings of Saturn is weighted by and hearkens to twentieth-century brutality; it moves within its gravitational pull like ice-crystals around Saturn. The Holocaust is glimpsed through symbolic associations and multivalent stand-ins for the thing itself. Quoting from Browne’s Urn Burial, Sebald’s narrator tells us that ‘[t]he winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us’. Sebald here evokes a beautiful and melancholy sense of the fragility of worldly light. He is concerned with the history and qualities of luminosity throughout, but he is also concerned with the manner with which all things of this world take on a spectral aspect, even as they live, by dint of their fragility in the face of natural and manmade destruction.

The narrator tells the story of Joseph Conrad’s unfortunate father, who upon the death of his wife ‘had burnt all of his own manuscripts in the fireplace. At times, when he did so, a weightless flake of soot ash like a scrap of black silk would drift through the room, borne up on the air, before sinking to the floor somewhere or dissolving into the dark.’ Like Browne’s ash, Sebald’s is enfolded in the gloom.

At the end of Rings, the narrator informs us that the Nazis were responsible for reviving the faltering sericulture industry in Germany. Such is the silken spiral of chronicle, and it leads ultimately to the camps, where the ash, silk, burials, and brutal experiments on animals (and implicitly, of course, on humans) all merge. Sericulture was advocated in Nazi Germany, says the narrator, on the grounds that silkworms

[c]ould be used [in classrooms] to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to pre-empt racial degeneration.

Sericulture is encouraged as a method for illustrating the manner with which humans are like, and can and should be treated like, insects.  The ‘extermination to pre-empt racial degeneration’ is one of the least disguised references to the Holocaust in Sebald’s novel, and the fact that silk and sericulture leads us down into the gas chambers at last seems the primary thematic connection between silk and ash in the text.

Images of ash point to the world that was lost after Auschwitz, while silk evokes the world that made Auschwitz possible. ‘Silk’ is one of Sebald’s symbols of ‘progress’ and ‘destruction’; it’s linked to the tyranny of mutilating labour (recall the image of the silk weaver strapped into his machine) and melancholy (recall the hunched silk-weaver’s susceptibility to depression). Ash, on the other hand, invokes an ambiguous world existing beneath, and perhaps beyond destruction.

But there is another symbolic function for silk, registered in the final pages of the chronicle, when it becomes part of the mourning process—mourning, by this time, for the whole calamitous history of colonisation and conflict. The last image is extraordinary; it is a simultaneous expression of release and loss, and it frames the whole novel, pointing back to the grief of the first chapter:

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the 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 all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the 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 forever.

A work of melancholic repetition and despair is here, arguably, transformed into a work of mourning. The paralysis that has threatened to overtake the narrator from the opening paragraphs is cast aside—the dark mirror is veiled—and the suffocating, exhausted reader can, at this very last moment, take a breath. The final clause is established, the spell is over, and the suspension has passed. But what is lost in this release can never be recovered.

Works Cited

Eric Santer, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (University of Chicago, 2006).
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse (Vintage 2002).
–  The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (Vintage 2002).
Lynne Sharon Shwartz (ed.), The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W.G. Sebald (Seven Stories, 2007).
– Carol Angier, Who is W.G. Sebald? (interview).
– Michael Silverblatt, A Poem of an Invisible Subject (interview).
– Eleanor Wachtel, Ghost Hunter (interview).