The Rings of Saturn
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse
New Directions, 296 pp., $23.95
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. The words with which W.G. Sebald closes the first tale of The Emigrants, a volume of four tales published less than two years ago, have, like everything else Sebald writes, a somber, cadenced, liturgical sound to them. They evoke resigned Old World languor, and something else as well, which isn’t lodged in the words themselves but in their tonality, and which hovers above them like the echo of Old Country speak, where people still put the subject at the tail end of a sentence—because that too is typical of Sebald’s prose as it is brilliantly rendered by the poet and translator Michael Hulse: it slips back to the melancholy inflections of the late Victorians, as though stirred by their nostalgia, only to come back staring at us from an unsuspected vantage point that is decades ahead of the Victorians and—it takes a chilling moment to realize—ahead of us as well. It is poised in the third millennium, startled, spectral.
Sebald, who is himself an emigrant from his native Germany and has been Professor of German at the University of East Anglia since 1986, takes us into what we initially thought was going to be a short stroll among the obsolete flavors in grandma’s spice rack; what The Rings of Saturn is, actually, is a protracted visit to purgatory, except that here Dante, like the lonely eccentrics in all four of The Emigrants‘ tales, never comes back in one piece, and certainly never quite among the living. The cover of The Emigrants appropriately portrays a yew tree; it is the tree of the dead. And the dead, as is always the case with Sebald’s emigrants, are not necessarily those who died. They are the survivors—most notably from the Holocaust.
In Sebald’s tales the Holocaust doesn’t just continue to haunt its survivors, it does something worse: it hunts them down, the way World War II, or World War I, for that matter, is always just behind those who survived it. These twentieth-century cataclysms continue to exact their toll every day, because history, Sebald reminds us, is not only too stupid to forget, or too mean to forgive, but because it keeps returning, again and again. Human history is a perpetual spiral of depressingly limited episodes. Everything in Sebald comes back. And what makes these returns so tragic is that there is no telling whether theirs is a pattern without purpose or chaos with a method. Saturn completes its cycle around the sun approximately every thirty years. Meanwhile, everyone is distracted by its rings, its moons, and their seeming harmonies, when, in fact, “the rings of Saturn,” says the epigraph to The Rings of Saturn, are “in all likelihood…fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” History, no matter how often it comes back, is always about rubble and the piling up of stones. It aches for extinction.
The opening tale of The Emigrants, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” should be told here, because it sets the tone for the two books Sebald has published in English. In it, a narrator (Sebald) and his companion—a certain Clara, who mysteriously reappears on the penultimate page of The Rings of Saturn—are new lodgers in the house of a retired English gentleman in Norwich. This landed doctor, who is a bit strange, seems affected by depression but is not dysfunctional. He has led a successful life as a doctor and now tends to his house, which, as the reader finds soon enough, is totally run down. But no one seems to care, not the solitary Briton, nor Elli, his wife, from whom he seems totally estranged, nor Elaine the maid, who flits in and out of the story without purpose. No real friendship develops between the tenants and the landowner, though something of a strained informality does blossom.
The tenants are invited to dinner one evening. The mistress of the house is absent, as is her wont, but in her place is a guest, a Mr. Elliott. After dinner, Selwyn begins to tell his guests of his friendship with a sixty-five-year-old Swiss mountain guide named Johannes Naegeli during the years immediately preceding World War I. Naegeli and he had become very close, and there is a hint of something undisclosed, if only because their separation in 1913 proved to be quite traumatic for the young Selwyn—though, there again, Sebald’s language is characteristically cryptic and unemotional and prevents us from drawing any conclusions. The two never meet again, for Naegeli disappeared one day, and “it was assumed that he had fallen in a crevasse in the Aare glacier.” Young Selwyn was devastated by the news. “It was as if I were buried under snow and ice.” “But this is an old story,” he adds, trying to check an access of emotion. The reader, meanwhile, has also been told that the memory of Naegeli “comes to [Selwyn’s] mind” more than ever now, fifty-seven years later.
Later on after the couple moves out of the Selwyn residence to a house nearby, Henry Selwyn decides to drop in for a visit. In the course of their conversation, he asks Sebald whether he is ever homesick. The narrator, true to form, “cannot think of any adequate reply,” whereupon Selwyn begins to confess that, in recent times, he has been prey to homesickness. Suddenly comes another revelation from the past, spoken almost as an afterthought.
The doctor, it turns out, is not really an Englishman, but comes from a small village in Lithuania. Again, nothing is stated overtly, but it becomes clear that Selwyn’s family, whose name is not Selwyn but Serewyn and which emigrated at the turn of the century, is Jewish. The move to England took place long before the Holocaust, and therefore the Holocaust as it affects Dr. Selwyn’s life is irrelevant—except that, given the novel’s focus on other death camp rescapés, the Holocaust casts a retroactive shadow over Selwyn’s life as well: he may have avoided it and it may be of no consequence to him, but the Holocaust would doubtless have found him had he not left Lithuania. The narrator knows as much, though he doesn’t say anything—and it is ultimately in this counterfactual key that the story is told: with disquieting and deliberate sobriety, but with the eerie sense that the correct tense to tell of these could-have-beens-that-never-really-w ere-but-aren’t-unreal-for-never-having-been may not exist. Supremely tactful, Sebald never brings up the Holocaust. The reader, meanwhile, thinks of nothing else.
Follows another bombshell. Upon leaving Lithuania, the Serewyns had hoped to land in America. But, thinking they had arrived in New York, they inadvertently got off the ship in England. When they realized their mistake, the ship had long since cast off again. Young Hersch Serewyn becomes an Englishman by default. If one could speak of counterfactual selves, it is no longer clear which of the following three is the real Selwyn: the one who belongs to Lithuania, the one who should have gone to America, or the one who ended up in England?
By now, and in typical Sebaldian fashion, the above strands of the stories, each already twisted and twined with unrealized possibilities, are themselves braided together. The Swiss mountain guide, Selwyn’s Jewish roots, the landing in England, all are red herrings—but, let us just grant, of such red herrings lives are made. In fact, all of Sebald’s characters, not just Dr. Selwyn, live out these thoroughly unintended lives. For no life ever ends up being the one originally scripted, and, with time, it seems all lives go to waste, and everyone longs for the end. In Sebald’s universe, the building blocks of life are not love, not truth, not fate, not friendship, not even pleasure or suffering. Life stories happen to other people. Here the units of life are depletion, longevity, and unremitting loneliness. The combination is not lethal, but it kills you where it matters—for the arsenic here is a daily dose of “permanent disquiet,” which is how Sebald defines time, or “a kind of dumbness,” which is how he defines memory.
Fourth Act. While vacationing in France that same year, Selwyn’s former tenant suddenly hears that the doctor has committed suicide by using his rifle.
The final revelation comes fifteen years later. Sebald is traveling in Switzerland and it is late July 1986, and he begins to remember Dr. Selwyn. For “certain things…have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” The narrator is on a train and accidentally spots an article in that day’s newspaper, which reports that “the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later.”
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. The body that was lost during the summer just before the start of World War I has finally been recovered—or released—long after the war has become a hazy memory, long after its dead have decomposed, as have the bodies of those who lived through that war only to perish in the next. And yet the frozen body suggests that the Great War couldn’t have taken place so long ago, that certain objects, bodies, buildings, stories, memories have ways of enduring or of crossing time zones, and, like unexploded land mines, lie in wait, leering ironies that remind us not just that irony is one of the many masks that death wears among the living, but that irony is the most tragic and unwieldy figure of all, belying our hopeless attempts to understand things before they backfire on us. In a world where there is no Providence, the only indicators that some sort of cosmic intelligence has been guiding our lives are precisely these daily accidents and red herrings.
What could be the meaning behind Naegeli’s reappearance? And is there a meaning in the fact that it took the most inadvertent glimpse at a newspaper to let the narrator suddenly piece Dr. Selwyn’s life together, linking an event in Switzerland in 1986 with a story told sixteen years earlier in England, about a man who had died in Switzerland in 1914?
“Dr. Henry Selwyn” cannot have a meaning, inasmuch as any meaning pales compared to the magnitude of the questions such a story raises. To aestheticize not only means to give luster, distance, and form to things that are otherwise murky and ineffable; it is also how an author substitutes for the real answer the best answer, provided his answers are mandated by the form of the work in which the questions arose. A great work is often an ideological failure; but it remains great because the answers that it gives are entirely beholden to its form. Mann knew this, as did Joyce, Proust, and Svevo. And the Book of Job, probably the most poorly argued defense of God, knew it best of all. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead is “poetic” for the very reason that it fails to offer a satisfactory explanation but puts forth languor and resignation as the only plausible substitute.