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Out of Novemberland

Naegeli, the friend, Elli, the wife, Elaine, the maid, Elliott, the friend—their names are almost the same, the way the names in Elective Affinities are almost the same (Otto, Charlotte, Ottilie). Naegeli’s body turns up seventy-two years after it disappeared; Dr. Selwyn dies seventy-two years after leaving Lithuania. Is there a connection? And could such a connection mean anything? Henry Selwyn, the man who shows off his gun, ends up taking his own life with it. Another character, Ambros Adelwarth, having once taken his friend to an asylum, finds his own way back to that same asylum years later, where he’ll die as well. Does this mean anything, or do these symmetries merely indicate a tormented mind whose only way of groping in the dark is by seeking elective affinities and eternal returns everywhere, because there is nothing else to go by? “The ghosts of repetition,” Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “haunt me with ever greater frequency.”

Goethe, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard are likely suspects here, as are Nabokov and Borges, and in good part Georges Perec and Joyce. But it is Sir Thomas Browne who is Sebald’s Virgil in The Rings of Saturn. Browne was born on October 19, 1605, and died on October 19, 1682. His life came full circle, and as such—by another coincidence—epitomizes the sign of Saturn, under which he was born and whose emblem is—coincidentally, again—a snake biting its own tail. Indeed, in “A Letter to a Friend upon the Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend,” Browne already marveled at the implied symmetry of dying on one’s own birthday. “That the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should wind upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence.” A remarkable coincidence it is indeed, especially since Browne is alluding to Saturn, and therefore probably to himself and his own death—but twenty-five years before the fact. Did Browne plan the day of his death as “symmetrically” as do Sebald’s other characters? Or do things simply spiral in and around each other? And what kind of affinities do spiraling coincidences imply?

The Rings of Saturn reproduces a page from Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus where Browne explores the mysteries of the quincunx—a five-point pattern which Browne detected everywhere and which, he enjoyed thinking, could easily be the numerical coding behind all creation. Thus, if for Galileo—the first to observe the rings of Saturn—God spoke in numbers, for Browne the number was five. Incidentally, Dr. Johnson had little patience for this sort of thing and, despite his admiration for Browne, thought the latter was so resolved on discovering quincunxes that sure enough he “seldom searches long in vain, he finds his favorite figure in almost everything.”

Sebald too finds elective affinities everywhere: in the fact that he lives in East Anglia, which is where Thomas Browne had practiced as a physician three centuries earlier; or that Browne’s skull had indeed been stored in that selfsame hospital where Se-bald convalesced from a strange illness. Both men, it turns out, see the universe as a series of overlapping secondary and tertiary “dimensions” that, once in a while, and for no apparent reason, cross over onto each other like displaced tectonic plates. One can never say “which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist.”

The journey is endless, and, no matter how far you stray from one time zone to the next, or migrate from one country to the other, you either find you haven’t really budged at all, or that you’ve taken the wrong boat, or, as in The Emigrants, that you’ve missed that boat, or, as happens in The Rings of Saturn, that you keep running into yourself coming back from the journey on which you’re still heading out.


Sebald opens The Rings of Saturn by narrating how, in the dog days of 1992, he “set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a stint of work.” He will, on the last few pages, close the novel on the 13th of April, 1995. Meanwhile Sebald collapses “a year to the day [my italics] after I began my tour.” He is rushed to the hospital in Norwich, and from there the mind of the writer-narrator begins to drift from one thing to the next, weaving an elaborate skein of associations drawn from his walking tour, his readings, ruminations, dreams, and memories of previous tours in Belgium, Holland, and Ireland, to produce a three-hundred-page spiraling essai noir that is as much a pilgrimage, a memoir, a novel, a poème en prose, as it is a rambling digression that has moments of stunning beauty, quiet introspection, and, it should be said, exasperating tedium.

The names of the stations in Sebald’s Dantesque slippage from “one circle to the next” are located in Norfolk, in East Anglia. They are places whose names alone convey the stultifying monotony of a sunless afternoon tea: Somerleyton, Walberswick, Dunwich, Middleton, Bredfield, Boulge Park, Woodbridge, Orford, Yoxford, and Ditchingham. As Sebald remembers stopping at each town, he draws from a huge mine of readings and associations that include Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, the Dowager Empress, Swinburne, Chateaubriand, Edward Fitzgerald, and Michael Hamburger, with passing mention of Madame de Sévigné, Malibran, Hölderlin, Kurt Waldheim, General Gordon, etc. In the interim we learn about the mysterious sea routes of herring, the annals of silk culture, the destruction of the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan, sea battles, the incorrect position of the hand making the incision in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, the building of a small-scale model of the Temple in Jerusalem, the buzz of flies over a city filled with corpses.

The narrator’s mind is running wild with associations, and—we’ve already been warned by the book’s epigraph—everything in these pages is, after all, a “fragment of a former moon.”

It is not exactly clear what has occasioned the narrator’s collapse: anxiety, panic, tedium, vertigo. (Vertigo, incidentally, will be the title of Sebald’s forthcoming book.) This feeling of voidism is not unfamiliar in The Emigrants, where all four principal characters waste away from sorrow and weariness. In The Rings of Saturn too, both Sebald and the men he muses about are frequently seized by feelings of “wretchedness” and “unworthiness,” “traumatic fever,” “deep…distress,” “inner coldness and desolation”:

I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me—all this became oppressive and unnerving. I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out.

There is quite a bit of this in The Rings of Saturn, and it grows progressively more leaden—which isn’t surprising, since lead is the metal associated with the planet Saturn. “At my Nativity,” writes Browne in Religio Medici, “my ascendant was the water signe of Scorpius, I was borne in the Planetary hour of Saturn, and I think I have a piece of that Leaden Planet in me.”

Landscapes in both of Sebald’s novels are always a leaden gray, streets are forever void of people, the narrator is regularly about to swoon, and people sink psychologically the way landscapes gradually founder underground and undersea. What juts out on boundless marshlands are abandoned factories, while emptied martello towers and collapsed jetties and wharves line the gray waterfronts of a country that Michael Hamburger, whom Sebald so beautifully evokes in The Rings of Saturn, would have called Novemberland. The world, but for Sebald the promeneur solitaire and the few eccentrics who remain in it, is in a state of near rigor mortis. Even the black-and-white photos that accompany the text of both of Sebald’s novels cast an intentionally bituminous shade, where air, buildings, sites, people, fish, down to the economy, are depressed. “This, I thought, will be what is left after the earth has ground itself down.” “The remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.”

We get it, we get it.

If it was a moral crisis that stopped Dante in his tracks, the equivalent for Sebald is depression—psychological, cultural, historical. “Depressed” may sound a bit too raw and clinical in such a veiled and allusive work; more suitable might be the archaic adjective “saturnine,” which the OED defines as “sluggish, cold, and gloomy.” This crisis immediately happens toward the end of the dog days, in the month of August, a season, according to Browne’s own essay “Of the Canicular or Dog-Days,” that “is commonly termed the physician’s vacation…. [D]uring those days all medication or use of physick is to be declined, and the cure committed unto nature….”

Depression is pervasive and has as much to do with the narrator’s personal life (of which we’re told nothing) as with the sinister state of the things around him. We had already caught similar glimpses of the decline of the West in The Emigrants, where what were once luxury pre-war mansions turn into lurid buildings. Once again now, in The Rings of Saturn, Sebald finds himself visiting erstwhile ritzy hotels where the maître d’, bellhop, cook, and waiter happen to be one and the same tired, listless soul. The topography is hollowed of people.

Here is more of the same from The Rings of Saturn:

The train ground into motion again and disappeared round a gradual bend, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it. There was no station at the stop, only an open shelter. I walked down the deserted platform, to my left the seemingly endless expanses of the marshes and to my right, beyond a low brick wall, the shrubs and trees of the park. There was not a soul about….

Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable.

Sebald not only depicts a world in pieces, but his tale as well is made up of scattered pieces, whirling around a center that doesn’t hold. A fragmented tale, as modernist aesthetics has been drumming for almost a century now, is the necessary consequence of a fragmented world. Such a tale doesn’t have a meaning, not just because it really has as many meanings as there are atoms on a page, but because its one overarching meaning is that meaning itself is an obsolete concept. What keeps the fragments together here is an arbitrarily associative aesthetic, where, in essence, anything goes. The journey and transmigrations through East Anglia, through time, through strands and layers and various authors, merely underscore the unstitched character of Sebald’s narrative. He soars and sinks in an intellectual vertigo, because the guiding prin-ciple here is at once oneiric and whimsical. Everything fits. Because nothing ever does. Just as in dreams.

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