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Out of Novemberland

Ironically, though connections in Sebald are tenuous, hallucinatory, they can also be disconcertingly forced. A man wielding a knife in the streets of The Hague disturbs Sebald so much that he finds himself unable to concentrate on Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson the next day. The connection between the two is, of course, the sharp instrument. But this instrument also allows Sebald to bridge one subject to the other. Thoughts about Africa and Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad and the building of the Belgian Congo Railway drift to Belgium, then to the battle of Waterloo, whose site Sebald remembers visiting, and then to a small restaurant not far from the battlefield, where Sebald, thinking of Stendhal’s young hero Fabrizio del Dongo at Waterloo, observes a hunchbacked pensioner wearing a woolen cap and a winter coat and thinks to himself: “She would have been born, it occurs to me now, at about the time that the Congo railway was completed.” This slippery reflection allows Sebald to resume his earlier discus-sion of Casement and Conrad, but the transition is flimsy, tendentious, heavy-handed.

And yet. For all its variety, The Rings of Saturn is not just about history or about memory or about time or even about depression. Nor is it about intertextuality or, for that matter, silk commerce and herring routes. It may not be about the rise-and-fall, come-and-go view that history is a zero-sum game where yesterday’s sceptered isle can easily turn into tomorrow’s scrap-metal wasteland. Rather, The Rings of Saturn is about Sebald. All the rest is tangential, if we accept that he will always be portrayed tangentially, because it is not his portrait he is exactly after either.

The Rings of Saturn, perplexing, turgid, and unreadable book that it so frequently is, is saddled with a problem it cannot resolve or even address: that of the dislodged identity. In The Emigrants, Sebald had already caught the essence of the displaced soul, of the displaced person, as survivors of the Holocaust were referred to after the war. Yet, as in The Emigrants, in The Rings of Saturn his fundamental concern is not so much with exile, or transmigration, as it is a long meditation on the subject of displacement, from one’s times, one’s society, and ultimately—this is the hardest to articulate—from oneself.

Sebald is always elsewhere, as he is always from elsewhere. Identity is an alibi. Sebald is swirling around himself, as he is around his adopted England and his native Germany, around his career as a writer, a scholar, around his fate as a German writing about Jews outside Germany, around his life as a reader of books who, like Montaigne, Burton, and Browne, is so thoroughly woven into what he’s read that he is no longer able to think about his dislodgment or anything else for that matter without also thinking of the terms that have made such thoughts possible. Exile may be a condition, but it is also a metaphor for something that has less to do with a homeland and far more with how one slips out of oneself or how in thinking about identity all one does, really, is run circles around oneself.

Sebald will slip out of his skin and put out feelers to get a sense of what his own life means. In Lowestoft, facing the sea, Sebald puts himself in the shoes of Joseph Conrad, the Polish writer who could just as easily have turned into a French writer, and imagines him staring out to sea as well.

In the evenings, when the darkness settled upon the sea, he will have strolled along the esplanade, a twenty-one-year-old foreigner alone amongst the English. I can see him, for instance, standing out on the pier, where a brass band is playing the overture from Tannhäuser as a night-time serenade.

What must the twenty-two-year-old Sebald (or was he twenty-one at the time?) have felt on arriving in England in 1966?

Earlier in the novel, Sebald—“footsore and weary…after [a] long walk from Lowestoft…”—sits before the same “tranquil sea” and imagines the sudden appearance of a hostile Dutch fleet in 1672. A few pages and digressions later, Sebald picks up where he left off:

As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark…. I gazed farther and farther out to sea, to where the darkness was thickest and where there extended a cloudbank of the most curious shape…. 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.

The cycle is complete: Sebald sits in England looking out to the German ocean (and by implication to his native Germany) from the same location where he thinks Conrad must have stood looking out to Marseilles (Conrad’s temporarily adopted home), and imagines the arrival of Dutch battleships, only to remember having been in Holland a year earlier looking out to England at more or less the same spot where the Dutch ships had once appeared against the British skyline. In Holland, that year, he had taken stock of his earlier travels, and of his panic attack in Baden, and of other “stations of his journey,” which leads him to think, perhaps because the word “station” is so evocative of religion, of a holy man who himself had experienced a sense of profound unworthiness in the Paris of the Middle Ages and whose name was, as it turns out, Saint Sebolt!

Much is made of the raising of silkworms in The Rings of Saturn, and it is never truly clear how many strands Sebald is really pursuing, but as the silk motif twists its way through the novel, from China to modern Europe, down to its emblematic representation of the act of writing, it ends up, once again, at the doorsteps of an old nineteenth-century master dyer in Germany who was employed as Keeper of the Silkworms and Superintendent of Carding and Filature and whose name was, once again, Seybolt!

This pattern is, of course, self-referential and reflects a perspective one finds among many authors today. But the problem here is not that Sebald’s view of himself is recursive; the problem is that Sebald’s view of recursion, interesting as it genuinely is, is interesting as an idea only; it is conveyed intellectually, not aesthetically; it is not experienced, it is merely worded. Ultimately, it is drawn from the content of the author’s life, not worked into the form of the book about that life.

Thus, despite the beautiful picture of the sea at night, or of battleships appearing on the offing, and for all the beauty and cadences of Sebald’s style, the dreamlike, musical form of the novel itself is unable to convey the magnitude and meaning of Sebald’s elaborate self-refractions and near-misses into himself. These insights into dislodged identity are scattered not because identity is scattered. They are scattered because Sebald wasn’t working with the right form.

There is, however, a brief moment in The Rings of Saturn where everything comes together: when he slips into the life and voice of Michael Hamburger, the German-born Jew whose family left Germany in 1933 and settled in England and who, exactly like Sebald, but before Sebald, became a professor of German literature in England. Hamburger is a well-known scholar, essayist, poet, biographer, and translator (of Paul Celan among others). As in The Emigrants, it is, yet again, through the Jew Hamburger that Sebald manages to reflect upon his own bewildered transmigrations. Like the four characters in Sebald’s earlier novel, Hamburger too narrates in his Intermittent Memoirs, 1924-1954 how he (like Sebald) found that memory can turn “certain landscapes into perpetual winters,” or how a return to the past can assuage nothing but creates a grayness of its own. The prose in the pages devoted to Michael Hamburger’s return to Charlottenburg in 1947 is perhaps the very best that Sebald has written. It is elegiac, sad, haunting, and as Sebald writes of Browne’s prose, it rises “higher and higher through the circles of his spiraling prose,” with the reader “borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air…overcome by a sense of levitation.” And yet just when the Michael Hamburger episode “soars aloft” it suddenly takes a strange downward spin. This happens when Sebald tries to spell out the correspondences between his life and Hamburger’s.

When I now think back to Stanley Kerry, it seems incomprehensible that the paths of Michael’s life and mine should have intersected in the person of that most extraordinarily shy man, and that at the time we met him, in 1944 and in 1966 respectively, we were both twenty-two. 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 cadence, the doleful, resigned tone of these words is not unfamiliar. It conveys the sound of Naegeli’s footsteps on the snow. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. Cadence, after all, is one of the ways Sebald tries to suggest some meaning behind chaos. But the facts narrated here are so clearly dropped out of the blue and reflect a personal—solipsistic—mythology which has been so perfunctorily worked into the rest of the book that the reader is left pondering why coincidences between one man’s life and another’s should mean anything in a book where coincidences keep cropping up without explanation or resolution. Faced with the inability to answer his own riddles, all Sebald can do is keep threading his way in and out and back into the same riddle.

At the end of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald tells the reader that he finished writing his book on—of all days!—Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April, 1995. He proceeds, immediately afterward, to list all other events that occurred on Maundy Thurs-day: the first performance of Handel’s Messiah, for example, or the founding of the Anti-Semitic League in Prussia. The last item, in what must have been a rather time-consuming list to draw up, reads:

And finally, Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April 1995, was also the day on which Clara’s father, shortly after being taken to hospital in Coburg, departed this life.

One is moved—but only just. We’ve never been told who Clara is—we’re merely invited to speculate. What this sentence does do is allow Sebald to nudge his argument a bit further, perhaps even into an unknown void, in the hope of unearthing something. Indeed, he comes up with the thought that, at one time, the only appropriate expression of profound grief was to wear a heavy robe of black silk taffeta or black crepe de Chine—which, once again, nudges the point a bit further out and lets Sebald grope around the oft-alluded-to subject of China and silk and close the book by revealing that Sir Thomas Browne, who had once written that, in Holland, it used to be a mourning custom to drape black mourning ribbons over mirrors and canvasses, was himself none other than the son of a silk merchant.

The problem, as should be clear by now, with this intricate skein of interwoven themes, of private symbols piled upon collective images, of patterns and would-be patterns and brilliant scryptotechnics, is that there comes a sense of something ultimately sterile. Contemporary Europe has repeatedly given us similar macédoines of exquisitely written, superbly crafted and translated works that always seem on the verge of saying something they are not quite able to bring themselves to say. They are works about how works impart meaning, about how relative all meaning is, and about how inadequate all literary constructs are destined to remain. But they are seldom about anything else—which is why, once you remove the patina, and the dream-making, and the intertextual cross-references to keep students and critics at bay for another forty years, these works are really about very little other than our wish that they might have been about much more. Despite their abstruse lucubrations, they seem not to have been thought through.

What they lack, above all other things, is the depth of vision and the unencumbered impulse to come up with what is probably the most necessary thing a good author needs: which is a form, a form that reflects what he wants to say, not what he’ll end up saying, a form that doesn’t dilute what he says, a form where every sentence upholds and meditates on the story being told. Sebald came close to discovering such a form in The Emigrants. In The Rings of Saturn, for all its intricacies and bravura, he has not.

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