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.
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.
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.