LIKE his older Swabian contemporary Fred Uhlman, whose novella Reunion we read last summer (Reading Groups, 2 October 2015), W. G. Sebald grew up on the very edge of Germany — in the Bavarian Alps, equally marginal, equally peripheral.
Uhlman made his career in England in enforced exile; Sebald chose to come here to teach German literature, first in Manchester, then at the University of East Anglia until his untimely accidental death in 2001.
Born in 1944, he was one of those Anglophile Germans of whom the best known is the art-historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who became almost more English than the English themselves, while retaining the Germanic virtues of diligence (Emsigkeit) and accuracy (Genauigkeit), without quite toppling over into pedantry and self-parody.
He needed this distancing from his homeland, because he faced the problem, with immense personal courage and intellectual integrity, of writing for a nation “which cannot show its face” (Thomas Mann), in a language that dared not raise its voice.
Part of the solution lay in the deliberate adoption of a rather old-fashioned, elaborate literary style, the classical German of, for example, Thomas Mann, before the barbarities, both linguistic and political, of the 20th century; this was when the language was debased by journalese and Anglicisms (or rather, Americanisms) in the West, and by Sovspeak in the East.
If you wish to improve your own German, read Sebald in the original. Still, this is an excellent version, supervised by the author himself, who took a keen personal as well as academic interest in the art and craft of translation.
He was haunted by his inability to get straight answers from the generation of his parents about what had happened in the Third Reich. The trauma of corporate and individual guilt had led to widespread amnesia, not least in Bavaria.
The film Das hässliche Mädchen (1990: The Nasty Girl in its English version) tells the true story of the struggle of Ann Rosmus from Passau to get the fathers of the city, both lay and clerical, to face up to their sins of commission and omission.
Memory and loss of memory, change and decay, are warp threads in Sebald’s tapestries. So is movement through space and time; and in The Rings of Saturn he takes us on a long excursion through the flatlands of his beloved East Anglia, by train from Norwich to Lowestoft, and on foot from there to Ditchingham.
“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I 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 long stint of work.”
I remembered, for the first time in 60 years, that Paul Roubiczek, my German teacher in Cambridge, had walked from Berlin to the Baltic after finishing his dissertation. It is what German professors did — and perhaps still do. And I noted, too, the evocation of emptiness. An all-pervasive sadness is there from the start.
The weft, however, consists of innumerable excursuses on a wide variety of topics. Nothing human is alien to Sebald. Fifteen of the 24 pages of the first chapter are taken up with an essay on Thomas Browne, referencing Kafka, Flaubert, Rembrandt, and Grimmelshausen on the way.
This sets the pattern for a long, dream-like walk with Sebald as an amiable companion, whose conversation is unfailingly entertaining and instructive.
I am reminded of a tale, told about the great advocate F. E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead), who was interrupted by a judge: “Mr Smith, I have been listening to you for an hour and a half; and I must say that I am none the wiser.”
Smith replied: “That may well be the case, M’Lud, but you are certainly better informed.”
So are we, after time spent caught up in the reveries of this learned friend, as he opens up for us his cabinet of curiosities.
Subjects range from the bombing of German cities through the natural history of the herring and of the silkworm, the Battle of Sole Bay, Conrad and Casement and Catherine of Siena — and many, many more. Far from being oppressive or overwhelming, his immense learning and curiosity, like that of his fellow-countryman Friedrich von Humboldt, is exhilarating and life-affirming.
Much is evoked by something seen or glimpsed on the way, unlocking the remembrance of things past. I can vouch for the accuracy of his descriptions of Southwold and Walberswick (where I used to holiday), Aldeburgh, Dunwich, and Orford Ness. He may be a magician of the imagination, but his magic is magic realism. He excels in the mournful and nostalgic depiction of decline and fall, whether of Lowestoft as a fashionable seaside resort, or of abandoned country houses. The interpolated story of the love of the young Chateaubriand for a local English lady is worthy of Turgenev. Thomas Browne has the last word, which gives the work a pleasing rondo form.
In other respects, however, this unusual book does not fit into any recognisable category, which makes it sound post-modern. And yet it is pleasing to recall, in this quatercentenary year, not only of Shakespeare, but also of Cervantes, that it traces its literary lineage back to the oldest genre of all, the picaresque novel. In Don Quixote, incidents and encounters, disclosures and insights are strung out along a traveller’s tale, like beads on a thread. Come to think of it, the narrative parts of the Gospels are like that, too.
The tempo is andante throughout: the unresting, unhasting, walking-pace of Schubert’s best instrumental music and Lieder, brave and purposeful, with an underlying elegiac melancholy, which never fails to win our hearts. The book is furnished with indistinct, matt, black-and-white illustrations, perfectly in tune with the pervading tone (Stimmung) of this enchanting work.
The Very Dr Revd John Arnold is Dean Emeritus of Durham.
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is published by Vintage Classics at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-099-44892-1.
THE RINGS OF SATURN — SOME QUESTIONS
In its original German edition, this book’s subtitle was An English pilgrimage. How fitting do you feel this is?
The Rings of Saturn contains elements of biography, history, art criticism, and many other genres, besides travel writing. Did this variety affect your reading of the book?
What did you make of the book’s fascination with lists and catalogues?
What can Christian readers learn or gain from The Rings of Saturn?
How did you respond to Sebald’s treatment of home and exile?
What impact did Sebald’s use of photos have on your reading of the book?
What might this work have to teach us about nature, and human nature?
What is the significance of silence in this book?
Do the Christian ideas of sin and redemption have a place in the book?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 August, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It is published by Black Swan at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-55277977-7.
The Girl on the Train is a bestselling psychological thriller that has sold more than ten million copies since it was first published in early 2015; it has been translated into more than 40 languages. A lonely alcoholic, Rachel, takes solace in the scenes played out in the rear windows of houses on her daily commute, until one day she spies a disturbing incident. She is convinced that she is a crucial witness to a terrible crime, but can the police trust someone who is prone to drunken blackouts? Can Rachel even trust herself? Chilling and full of suspense, The Girl on the Train has been praised by The Financial Times for its “sinister poetry”; The Irish Times claims that it “will wrong-foot even the most experienced of crime-fiction readers”.
Paula Hawkins grew up in Zimbabwe, before moving to the UK to read PPE at Oxford University. She worked as a financial journalist at The Times, publishing a book of financial advice, The Money Goddess, before focusing on novels. The Girl on the Train is her first thriller, although she has also published four recession-themed “chick-lit” novels under the pen-name Amy Silver. She lives in London.
Books for the next two months:
September: The Awesome Journey by David Adam
October: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin