At the end of his tormented pilgrim's regress through memory and the stripped flatlands of East Anglia, the narrator cites for one last time his ghostly companion throughout: the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne.
Mourning--in a very large sense, the heart of W.G. Sebald's fictional meditation--was traditionally observed by wearing black. Browne wrote of the old custom of draping in black silks the mirrors, portraits and landscapes hanging in the house of the deceased "so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever."
Browne's prose was as spacious and light-filled as his own East Anglian skies. Sebald's prose (excellently translated from German by Michael Hulse) recalls his model not only in its light but in the sere temper that its cascade of allusion and digression paradoxically sets off, as an elaborate costume sets off a wasting body.
It is not Browne's "Religio Medici" but his "Urn Burial" that Sebald keeps in mind as he rambles Suffolk's monotone of coast, fenland and heath. "Burial" was ostensibly a minute description of the contents of a set of funerary urns: the remains, their manner of interment and the artifacts chosen to accompany them. In fact, it belongs to a literary figure going back to Ecclesiastes' "vanity of vanities" and up through Thomas Nashe's "brightness falls from the air." What becomes of human graces, achievements, passions and illusions?
Browne counterpoised the pitiful golden dust in the urns with the hope of Christian resurrection. Sebald's dust has no such resurrection. "The Rings of Saturn"--fragments of what were once moons--is a book of what dies. There is no decanting his own urn memories, histories and lives. If anything, they will undergo the absurdity that befell Browne himself: When his body was disinterred for reburial, the skull was filched and remained for a time in the curio cabinet of a local physician.
Sebald or his narrator--the two are and are not the same, like the dreamer and his dream--refers to this near the start. He also includes the photograph of a skull. Photographs, many blurred, some snapshots, accompany the text throughout. They show a place the narrator walks past, a house he sees, a personage he refers to, a personal or historical incident he recounts. There is even a dim photograph of the window of the hospital room where he stayed after a breakdown that took place a year or so after his walk.
The writer uses photographs the way he did in "The Emigrants," his extraordinary set of fact-woven fictions about the collapses, late in life, of half a dozen Jews who for one reason or other were not caught in the Holocaust. Seeming to proclaim sufficiency the images proclaim insufficiency; seeming to announce solid permanence they announce transience. Here we are, the snapshots seem to say, but Sebald uses them to say: Like trees, flowers, mansions and hopes, we are gone.
In his tramp through once flourishing, now depressed parts of Suffolk, Sebald compiles a narrative of all that is gone. In Lowestoft, the shops are boarded up. The herring fleet is no more--an old photo shows workers knee-deep in a silver avalanche--and pollution breeds monsters: fish with male and female genitals that still perform a mating dance that has become "a dance of death."
Frederick, an old neighbor, recalled his childhood summers at the once fashionable resort "as if I were seeing everything through flowing white veils." His father and mother and sisters led the way up from the beach; behind came the servants with Frederick mounted on a donkey. "Once, years ago," he said, "I even dreamed of that scene, and our family seemed to me like the court of King James II in exile on the coast of The Hague."
The once great houses are crumbling or maintained, for example, as at Somerleyton, where the heir drives tourists around the park in a miniature train. Not all were beautiful; some were monuments of mid-Victorian, nouveau-riche kitsch. Ugliness, just like brightness, falls from the air; the horrendous collections of bric-a-brac are exemplars of the senility of possessions.
As he plods along, transience on the ground, the narrator describes airy circles of transience in his mind and memory: an apparently random inventory of what he has encountered and read.
There is a sketch of Joseph Conrad meeting a British consul in the Congo who was preparing a public denunciation of Belgian atrocities. Later the consul, by then Sir Roger Casement, would be hanged for his aid to Irish rebels. (A photo of two pages of the Casement diaries--a record of homosexual encounters used by the British to blacken his name--is included.) Conrad recurs, seemingly arbitrarily: He is in Ostend at the same time as an uncle of Kafka's; he rides in a sleigh to visit his family's estate in Poland; he makes love to the mistress of a Spanish royal claimant.
The juxtapositions go on: sketches of Algernon Swinburne and Edward FitzGerald, translator of the Rubaiyat--etiolated descendants of blimpish naval and land-owning families, respectively. There is an eccentric Anglo-Irish widow and her four children, incompetently trying to survive in their decaying mansion.
All these are random, seemingly; all suggest mortality of one kind or another. So do two lively encounters. A Dutch sugar beet operative notes the connection between sugar and art: Both the Tate collection in London and the Mauritshuis in The Hague are products of slave-worked sugar plantation fortunes. The paintings, the Dutchman remarks, strike him as having a caramelized sheen.
A Suffolk farmer shows him an enormous model of Jerusalem's Second Temple that he has worked on for 30 years. Archeologists, religious leaders and Lord Rothschild visit him regularly; he painstakingly alters the model to take account of the latest scholarly findings. When an American evangelist suggested that he must be divinely inspired, he retorted that if that were so, he wouldn't have to keep making changes.
Transience, or the illusion of countering it, takes on a darker hue. The narrator's approaching breakdown is foreshadowed. He tells of the 1987 hurricane that knocked down 14 million trees in Britain and turned the park outside his home turned into something like a desert, with silence replacing bird songs. At Dunwich, a flourishing port in the Middle Ages, there is only a ruin or two remaining: The seas have clawed away the bluffs on which it stood. The narrator looks out over the gray tide that covers it. What he sees is "the immense power of emptiness."
"Rings," in fact, with all the gracefulness of its writing, its air of simply observing the oddities of change and its literary digressions, is a lament. Pain runs beneath it, an aquifer of loss undermining the surface upon which the narrator walks and digresses. It is not a slip, for example, when he refers to the North Sea off Suffolk as the German Ocean. ("Death," we remember the Paul Celan line, "is a master from Germany.")
Only slowly do we realize that "Rings" is an extension, an expansion of "The Emigrants," though harder to fathom, less accessible and less immediately stirring. In the former, the fact of the Holocaust provided a mighty current on which Sebald sailed his flotilla of stories, connections and disassociations--each variously ramshackle, graceful, tragic and fearsomely armed.
"Rings" lacks the thunderous current; it eddies and scatters, sometimes aimlessly, it seems, and with considerable prolixity. It may be a while before the reader realizes that for Sebald the Holocaust set in motion a shock wave for all, not just part, of mankind. It has leached away the illusion of life and permanence that allows humanity to take pleasure in its endeavors even if theoretically aware of their mortality.
Neither the peaceful monotonous landscape of Suffolk nor its crumbling monuments nor the narrator's lifetime store of art, language and remembrance can escape the blight.