Monday, August 03, 2009

The Faded Grandeur of Certain Ideas

I have had W.G. Sebald's "Rings of Saturn" waiting to be read for too long. I was looking for it before my recent visit to Norwich, as we were driving out to Sebald country during the week. I looked everywhere in my boxes of books to no avail. Yet on arriving back after the week, there it was at the top of one of the boxes, on show, as if to say, "I've been here all along." A slightly Sebaldian moment, I now feel.

I also feel I should probably have read "The Emigrants" first; but that's to come I feel. "Rings of Saturn" is one of the few books of the last 15 years that has already achieved the status of modern classic, though I wonder whether it will last. Sebald's tragically early death, and the acclaim that all his books have received, as well as his obvious uniqueness are probably reason enough for his easy elevation to such status. Yet, speaking to a few friends (the sort who attend reading groups) they'd not heard of the book. I almost wonder if the acclaim that came with its publication and shortly afterwards is already fading a little? Again, that would be at one with the book.

It's not a novel as such, though we may as well call it a novel; since it uses the novelist's arts. A travelogue around the Suffolk coast, it's also a rumination on history, or rather the shards of history that you find here, there and everywhere in any slightly venerable part of the British isles. Suffolk's history encompasses greatness; and wars; and its proximity to Europe makes it have a particular interest to a European writer like the German Sebald. One wonders what the Germans make of it? It would be near impossible to imagine a German-based English writer writing a similar meditation.

It's beautifully written - and translated, by Michael Hulse - yet there's a couple of things that jar; whether in original or translation it's hard to know. The tendency for the narrator to slip into another's voice as he tells their tale is disconcerting. The narrator (presumably Sebald, he has no other name in the book), is like the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, yet the voices of other peoples' stories aren't differentiated enough. As I say, disconcerting. As is the companion, "Clara," who pops up unannounced on the last page, apparently - according to a review I read - fished out of the previous book. In a book so precisely wound, and with such a sense of the various circularities of history, these odd moments of imprecision stick out sorely.

What the reader - or this reader, at least - found mesmerising was the "connections" made. Whether internal to the book, or to my own life. I was surprised, but reassured to find Manchester, Borges and Amsterdam all present amongst the settings and characters; and I'm increasingly drawn to the Suffolk landscape he walks slowly through. (Though no mention of Borges visit to Wythenshawe, a Sebaldian trip, I think.) What struck me, as I read the detailed diversions and ruminations on a history that encompasses geography (or is that a geography that encompasses history?) was how this sensibility seems a past one. The slow pace seems to speak of a dissolution of the spirit, a breakdown, nature as "Cure" possibly; but learning - as a crutch that can hardly hold the weight. It seems that this is the crucified learning of a Casaubon, unrealistically trying to find the "key to all mythologies." Death stalks the pages. The simple death of a scholar or the genocidal deaths of Cathars or Jews or 19th century Chinese. It is the two wars of the 20th century that dominate the book, however obliquely they are looked at. The carpet bombing of Germany was launched from the fields of the East of England; yet Sebald circles round this anger, as he circles round so much.

It is the circularity of the maze at Somerleyton, re-remembered in a dream after the visit. He is not immmune to the absurdities of the English class system, but like Lampedusa seems unhappy for what is lost - the great houses, the great families. It strikes me as a modernist book, or pose, in the sense that it looks outward into history for a pattern book for the world that he is living through. Although written and published in the middle nineties, its a reflective book, that seems to speak more through the remembered impoverishment of the Britain of the fifties, sixties and seventies. The tragedies of the Suffolk landscape seem long ago, forgotten.

I realised, on finishing the book, how little I could relate to the sensibility; that there seemed a lack of either the anger or engagement that the present demands, and a certain sunken resignation in the lessons, learnt and unlearnt of the past. It's a book that allows you to put your own spin on it, and perhaps that's part of it's appeal; yet its reluctance to go beyond the accumulation of esoteric fact, makes it a philosopher's argument; like the maze, impossible to find the centre of, or, once there, the way out. A sombre book, it wins out by the liveliness of its observation, the quirky charm of the miscellany, and by the sense that you can't really take it too seriously. A good book, no doubt, but already, I feel, fading a little into the margins. The faded grandeur of Somerleyton Hall, or the streets of once-fashionable Lowestoft seem matched only by the fading ideas and tropes of 20th century Europe. It is a book of remembrance, at its angriest when remembering the Belgian Congo or carpet bombing of old Germany or the Opium Wars, at its most hopeful when recalling a handful of writers and eccentrics. Against the frozen backdrop of history, these smaller histories are our warming flame.

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