I have been in Suffolk over the summer months and, as usual, during my trips to this wonderful county in the east of England I was accompanied by The Rings of Saturn. Most folk with a literary bent will immediately understand that I am not referring to interplanetary travel and the actual rings which circle the planet Saturn, but the most memorable book of that name by Winfried Georg Sebald, first published in English 20 years ago.
I first came upon this book not long after its publication in English which, magically, coincided with my first adult visit to the county. Reading this book was, for me, one of those rare breathtaking moments when you realise that you have come upon something special. Curiously, the experience was rather like actually seeing with my own eyes those entrancing rings around the planet Saturn when a few years later I managed to assemble and use a telescope on the grass verge outside my house. Memorable in the extreme. And memory, of course, figures large in Sebald’s musings.
Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a book about walking in Suffolk, well, superficially at any rate, and walking in Suffolk is one of the things I do when I go there. Of course, saying that Sebald’s book is about a walk through Suffolk is rather misleading (a bit like saying War and Peace is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia).
The range of Sebald’s journey takes you not only through Suffolk and through many other parts of the world, but also beyond geography, through history, time and, perhaps most importantly, memory. This world is populated not only by Sebald, his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but also by a whole gamut of figures – incidental (as much as anything can be incidental in Sebald’s work), historical and, of course, literary. His narrative reminisces about his own life and the lives of others. He creates a multi-dimensional melancholic world which not so much traverses time as transforms it. And he punctuates this with premeditatedly grainy, predominantly uncaptioned, photos which not so much illuminate the narrative as gloomily interact with it. These images, Sebald himself apparently thought, served not only as a verification of the narrative, but were, more pointedly, time busters. They arrest time, they seize us, they engulf us, they take us out of time and communicate directly with us.
There is plenty elsewhere about W. G. Sebald, about his life, his tragic death, and his writing – there are books devoted to him, journalistic pieces, blogs and academic studies. And rightly so. He deserves the attention he gets and deserves more, though there will be some (and I understand why) who do not appreciate his idiosyncratic musings. For me, I come back to this book in some measure every year when I arrive at the Suffolk coast, as the long frenetic drive finally succumbs to country lanes, as the speed of life slows and the relativity of space and time begins to manifest itself. And when I walk, I take his book with me and I try, inadequately, to make both my feet and my head traverse the same sort of territory.
Take for example, the walk from Pakefield to Lowestoft, along the promenade past Kirkley Cliff. This inevitably evokes for me not only thoughts of the prolific Joseph Conrad who first set foot on English soil in Lowestoft 140 years ago, but also of Sebald who muses in Rings of Saturn on Conrad strolling in the evening along this very esplanade, a 21-year-old foreigner alone amidst the English, “intrigued”, speculates Sebald, “by the ease with which he is absorbing a hitherto quite unfamiliar language”. As I walk down towards the harbour where Conrad’s ship will have docked, I too hear the chatter of a foreign tongue, Conrad’s own, Polish. Poles play on the beach and shout happily to each other, unaware perhaps of the faint passing step of the ghost of their compatriot. Unless, of course, that is, they frequent the local Wetherspoon pub which is located in what goes – misleadingly – by the name of Station Square and which proudly proclaims itself The Joseph Conrad.
What on earth the well-travelled Conrad would have made of this tribute, I am not sure. Sebald would perhaps have given us a handsome few pages on Ebenezer Tuttle, Mayor of Lowestoft, whose shop used to occupy the premises. And I myself speculate whether Sebald would have welcomed the brash conviviality of this public house or whether it would have increased “the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of [him] in Lowestoft” and which for many other visitors still persists.
Sebald wrote in his native German tongue, despite living for years in England. His works were translated into English. He espoused the cause of literary translation. He taught creative writing courses at his English University apparently with reluctance and reservations because he was not a native English speaker. And yet here we have the cosmopolitan Conrad ultimately churning out his well-respected prose in what was probably his third language. (French being the second.) Conrad’s first tutors of English, Sebald recalls in Rings of Saturn, were the Lowestoft Standard and the Lowestoft Journal. Without meaning to be disrespectful to any jobbing journalist, one can, however, hardly imagine Sebald taking these as his cue.
Heading south from Lowestoft towards Kessingland, alternating between beach and cliff top, the pedestrian traveller finds much of the cliff top path gone, eroded by wind, rain and sea and one treads such paths with care and irritation. Care, because a misplaced step could prove disastrous and irritation, because so often one sets off along such a path only to find it has vanished into thin air and one has to turn back.
The cliffs hereabouts are literally made of sand and at some point the path inevitably ends up on the beach or in the sea. A traveller feels like one of Conrad’s pedestrian pilgrims – “unhappy souls” – cited in an epigraph to The Rings of Saturn or indeed like the rings themselves, battered into fragments, we are told in another epigraph, by the planetary tidal effect.
This amorphous, shifting nature of the Suffolk coastline is not only portrayed so admirably in Sebald’s Rings but actually infects the very structure and narrative of the work itself as it moves seamlessly through time and space. The fishermen on the coast are “the stragglers of some nomadic people”. “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.” Transformation and transience abound.
As I walk the coastline the solidity of old military fortifications are collapsing and crumbling into the sea. The remnants of a history deeply embedded in Sebald’s own consciousness are transformed from lofty carapaces of conflict into beach ornaments. What was – is now no longer or is utterly estranged. What wasn’t – is now substance, like the curious desert of a beach in Kessingland which has emerged, usurped the sea and now stretches out way beyond the crumbling cliffs.
As I walk through Kessingland I look in vain for Henry Rider Haggard’s house, recalling now not Sebald, but the childless Thomas Hardy, who – in comments shockingly hurtful to our modern ears – commiserated with Haggard on the death of his 10-year-old son from measles by telling him: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped”. A cruel harbinger of Jude, no doubt: pessimism absent the meliorism. Hardy then, typically, goes on to talk about the weather.
On the beach towards Southwold the subverted dislocation of military concrete is enhanced by transformations of the natural world. Trees, taken by the sea, are transformed into beach sculpture. It is like an art installation. Sebald himself noted:
“…dead trees lie in a confused heap where they fell years ago… Bleached by salt water, wind and sun, the broken barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than the mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand.”
A walk on a beach transforms into a view of time without end: “…that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity”, writes Sebald.
I walk into Southwold past the pier (blazoned with reminiscences of George Orwell and thus tangentially another pier); and up into the town. The midday drunks of Lowestoft have been replaced by a chauffeured limo waiting to ferry some well-heeled folk back to their town house in London or some other residence: a scene, no doubt, which has been rehearsed for well over a century. I pass the Sailors’ Reading Room and the Crown Hotel, where Sebald muses in Rings on the horror of ethnic “cleansing” in World War 2, punctuating his narrative with a, mercifully and purposefully indistinct, photograph of a cross-bar gallows “on which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians, once rounded up, were hanged in rows like crows or magpies”. The nausea in my stomach, as I take a sideways glance at this awful picture, reminds me of a visit to Berlin when I fled, uncomprehending, feeling violently sick, from the museum called the Topography of Terror. The Rings of Saturn suddenly encircle me and time stands shockingly still.
My own travels come again to the fore as I recall Sebald’s musings in Southwold on the curious connections between the Congo, Conrad and Roger Casement and Conrad’s dispirited journey south along the west coast of Africa past “trading posts with names like Gran’ Bassam or Little Popo, all of them seeming to belong in some sordid farce”. And, once home, I dig out some old photos I took in Grand Bassam, almost a lifetime ago.
I recollect the haunting, dreamlike, decaying grandeur coupled with the shocking physicality of abandoned mansions taken over haphazardly by those in need of more than shelter. I wonder what Sebald would have made of Grand Bassam unmediated by Conrad’s passing glimpses. Inevitably, I dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and read the unmediated Conrad:
“…we passed various places – trading places with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acting in front of a sinister back-cloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”
And I am just recollecting fleeing Grand Bassam by taxi to the greater terrors of Abidjan when in my copy of Heart of Darkness, marking the page, I find two receipts from a Georgian restaurant in Moscow dated March 1996 of which, terrifyingly, I have no recollection at all beyond the fact that I have traversed ten years of life in the blink of an eye and with time arrested once again am still no nearer the truth of things, nor further away from mournful and senseless delusion.
At least when I have traversed that splendid beach at Sizewell, where folk nonchalantly walk their dogs adjacent splitting atoms, and have reached genteel Aldeburgh, I have escaped momentarily the gravity of Sebald and moved into a more comfortable orbit. I pass Benjamin Britten’s first house in the town and move on to my destination further down along what passes as the Aldeburgh promenade. I am in search again of Strafford House. This residence, with its striking yellow wash, rings with literary resonance. I always pause here and take a photograph. I am back again to Thomas Hardy.
Hardy stayed in this house a number of times. He was familiar with the streets around it, with the railway station, with the beach, with the river Alde that runs down from Snape. His shade is everywhere.
This was the house of Edward Clodd, one of those great Victorian polymaths – banker, anthropologist, folklorist. He was a man of many parts, born the same year as Hardy, and, like Hardy, not averse to controversy in his writings. The sociable Clodd routinely opened up his seafront home to the intellectual elite of his time. Writers, scientists, adventurers all enjoyed hospitality and each other’s company at Clodd’s Suffolk home. But for Hardy, Strafford House was, on occasion, much more than a holiday retreat or venue for literary conviviality, since it was here that he was able to meet up with his helpmate and wife-to-be, Florence Dugdale, before first wife Emma had died. It was here, on the beach not far from Strafford House, that the famous photo of Hardy and Florence was taken in August 1909 on what was, probably, the most memorable of the many visits he made.
Hardy had already travelled up to Aldeburgh in July of that year and confided in Clodd about the state of his troubled marriage. A few weeks later – after the farcical marital manoeuvres around the opera of his Tess – he was back, but this time with Florence. Emma will not have known. Just as she did not know about the manoeuvres keeping Florence away from her at the opera. She never, as far as I know, visited Strafford House, and soon afterwards there began that curious deceitful charade with Florence who became a regular visitor, not only to Strafford House, but also, having separately – and some would say insidiously – befriended Emma, to Max Gate, the Hardy homestead in Dorchester.
Clodd notably remarked about the August visit – “Hardy and the Lady are enjoying themselves”; and there has been much speculation about the relations at this time between Hardy and his amanuensis Florence, not least the opposing views of biographers Millgate and Seymour-Smith (and the latter’s sensational, if not scurrilous, conclusions). Hardy, who did not take kindly in his lifetime to prurient interest in his personal affairs and who (with the help of Florence) attempted to manage such interest even after his death, would be beyond outrage.
Walking south out of Aldeburgh I ponder, without much insight, commonalities in the writings of Sebald and Hardy. The shared interest in history and the Battle of Waterloo; the curious coincidence of the models of Jerusalem in Jude and the Temple of Jerusalem in Rings; and the rings of Saturn did, of course, cross Hardy’s horizon too, most patently in the astronomically themed Two on a Tower, where hero Swithin gives Lady Constantine a telescopic tour of the heavens:
“…’we see a world which is to my mind by far the most wonderful in the solar system. Think of streams of satellites or meteors racing round and round the planet like a fly-wheel, so close together as to seem solid matter!'”
“The most wonderful in the solar system.” But the “flywheel” that circles this wonderful planet is deceptive to the distant eye. That which is not solid appears to us with solidity. Those cursed rings. Ice crystals, meteorites, satellites, the fragments of a moon – spinning round with a dizzying intensity, seeming to us from afar not quite what they are. Transformed and transient. A bit like this Suffolk coast, I think. You look at the sea as it moves in and out, and the landscape as it shifts and turns, full of memory, full of shades
…which take me by the hand,
and lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
And show from there
The dwindled dust
And rot and rust
Of things that were.
‘Oh Memory, where is now my youth
Who used to say that life was truth?’
September 21st 2018
Some references for the ramblings above…
On W G Sebald, there is an interesting piece by Mark Fisher commenting on the “essay film” Patience which references Rings of Saturn. And there are some excellent insights made in http://www.academia.edu/29319431/Photography_and_Cinema._Fifty_Years_After_Chris_Markers_La_Jetée
particularly the last piece by Spring Ulmer.
There were also my perennial hard copy Hardy companions – Oliver Millgate’s Thomas Hardy, A Biography Revisited; and Martin Seymour-Smith’s Hardy; and The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Richard Purdy.
The final verse quotes are from Hardy’s I have lived with Shades; and Memory and I.