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The Anatomy of Melancholy

THE RINGS OF SATURN. \o7 By W.G. Sebald\f7 .\o7 Translated from the German by Michael Hulse (New Directions: 278 pp., $23.95\f7

June 28, 1998|RICHARD EDER

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.

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