The Scythe of Saturn

W. G. Sebald (1944 - 2001)

W. G. Sebald (1944 - 2001)

“Unfortunately, I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never get used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.”  Words from the writer W. G. Sebald, in his most notable book ‘The Rings of Saturn’. When you hear that title, ‘The Rings of Saturn’, one might imagine we were about to start talking about a science fiction book; it brings to mind Star Trek, and the USS Enterprise whizzing past (in the opening credits) the rings of a Saturn-like planet. But rather, the title has a more mythological association: the Romans deified the planets of the cosmos, they understood them be representations of divine forces - Mars the God of War, Mercury the God of commerce and financial gain, and Jupiter as Father Time, usually depicted as an elderly bearded man, dressed in a robe, and carrying a scythe and an hourglass. A scythe with which he will cut you down when your time is at hand. In one of the author’s ponderings, he likens the earth’s slow turn to darkness to Saturn’s scythe. He says, “The shadow of the night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set… one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn--an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness”.

Beach at Lowestoft

‘The Rings of Saturn’ is a book almost impossible to categorise. On the surface, it is a travel biography, about a man on a walking tour of Suffolk. He begins, “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, and in fact my hope is released, up to a point, for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then…” Fiction, travel, biography, myth, and memoir, or all of these. When W. G. Sebald was asked which category he wanted his book in, he said he wanted all the categories. Perhaps the best way to categorise it is as a post-modern novel. Sebald was born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944. He studied in Germany, and in 1967 moved to England, ending up in Norwich as the professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia. Success came late; he wrote his books first in German, and his renown came as they were translated into English. Difficult to categorise, but thematically the book explores subjects of time, memory, and identity. He is freed from work, carefree, departing into the nature Suffolk has on offer - the call of nature - and when alone with his thoughts he quickly realises he is not at all carefree, in fact he is quite depressed. Being a German living in England, of the post-WWII generation, he finds his thoughts return to his fatherland, the atrocities orchestrated by ‘his’ people. This is a theme Sebald often returns too, often infuriated by his own generation’s reluctance to explore the topic. ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is very much rooted into Suffolk county; his walk begins on the coast in Lowestoft, and ends at Bungay.  As he reached a place, an event or thought comes to him, he draws out an association, and it spirals out from there. Spirals out… It is thought that the Rings of Saturn were once a moon, a moon that strayed too close, was drawn in by gravity, and shattered against the planet’s surface, leaving dust particles and ice crystals in its wake. This is very good explanation of what this book is: a series of concentric rings, concentric walks, around topics of England, made up of shattered fragments of the past.

Sebald's Bergen Belsen photograph.

Last week I went to Lowestoft and looked out into the North Sea, or as Sebald calls it, the German sea. Cat and I put 2p coins into the 2p windfall machines, and we watched at the fountain as children tried to run from one side to the other without being sprayed, most of the time unsuccessfully. Like most seaside towns, it is filled with people having far too much fun, a mood oddly out of step with the book that commences upon its shores. In the part we had read out – the precarious natural scene, the division of sea and the lake, the Benacre broad, an hour's walk north of Southwold where the beach divides the fresh and salty water - there does not stand upon the other side of the lake a great stone manor house. Though the precarious natural scenery is depicted accurately, the manor, along with Major Le Strange, liberator Bergen Belsen, is fictitious. Throughout ‘The Rings of Saturn’ there are small black and white photographs, dark, as if each one has been photocopied several times each, adding very effectively to the melancholy tone being communicated. As soon as Bergen Belsen is mentioned, the book presents us with a shocking full spread image, which is apparently the scene that greeted the Allied liberators on the 14th April 1945 near the concentration camp. A sea of corpses amidst the tranquil forest. In the photograph, the forest canopy thickens towards the top, obscuring the horizon, thwarting our ability to contextualize it. There is no camp in the background, or barbed fence. There is an odd sort of echoing taking place. We stand upon the eroding shingled beach between Lowestoft and Southwold, look towards the western horizon and see a fictitious manor. We stand among the dead, the victims of Bergen Belsen, we look out, but can see no horizon at all… We are severed from place, alone and cut off, unable to locate ourselves in relationship to the atrocities that took place, unconnected, unable grasp it, and therefore unable to adequately deal with it, or process it. For Sebald these shards act as monuments to destruction, like the very rings of Saturn themselves which are their own kind of monument to an astronomical destruction of eons past. We can only glimpse shards because the whole is beyond comprehension, that magnitude of destruction is beyond us, the ‘whole’ being the process of erosion upon Suffolk’s shores, a moon crashing into a planet, man’s destructive footprint upon the world, or indeed the Holocaust itself.

Benacre Broad.

The way Sebald attempts to capture perception through highlighting these shards of destruction, mirrors closely in tone the work of Virginia Woolf. Virginia Woolf, writing in the early 1900s, was greatly disturbed by the events of WWI, and though no such external events are referenced in the piece about the dying mouth we had read out, these events act as the backdrop. They frame her melancholia, and prompt her reflection on death that is stronger than she. Though the subject of a book, or this book, may lie far from the concerns in question, somehow it succeeds in capturing it. One talks about something entirely unrelated, and through this unrelated thing, or person, or place, is able to capture something far more extraordinary. Take another example, another photograph slightly earlier in the book, a photograph taken in Lowestoft (allegedly - it’s always difficult with Sebald to know where history ends, and fiction begins, but nevertheless), a photograph taken in Lowestoft in 1913 of fishermen standing amongst a large quantity of fish. This photograph mirrors the photograph I have already mentioned, the men stand scattered amongst the mountain of fish, as the trees stood scattered amongst the mountain of corpses. Here then is another shard, another monument to destruction: a glut of herring. Local people salvage a few for themselves, but the rest rot away. When caught, herring’s colour changes, from a dark green to blue, and glowing in a phosphorescent manner, peaking a few days after their death, and then fading away. Though Sebald here is talking about the properties of herring, really, he is talking about the properties of memory. As Sebald says later in the book: “Whenever a shift in our spiritual life occurs and fragments such as these surface, we believe we can remember. But in reality of course, memory fails us. To many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up…” Phosphorescent fragments, gleaming ice crystals orbiting a far-flung planet.

Sebald's herring in Lowestoft photograph.

In the British Romantic literary tradition - Wordsworth, Coleridge - we walk in nature as a process of recovery. To strip away the rhythm of the modern world, the hour break, economizing, hyper-rationalism, in order that we might recover something of an original state. We meander, we take concentric walks around the same places, the same ideas. In the same way that we catch glimpses of the horrific through Sebald’s work, we also catch glimpses of some idyllic fantasy too, which if truly grasped, and truly inhabited in all its fullness, would in fact be no ideal, but its own kind of horror. Sebald talks about, for example, our idyllic sense of home. A sense which adults can only recall from an imagined past, a place we once called home, where we felt safe and secure, and in this mist of the familiar. But if truly inhabited today, this would be its own kind of oppressive hell. We spend our lives trying to find something we don’t really want. Clarity, perspective. The subtitle of this book, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is ‘An English Pilgrimage’, a pilgrimage of course being a journey of spiritual significance, which will in some way heal the soul. But really in this book Sebald in his journey is not healed, rather he just recognises the fragmentary, transitory, loss of meaning in it all. This then is perhaps the last refuge of comfort, that the systems of meaning we surround ourselves with in fact have no meaning at all. And so stop trying to convince yourself that they do. Let’s just go on meandering, moving in concentric circles around the same places and ideas, And maybe, that’s good enough…