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May 4, 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Very the last stop


In the penultimate chapter of The Rings of Saturn, our traveller is at the last stop of his journey.

IX

After Orford, Sebald travelled by bus to Yoxford and then walked along a Roman road until he arrived at Chestnut Tree Farm. This is the residence of Thomas Abrams, a farmer and lay preacher who had been working for twenty years on a scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem. Abrams became obsessed with recreating a Jerusalem as it had looked at the beginning of time. His endless work on the replica, which was nowhere near completion, was later acknowledged when he received visitors from all over the world, including historians, archaeologists, religious men, and even Lord Rothschild. This acknowledgement assuaged his neighbor’s, and even his own family’s doubts, about the sanity of his mind since he became immersed in his work. After their conversation Abrams drove Sebald to his next destination, Harleston, where he stayed in Saracen’s Head.

In the morning Sebald walked from Saracen’s Head to some hamlets in 'The Saints' – so-called because they were named after patron saints of churches. He arrived at a cemetery of the parish church of Ilketshall St Margaret, where in the Middle Ages a certain Reverend Ives was vicar living with his wife and daughter in Bungay. In 1795 they were visited daily by an exiled French nobleman, the Vicomte François-René Chateaubriand. The Vicomte became the tutor of the daughter, Charlotte. (The narrative Sebald was recounting at this point mostly came from the memoirs of Chateaubriand, which he began writing in 1807.) Charlotte became very close to Chateaubriand so much so that during his farewell dinner with the family, the mother asked him to marry Charlotte. It turned out that Chateaubriand was already married and so cannot accept the offer. He left the house immediately.

Twenty-seven years later, when Chateaubriand was now ambassador of the French king, he was visited by one Lady Sutton, accompanied by her two sons. This was actually Charlotte Ives, who married Admiral Sutton three years after Chateaubriand left her. After this encounter, Chateaubriand visited her in Kensington four times; during his last visit Charlotte asked her to put in a good word with the Governor-General of India, for her elder son who planned to serve in Bombay.

After Charlotte left, Chateaubriand relived and wrote about their "unhappy story," questioning himself whether in writing he would not again betray and lose Charlotte. But no, for him writing is the only way he can cope with the overwhelming memories that beset him. Later he asked in his memoir: "What would we be without memory?"

At this point, Sebald shared several events in Chateaubriand’s life: momentous wars and conflicts, military spectacles, "the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next," his death in 1848, his childhood in Combourg, and the day he left his family at age 17 to strike into the world.

Sebald’s walk took him to Ditchingham Lodge where Charlotte Sutton lived with her husband. From there he went to the last stop of his travels, to the Ditchingham churchyard where Charlotte’s elder son, the one who went to Bombay, is buried. Beside his tomb is another monument of heavy stone which had an urn on top of it and had several air-holes on the upper edges. Sebald presumed that the woman buried on it was an acquaintance of Charlotte Sutton.

Sebald then went to the Mermaid in Hedenham to phone and wait for Clara (Sebald’s wife?) who will pick him up and drive him home. Contemplating the surrounding Ditchingham Park, Sebald assumed that it must have been built at the time Chateaubriand was in Suffolk. (Sebald noted that the building of park landscapes in England must sometimes have led to class conflicts owing to the displacement of entire villages at the pleasure of the ruling elite.) Chateaubriand himself undertook the planting of trees in a summer house he brought in 1807. Sebald’s identification with Chateaubriand is evident from a reproduction of his photograph where he posed under a large Lebanese cedar, more like demonstrating Chateaubriand's close affinity to trees.

Much like in the collapse of herring fisheries, Sebald enumerated several causes of decline in the population of trees in England beginning in the mid-1970s. These include the spread of Dutch elm disease, mutations, old age, and long droughts. The devastation culminated in the autumn of 1987 when a powerful hurricane landed and felled 14 million mature hard-leaf trees, turning literally everything "upside down."

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