06 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Somerleyton Hall


The second part of W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (translated by Michael Hulse) started like this:

It was on a grey, overcast day in August 1992 that I travelled down to the coast in one of the old diesel trains, grimed with oil and soot up to the windows, which ran from Norwich to Lowestoft at that time. The few passengers that there were sat in the half-light on the threadbare seats, all of them facing the engine as far away from each other as they could be, and so silent, that not a word might have passed their lips in the whole of their lives.

I don’t know but I find this very funny. The descriptions here ("grey, overcast day" and trains "grimed with oil and soot up to the windows") and the stripped details ("few passengers" ... "half-light" ... "threadbare seats" ... "so silent") are intense. The passengers seated "as far away from each other" as possible (why would they do that?) gives way to an exaggeration of the passengers' death-like state that "not a word might have passed their lips in the whole of their lives." It’s not enough to suppose that not a word is uttered or exchanged in the whole of the train journey, but that the silence must be extended to the entirety of their lives!

Surprising turns of phrase were brought to bear upon the bare English landscape during the dog days of August. Passing through abandoned wind pumps and windmills and a skeletal landscape, Sebald eventually arrived at Somerleyton Hall. He was shocked to see no one, not a single soul was waiting for him in the station platform. Where'd they go?

Sebald proceeded to tell us about the history of the manor of Somerleyton estate which dates back to the middles ages. It changed owners several times, mainly through inheritance. The old mansion was described in extravagant details; its architecture was such that one could not tell "where the natural ended and the man-made began." The society pages of newspapers in 1850s were full of praise and admiration for the visual pleasures afforded by the place.

Sebald was contrasting the glorious appearance of the Somerleyton Hall of the old with the present wherein it was no longer maintained and practically abandoned. His description of a bygone era was very vivid, as if he was part of or had just entered the past and was giving witness of it.

Sebald's fine writing was a constant, yet certain passages gave surprise. Consider this "bygone paraphernalia" in Somerleyton Hall which struck our narrator's fancy:

A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls, golf clubs, billiard cues and tennis racquets, most of them so small they might have been intended for children, or have shrunk in the course of the years.

Honey, I shrunk the sporting goods?! The reader wonders at this suggestion of a magical shrinkage. Not because it is insisted – it is not. But because the silly idea was entertained at all. What mechanism could have enabled this shrinking of objects? How the passage of time belittles everything?

Yes, the parade of quirky descriptions, handed down matter-of-fact, never ends:

However, on emerging into the open air again, I was saddened to see, in one of the otherwise deserted aviaries, a solitary Chinese quail, evidently in a state of dementia, running to and fro along the edge of cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it could not comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix.

And as if to prove the point, a still picture of this (demented) quail (in a hopeless fix, maybe) appeared on the facing page of the text...

In the grounds of Somerleyton, Sebald met William Hazel, a gardener who works in the mansion grounds. Upon learning of Sebald's German origin, Hazel spoke to him on how he developed an interest in the bombing of German cities during World War II. He constantly wondered about the destruction wrought on those cities by the aircraft bombers he saw passing through Somerleyton. One couldn’t help but to think of William Hazel as a stand-in for Sebald himself because the ideas he told Sebald were the same impassioned arguments the author gave in his lecture "Air War and Literature," collected in On the Natural History of Destruction. Hazel himself seemed to share Sebald’s thesis on the collective amnesia that descended upon the German literary establishment who was not able to publish something that dealt with the massive air strikes in their cities:

I [Hazel] have tried to find out everything I could that was in any way connected with the war in the air.... I even learnt German, after a fashion, so that I could read what the Germans themselves had said about the bombings and their lives in the ruined cities. To my astonishment, however, I soon found the search for such accounts invariably proved fruitless. No one at the time seemed to have written about their experiences or afterward recorded their memories. Even if you asked people directly, it was as if everything had been erased from their minds.

(This was the very thing decried by Sebald in his nonfiction and literary criticism and, indirectly, in fiction. In On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald blasted the selective memory of Germans who suppressed in their minds the atrocities committed by the Allied bombers in the mid-1940s. This protest appeared to be confined only in Germany as the lack of writing on the subject was not absolute. The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard was able to give a moving account of the air bombing. Bernhard's eyewitness account was contained in one of the volumes of his outstanding memoirs collected in Gathering Evidence.)

From Somerleyton, Sebald came upon Lowestoft, a depressed area hard hit by economic crises. Once again we read some bleak description of the landscape and its run-down establishments, a bleakness animated only by Sebald’s black humor. I cannot, for example, forget the hilarious scene with the sorry fish Sebald ate for dinner.

As with Somerleyton, Sebald provided contrasting descriptions of Lowestoft as a lively tourist destination during its heyday and the ruined Lowestoft of the present that is slowly crumbling into oblivion. Sebald’s travel notes of August '92 undermined previous accounts of Lowestoft as a wealthy resort in the latter half of nineteenth century.

Sebald then shared anecdotes about Lowestoft told by his friend Frederick Farrar, a conversation that took place a few months before the latter died. As with the gardener William Hazel before, Sebald now yielded the narrative to Frederick Farrar whose reminiscences on Lowestoft closed this second ring of Sebald’s saturnine book. Sebald was very like a tourist of ruined landscapes giving voice to his own observations and to those other "tour guides" of the past he encountered along the way. The tour guides tell their own stories as witnesses of history, seemingly innocent narratives in which horrors of death and destruction couldn't resist to bubble to the surface.

Notwithstanding the horror, there is in this chapter a well-calibrated humor, a smile that is always on the brink of escaping and being laughed away. The parade of details went on and on, of observed quietness of the landscapes, of crumbling built structures, of a hallucinatory loneliness. The reader is frozen and helpless in an agony of mirth.

Image: Locating the propellers, NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, 2004

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