At the time of his death in 2001 at the age of 57, the German writer W. G. Sebald was cited by many critics as a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was his book The Rings of Saturn, written in 1995 (translated into English in 1998), which went a long way to securing Sebald's reputation as a writer pioneering a new kind of literary fiction. The book is exemplary of his strange and unique style: the hybridity of genres, the blurring of fact and fiction, the indistinct black and white photographs, and his meditation on the destructive nature of history, the human lives affected, and the restorative power of art.
The book is, on one level, a walking tour through the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, Sebald's adopted home (he'd taught literature at the UEA there since 1970). The reader moves with the melancholic narrator from town to town, village to village, but in the process - through an astonishing network of associations, tangents, and apparent coincidences - one is led all over the world, into many different times, and many different lives. A ride on a miniature railway at Somerleyton Hall leads to 19th century China and the Taiping Rebellion; a chance meeting with a gardener to the bombing raids of the Second World War; a T.V. documentary on Roger Casement to Joseph Conrad, the Congo and colonial genocide; a browse through the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room to a meditation on wartime statistics and the tragedies wrought by the two world wars. In and amongst these meandering connections recurring motifs of silk, obscuring mists, combustion and burning are woven throughout to create an intricately patterned whole.
Among the many lives of the past encountered is a myriad array of literary figures. Collected together in this post are the major (public domain) texts of which, and through which, Sebald speaks - accompanied by extracts in which the texts are mentioned. The list begins and ends with the great polymath Thomas Browne, an appropriate framing as the work of this 17th century Norfolk native has a presence which permeates the whole book. Indeed, in the way he effortlessly moves through different histories and voices, it is perhaps in Browne's concept of the 'Eternal Present' which Sebald can be seen to operate, in this mysterious community of the living and the dead.
(The works below are shown roughly in order of their appearance in the book. Where possible the English translations of the non-English works are featured, with links to originals given below. The Sebald quotes given are from the brilliant English translation by Michael Hulse, and page numbers from the 1999 paperback Harvill Press edition.)
Thomas Browne, Hydrotophia or Urne Buriall and Garden of Cyrus (1658)
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. In common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. - (Pg.18/19)
Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, urne-buriall or, A discourse of the sepulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1907).
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857)
Gustave Flaubert was for her by far the finest of writers, and on many occasions she quoted long passages from the thousands of pages of his correspondence, never failing to astound me. Janine had taken an intense personal interest in the scruples which dogged Flaubert's writing, that fear of the false which, she said, sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways. Moreover, Janine said, he was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable. Janine maintained that the source of Flaubert's scruples was to be found in the relentless spread of stupidity which he had observed everywhere, and which he believed had already invaded his own head. It was (so supposedly once he said) as if one was sinking into sand. This was probably the reason, she said, that sand possessed such significance in all of Flaubert's works. Sand conquered all. Time and again, said Janine, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert's dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary's winter gown, said Janine, Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara. For him, every speck of dust weighed as heavy as the Atlas mountains. - (pg.8).
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary: A Tale of Provincial Life (Chicago: Magee, 1904).
Brehm's Tierleben (1864-9)
...while on the one hand the study of Nature today aims to describe a system governed by immutable laws, on the other it delights in drawing our attention to creatures noteworthy for their bizarre physical form or behaviour. Even in Brehm's Tierleben, a popular nineteenth-century zoological compendium, pride of place is given to the crocodile and the kangaroo, the ant-eater and the armadillo, the seahorse and the pelican; and nowadays we are shown on the television screen a colony of penguins, say, standing motionless through the long dark winter of the Antarctic, with its icy storms, on their feet the eggs laid at a milder time of year. In programmes of this kind, which are called Nature Watch or Survival and are considered particularly educational, one is more likely to see some monster coupling at the bottom of Lake Baikal than an ordinary blackbird. - (pg.21)
The Animals of the World, Brehm's Life of Animals, translated from the 3rd German ed. as edited by Pechuel-Loesche and W. Haacke, and rev. and abridged by R. Schmidtlein (Chicago: A. N. Marquis, Chicago).
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669)
Recently I realized that the imaginary beings listed alphabetically in [Borges' Libro de los seres imaginarios] include the creature Baldanders, whom Simplicius Simplicissimus encounters in the sixth book of Grimmelshausen’s narrative. There, Baldanders is first seen as a stone sculpture lying in a forest, resembling a Germanic hero of old and wearing a Roman soldier's tunic with a big Swabian bib. Baldanders claims to have come from Paradise, to have always been in Simplicius’s company, unbeknownst to him, and to be unable to quit his side until Simplicius shall have reverted to the clay he is made of. Then, before the very eyes of Simplicius, Baldanders changes into a scribe... and then into a mighty oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet. - (pg.23)
Hans Jacob Christoph von Grimmelshausen, The Adventurous Simplicissimus, a translation by Goodrick (London: William Heinemann, 1912).
Denis Diderot, Voyage en Hollande (1798)
Diderot, in one of his travel journals, described Holland as the Egypt of Europe, where one might cross the fields in a boat and, as far as the eye could see, there would be scarcely anything to break the flooded surface of the plain. In that curious country, he wrote, the most modest rise gave one the loftiest sensation. And for Diderot there was nothing more satisfying to the human mind than the neat Dutch towns, with their straight, tree-lined canals, exemplary in every respect. Settlement succeeded settlement just as if they had been conjured up overnight by the hand of an artist in accordance with some carefully worked-out plan, wrote Diderot, and even in the heart of the largest of them one still felt one was out in the country. The Hague, at that time with a population of about forty thousand, he felt was the loveliset village on earth, and the road from the town to the strand at Schevenigen a promenade without equal. It was not easy to appreciate these observations as I walked along Parkstraat towards Scheveningen. - (pg.84)
Denis Diderot, Oeuvres inédites: Le neveu de Rameau. Voyage de Hollande (Paris: J. L. J. Brière, 1821).
Algernon Charles Swinburne, By the North Sea (1880)
Dunwich, with its towers and many thousand souls, has dissolved into water, sand and thin air. If you look out from the cliff-top across the sea towards where the town must have been, you can sense the immense power of emptiness. Perhaps it was for this reason that Dunwich became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets in the Victorian age. Algernon Charles Swinburne, for instance, went there on several occasions in the 1870s with his companion Theodore Watts-Dunton, whenever the excitement of London literary life threatened to overtax his nerves, which had been hypersensitive since his early childhood. He had achieved legendary fame as a young man, and many a time he had been sent into such impassioned paroxysms by the dazzling conversations on art in the Pre-Raphalite salons, or by the mental strain of composing his own verse and tragedies, overflowing with wonderful poetic bombast, that he could no longer control his own voice and limbs. After these quasi-epileptic fits he often lay prostrate for weeks, and soon, unfitted for general society, he could bear only the company of those who were close to him. Initially he spent the periods of convalescence at the family country estate, but later, ever more frequently, he went to the coast with the trusty Watts-Dunton. Rambles from Southwold to Dunwich, through the windblown fields of sedge, worked like a sedative upon him. A long poem entitled "By The North Sea" was his tribute to the gradual dissolution of life. Like ashes the low cliffs crumble and the banks drop down into the dust. - (pg.84)
The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne (London: Chatto & Windus, 1904).
Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in Englsh Verse (1859)
The only task FitzGerald finished and published in his lifetime was his marvellous rendering of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, with whom he felt a curiously close affinity acorss a distance of eight centuries. FitzGerald described the endless hours he spent translating this poem of two hundred and twenty-four lines as a colloquy with the dead man and an attempt to bring to us tidings of him. The English verses he devised for the purpose, which radiate with a pure, seemingly unselfconscious beauty, feign an anonymity that disdains even the least claim to authorship, and draw us, word by word, to an invisible point where the medieval orient and the fading occident can come together in a way never allowed them by the calamitous course of history. For in and out, above, about, below, / ’Tis nothing but magic Shadow-Show, / play’d in a Box Whose Candle is the Sun, / Round which the Phantom figures come and go. The Rubaiyat was published in 1859, and it was also in that year that William Browne, who probably meant more to FitzGerald than anyone else on earth, died a painful death from serious injuries sustained in a hunting accident. - (pg.200/1)
Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in English Verse (London: H. W. Bell, 1901).
François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe (1859)
It was in Rome in 1806 that he first felt the desire to search the depths of his soul. In 1811, Chateaubriand began this undertaking in earnest, and from that time onwards he devoted himself to his recollections whenever the circumstances of his at once glorious and painful life permitted. His personal feelings and thoughts unfolded against the background of the momentous upheavals of those years: the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, his own exile, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Monarchy all were part of this interminable play performed on the world's stage, a play which took its toll on the privileged observer no less than on the nameless masses... Within the overall context of the task of remembering, such colorful accounts of military spectacles and large-scale operations form what might be called the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next. The chronicler, who was present at these events and is once more recalling what he witnessed, inscribes his experiences, in an act of self-mutilation, onto his own body. In the writing, he becomes the martyred paradigm of the fate Providence has in store for us, and, though still alive, is already in the tomb that his memoirs represent. - (pg.200/1)
Memoirs of Chateaubriand, Vol 1 (London: Henry Colburn, 1848).
Thomas Browne, Musaeum Clausum (1684)
Amongst the miscellaneous papers left by Sir Thomas Browne... there is also to found a catalogue of remarkable books, listing pictures, antiquities and sundry singular items that may have formed part of a collection put together by Browne but were more likely products of his imagination, the inventory of a treasure house that existed purely in his head and to which there is no access except through the letters on the page. - (pg.200/1)
Thomas Browne, Certain Miscellany Tracts (London: Henry Bonwick, 1684).
Apr 23, 2013