Books: Suffolk - where things fall apart

THE RINGS OF SATURN by W G Sebald trs Michael Hulse, Harvill pounds 15. 99/pounds 12
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W G SEBALD'S beautifully poignant study of Jewish exiles, The Emigrants, was greeted as one of the major books of 1996 by leading novelists like Michael Ondaatje and A S Byatt. The Rings of Saturn, which is just as unclassifiable a mixture of philosophical travelogue, political history and private deliberation, is likely to win him even greater acclaim. Part of that applause acknowledges the fact that Sebald's apparently formless improvisatory structure artfully conceals all the potency and crafted artifice of world-class fiction.

Sebald is a Professor of German at East Anglia and has been resident in this country since 1970. In 1992 he set off on foot through coastal Suffolk, and this book is a record both of the journey itself and of the far-reaching meditations inspired by his various stopping places. Thus, in the way of regional literary associations, we have a vivid account of Swinburne's tormented sensibility and and his descent into housebound neurasthenia once the regular walks with Watts Dunton between Southwold and Dunwich had ceased to have their sedative effect. Joseph Conrad, whose first sight of England was Lowestoft (he began to learn English by reading the Lowestoft Standard), and Edward FitzGerald, the translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are also given miniature biographies full of pathos and fictional intensity. Early on there is a lengthy analysis of Borges's story of an imaginary world Tlon, Uqbar, Orbius Tertius and this seems to be the key to Sebald's literary origins. Like Borges, Sebald demonstrates many of the obsessions of the bibliophile and the autodidact. He is fascinated by old treatises on silkworm cultivation or by more recent books on the history of artificial light. The silk theme leads him to the factories of 18th-century Norwich but it also allows for an excursus that takes us to Imperial China and later the Bavarian Minister Hazzi who in 1826 wrote that widespread domestic sericulture could lead to a "moral transformation" of the entire nation. Later, as Sebald points out, the Nazis vainly tried to promote the same idea.

Sebald's book has minimal paragraph separation; it is a continuous flow which is broken up principally by numerous haunting black and white photographs. These range from the mournful enigma of a deserted Suffolk beach, to the stark obscenity of a row of Serbian prisoners being hung like magpies on a ladder-scaffold by the pro-Hitler Ustashe Fascists. The implicit message seems to be that the tragedies of history and the tragedies of the present day are all fluxing beyond time and location, all ultimately inseparable. The story of a long-dead Chinese empress or the desperate state of present day Lowestoft are all interlinked by commerce, greed and imperialism. You can start with the history of the silkworm or with the decline of the herring industry; with the cruelty in the Belgian Congo that prompted Roger Casement to political action and the horrified Joseph Conrad to push it to the back of his mind - but it is all of little event where you first pick up the thread.

Sebald makes no apologies for this determinism, his final pessimism. His case is strengthened by the frequent expression of authorial vulnerability, the fragility of the writer himself. Sebald states that, like his Suffolk friend Michael Hamburger, he seriously doubts his own talent. Worse still, that sometimes he can find himself almost slipping into other worlds, perhaps the real world that reveals itself when Sebald gets badly lost on part of his journey and is thrown into a terrifying state of disorientation.

However, that same case is weakened, I believe, by his fondness for a kind of sly fatalistic conflation of moods, dates and events. At one point he describes how he is reduced to a mysterious state of near-immobility a year to the day after starting his tour. He wonders if that is somehow connected with some of the painful historical meditations experienced on the trip. Less likeably, he seriously ponders whether the atrocious behaviour of the Belgians in Africa in the 1890s is reflected in physical form in the populace 70 years later. He writes "At all events I well recall ... in Brussels in December 1964 , I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year."

That aside, this is a remarkable book and Sebald is surely a major European author. His prose is wonderfully resonant, poetic and precise, and when it comes to descriptions of Suffolk landscape and the decaying fishing industry he reaches heights of epiphanic beauty normally only encountered in the likes of Proust. The only real threat to his talent seems to be one of authorial obsession. Again like Borges, he is fascinated by the idea of entropic decay, of things running down and becoming useless. In The Rings of Saturn there are far too many brilliant depictions of reclusive, eccentric figures, languishing either in Chinese palaces, Anglo-Irish demesnes or Suffolk mansions, finally descending into terminal melancholy or other forms of Gothic inanition. Such a fixation seems to me to be at one with Sebald's fatalism and, at least artistically, to be pointing to a dead end.