The sheer verbal sorcery of WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn bewitches me. He brilliantly describes a walking tour of East Anglia, etching the effects of class war, nationalistic conflict, genocide, exploitation and loss. Everywhere is an opening to hell. His wonderful, unexpected narrative teaches us about the desolation and terrors of modern life, his vision akin to classical tragedy.
I feel overwhelmed, and want not to be. Surely there must be something missing from this vision? Indeed, so gloomy did they think him, Private Eye nicknamed him 'Eeyore'. Sebald was obsessed by the Second War and the Holocaust, a period when sales of the mid-Victorian Diaries of the Radnorshire curate Francis Kilvert soared. Kilvert was a tall, bearded priest in Clyro and later St Harmon and Bredwardine, collector of folklore; energetic hill-walker; admirer of young girls; and, most of all, from 1870, an unparalleled and brilliant diarist.
When I came to write a book about the Welsh March, where I have lived for 35 years, I drew on my obsession with both writers. Kilvert celebrated domestic detail of life in the March better than anyone else. Sebald demonstrated how innovative writing-about-place might today be attempted. They seemed both to be at my shoulder, engaged in lively argument.
Their debate concerned the challenge of writing about happiness. How is this done without belying the darkness of life? Without mere "feel-good" writing? Kilvert, who died from peritonitis a month after marrying, seemed to suggest how. He has no shortage of macabre subject-matter. Among his best passages are descriptions of a young boy nearly drowning in human excrement and of an impoverished worker who cut his throat, then nearly his entire head off.
It has been well observed that "happiness writes white": happiness is hard to evoke, leaves no trace, is a knack mastered by few. Kilvert somehow pulls it off. Everything interests him, and the Victorian age comes alive: bathing nude on a public beach in mixed company, rural deans discussing venereal disease, Wordsworth, animals; what he terms "the beautiful courtesy of Radnorshire manners".
He makes us experience the physicality of his world as if we were at his side. Here he is, watching lapwing: "The peewits were sweeping...in the hot blue air about the tall trees with a strange deep mysterious hustling and quavering sound from their great wings." Kilvert's acuity of eye and ear, his art of catching life on the wing and of communicating a tenderness of feeling our more cynical age has forgotten: these are moving skills from which we can still learn. Was it escapist to enjoy Kilvert during the Blitz? Perhaps. Not everyone thought so. Kilvert reminds us how normal it long seemed to live within the walls of an extended period of peace.
Peter J Conradi's 'At the Bright Hem of God: a Radnorshire Pastoral' is published by SerenReuse content