Sebald, Rings of Saturn and humour

My copy of WG Sebald’s recently translated book of essays on German-language writers, A Place in the Country, arrived the other day; can’t wait to read it.  Robert McCrum wrote about WGS’s ‘quietly potent legacy’ in the Guardian yesterday.  Meanwhile I’d recommend taking a look at this piece by Claire Preston in The Public Domain Review, the online journal cited here yesterday, about Sebald’s references to other texts in The Rings of Saturn, a typically enigmatic work in  which he recounts his wandering along the ghost-haunted coast of East Anglia, musing on mutability, the holocaust, fishing, silkworms, skulls, and so on.  The thing is, much of the time he’s being funny; the erudition is often playful.  Just as Borges amuses himself and us with his witty Book of Imaginary Beings, so Max (as he preferred to be known) reflects that the Argentinian’s mention of the mythical Baldanders was borrowed from an equally strange work by Hans J.C. von Grimmelshausen, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669; English tr. 1912: ‘the life of a strange vagabond named Melchior Sternfels von Fechshaim’; unfortunately this translation by Goodrick omits Bk VI, in which the imaginary creature is found, but it can be read about in the original German version which does include all six books, a link to which is given in the article by Preston).  It has to be said that Sebald wasn’t always a happy bunny, though, and there are passages in which the ‘shadow of annihilation’ darkens the narrative, and past figures and events leach into the present with melancholy power; this explains the reference to Sir Thomas Browne’s (1605-1682) remarkable Hydrotaphia, Urne-Buriall or a discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658).  Browne spent his last 50 years in Norfolk, hence Sebald’s interest in him (WGS taught at the Univ. of E. Anglia until his death aged just 57 in 2001).  Like Sebald, however, Browne was also capable of frivolity and playfulness, hence the citation in The Rings of Saturn to Browne’s Borgesian catalogue of (possibly) imaginary books, pictures, ‘sundry singular items’ and antiquities, the Musaeum Clausum (published in Certain Miscellany Tracts, 1684); a typical entry reads: ‘3.  An Ancient British Herbal, or description of divers Plants of this Island, observed by the famous Physician Scribonius Largus, when he attended the Emperour Claudius in his Expedition into Britany’.  Scribonius was indeed the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and in AD 47 he drew up a list of nearly 300 ‘compositiones’ or prescriptions.  Not everyone cares for this bookish mix of humour and darkness (or the complex authenticity of the orthography), but I find it fascinating and fun.

Other texts cited in Preston’s article (via Sebald) include Diderot’s Voyage en Hollande (1798), Chateaubriand’s Memoirs (Eng trans 1848), Flaubert, Swinburne, etc.

There’s a lively review of A Place in the Country by Tim Adams in The Observer, 27 April. I liked this bit: ‘He was, after all, in his writing, always in the company of ghosts, both of place and person, in anxious search, as he said, for “how everything is connected across space and time”; the books that have emerged since his absence from the realm of living writers only heighten this unsettling sense of willed limbo.’

Good stuff, but I’m not so sure about ‘willed limbo’…

One of the figures Sebald writes about in this posthumous book is Robert Walser (1878-1956), a Swiss writer of feuilletons, stories and novels, who was much admired by the likes of Kafka and Musil, and about whom I intend posting some time in the future; might even finish the story I’m drafting about him under the working title ‘The Walker’.  If you cared to explore him further, there’s an informative 1998 essay by Sebald, originally published as ‘le promeneur solitiaire’, and which can now be read in English translation as the introduction to the 2009 New Directions translation of Walser’s novel The Tanners; if you click on that last link you’ll find one of many informative pieces on Sebald (and the influence of Walser, in the linked piece), in an excellent online lit. journal: A Piece of Monologue.   More on Sebald, no doubt, in future posts.