I relish Max Sebald, as I love Thomas de Quincey, for his fearless digressions, for the sheer scope of his curious, cosmopolitan imagination and for his powers of free association.
As a Suffolk man I have a special affection for The Rings of Saturn, although the Suffolk coast Sebald evokes is nothing like the Suffolk I know. It is a landscape transformed by a particular state of mind, gloomy but compelling. The place he describes is outlandish, like the writer, who is an exile from his language as well as from his land. In this respect he is the very opposite of writers like John Clare, Les Murray or Basil Bunting, whose work is grounded in a detailed appreciation, even mapping, of certain particular tracts of home country – Helpstone, the Wingfield Brush, Briggflatts – often in a home dialect with which they enjoy an easy familiarity.
These are writers I love, so why would I enjoy Sebald so much?
Because he is a great writer of Landscape and Memory: an archaeologist forever trowelling his way through the layers of the stories he always senses beneath every meadow or pavement. All his haunts have their ghosts. He has a special nose for the secrets and lies that underlie the sadness in lives: Edward Fitzgerald, nursing unrequited love for his dead friend Browne, living on bread and butter and tea in a tiny cottage, self-exiled from his vast inheritance; Michael Hamburger, still mourning the pet budgerigars that were confiscated as he entered England at the age of nine. Every story of exile is Sebald’s own, and the landscape mirrors his state of mind. Wandering through gorse thickets on Dunwich Heath: the intensity of their yellow burns into him and engenders thoughts of fire, bush fire raging through Californian forests. Gazing, as in a dream, at the pattern of Suffolk hedgerows beyond the heath, he sees a ‘labyrinth’, ‘a pattern . . . which I knew in my dream, with absolute certainty, represented a cross-section of my brain.’
For Sebald, everything feels unfamiliar, or so he says. What soon becomes familiar to the reader is ‘strange’, ‘peculiar’, ‘forlorn’ or ‘melancholy’. Yet so often I find myself haunted by the most vivid, detailed image, like the beetle the writer notices rowing itself across the surface of the well-water outside Michael Hamburger’s house in Middleton. A black beetle on black water. Getting himself lost repeatedly on Dunwich Heath, ‘that bewildering terrain’, Sebald is eventually overcome by a feeling of panic, as in a nightmare, and has no idea how he finds his way out of it except that ‘suddenly I stood in a country lane’, and he has regained his bearings. There is an allegorical feel to much that Sebald writes.
Perhaps we should place him in the visionary tradition of William Langland and John Bunyan. He is forever on the brink of sleep, or actually dreaming, or wandering ‘as if in a dream’. How like William Langland, falling asleep on a May morning on a Malvern hillside by the bank of a brook and dreaming of his fair field full of folk, and the story of Piers Plowman. ‘I felt like a journeyman in a century gone by, so out of place,’ says Sebald as he wanders through Suffolk.
Sebald, of course, famously empties out his landscapes and town squares – ‘the place was empty’, ‘there was not a soul to be seen’ – clearing the decks, like the dramatist he is, for the telling detail or those sumptuous, prodigious lists of objects or imagined people from the past.
How like John Bunyan, too, wandering the land on his Pilgrim’s Progress, perceiving the Chilterns on his way to London as Christian’s Celestial Mountains.
Bunyan/Christian was terrified that he would be pressed down into hell by the weight of evil he was carrying, just like Sebald, who must have felt he had to bear the whole weight of Germany’s dreadful, much-denied, recent history.
Ronald Blythe has pointed out how, when Mr Valiant-for-Truth passes over the river of death and has ‘the trumpets sounded for him on the other side’, Bunyan is writing about the trumpeter he heard sound the curfew each night by Bedford Bridge, Bunyan’s home town. Sebald often does something similar, transposing a familiar or actual place into fiction and metaphor, like the antiques bazaar in Austerlitz, full of memories of the holocaust objectified à la Roland Barthes, all unavailable for inspection or purchase because the shop is closed. No one should ever underestimate the seriousness of Sebald’s moral concern.
In its atmospheric majesty, its sudden horrors and swooning, altered states of consciousness, Sebald’s work is almost Gothic. He often wanders into deliberate archaism. As he stands on the crumbling Dunwich cliffs, ‘Crows and choughs that winged the mid-way air were scarce the size of beetles.’ There is the coffin-like, Kafka-like beetle again, as black as a crow or a chough. Such creatures are all drawn to the dead. The passage is characteristically reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe: the voice of the narrator in The Maelstrom, perched on a Nordic clifftop above a raging sea beneath a ‘leaden sky’, drawn by the nightmarish tug of the maelstrom that has traumatized his life.
Sebald’s formal, mesmeric, sonorous prose is deliberately musical in its composition, building up sometimes to torrential outpourings, like the single ten-page sentence evoking every detail of life as it must have been for Austerlitz’s mother in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, as he eventually breaks through to a full realization of the agony of her last days there. A bass-line of profound anxiety runs through all Sebald’s writing, like the elephants in Forster’s description of Beethoven’s fifth symphony in Howard’s End, a kind of silent scream like Munch’s. Sometimes it erupts, as in moments like the bolting of the hare on Orford Ness, its eyes almost popping out of its head with fear.
The genius of Sebald’s dreamlike way of writing is that it enables him to fly like Robin Goodfellow and ‘put a girdle round about the earth’, to take us effortlessly wherever he wants in time or place, without the need for narrative sense. He can take us from the Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room to the Congo, from the twitching of an archivist’s temple vein in a Prague lift to a lizard’s throbbing throat.
Reading Sebald, I can’t help thinking of Marlowe’s line: ‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’