July 8, 2007
A recurring theme of W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn is the architecture of ruin. The reader is introduced to ruined monasteries, decrepit estates, buildings of various types left over from previous world wars, an abandoned windmill, a collapsed tower, and even a crashed zeppelin. At one point during his walking tour of East Anglia, toward the end of Chapter 8, the narrator has himself ferried over to Orfordness, once a secret research station for the Department of Defence but now an eerie set of ruins that first appear to him to be, improbably, temples or pagodas.
But the closer I came to these ruins…the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe.
Perhaps it should not be completely surprising, then, that the narrator’s next stop should be to visit the reconstruction of an historic temple and to meet its creator. In fact, possibly the only “new” structure to make an appearance in The Rings of Saturn is this still-under-construction replica of a building destroyed two millennium earlier. At the opening of Chapter 9, the narrator heads for a place he calls Chestnut Tree Farm, not far from Orfordness, where a one-time farmer with the name of Thomas Abrams has spent two decades painstakingly recreating the Temple of Jerusalem in an exact scale model. Chestnut Tree Farm is, fittingly, just off an old Roman road that the narrator has been following. Abrams’ carefully researched model, we are told, covers nearly ten square yards and includes more than 2,000 human figures, each less than one-quarter of an inch tall.
Abrams is one of those “barmy” characters beloved by Sebald, whose quaint obsessiveness he finds appealing. In fact, the model for the character “Thomas Abrams” was really Alec Garrard, a friend of Sebald’s, as he revealed in an interview published shortly after the book appeared in English (Sarah Kafatou, An Interview with W.G. Sebald, Harvard Review 15, Fall 1998). Garrard subsequently published a heavily-illustrated book The Splendor of the Temple (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), in which uses his 1:100 scale masterpiece to describe the history, architecture, and functions of the real Temple, which was begun by Herod about 19 B.C. and destroyed in 70 A.D.
By the way, the back cover text of the New Directions paperback version of The Rings of Saturn rather uncharitably calls Garrard’s complex construction a “matchstick model,” as if it were destined for a competition at a State Fair.