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W.G. Sebald, Melancholy Poet & Travel Agent

Map Courtesy New York Times

The New York Times has jumped on the bandwagon that, until now, has largely been driven by the Guardian.  The Times has sent writer Rachel B. Doyle to go Rambling With W. G. Sebald in East Anglia with a copy of The Rings of Saturn as her guidebook.  A version of Doyle’s article, which appeared on the Times website yesterday April 22, will also appear in the April 24 Travel section of the Sunday print edition.  Doyle rambled by bicycle through Southwold, Dunwich, and Orford, and her article provides links to the websites of some of the key places, such as Somerleyton Hall, Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room, Orford Ness, and The Crown, an inn where Sebald liked to stay in Southwold.

Doyle’s self-effacing account relies largely on Sebald to provide the backstory to the places she – and he – visited. In this way, Doyle’s piece avoids being a facile exercise in literary voyeurism.  Instead, she manages to remain true to Sebald’s vision, especially in regard to the powerful attraction that ruins of all types held for him.  Doyle neatly contrasts two such ruins, Somerleyton Hall and Orford Castle.

Somerleyton Hall, a railway magnate’s mansion that had its heyday in the 19th century, represents the essential hollowness of social ambitions – wealth, caste, power.

But it was the Hall’s archaic oddities and waning splendor, its stuffed polar bears and old croquet mallets that charmed him immensely. It must have been uninviting, Sebald wrote, “when everything, from the cellar to the attic, from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste. And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.” Sebald was drawn to East Anglia by these very anachronisms, by physical evidence of the passage of time and the steady drift toward irrelevance that belied its past importance.

Orford Castle and nearby Orford Ness, on the other hand, were long the home of England’s top secret weapons experiments.  To Sebald, the place resembled “a penal colony” and Doyle finds it “still a shock to see an obsolete nuclear bomb on the floor of the information center.”  The dreary and dilapidated ruins at Orford become reminders of the worst of our political and territorial ambitions.

As Doyle points out, one of the core themes of  The Rings of Saturn is “the steady drift toward irrelevance,” which, Sebald seemed to be saying, was the only fitting end for human ambition and folly.  At the same time, Sebald could take delight – however melancholy – in the “dissolution” of places like Somerleyton Hall, while Orford stood for a horror of a completely different order.

“If you look out from the cliff-top across the sea towards where the town must once have been, you can sense the immense power of emptiness,” Sebald wrote. “Perhaps it was for this reason that Dunwich became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets of the Victorian age.”

The Times also provides a slide show of related photographs by Andrew Testa.  Doyle is the author of another Times travel piece, Norwich, England – a Getaway for Book Lovers, which I briefly wrote about in January.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe Nechasek #

    Very enjoyable travel and text conveyed the ancient and rather empty landscape.

    April 23, 2011
  2. The NY Times has been referring more and more to Sebald, understanding the utmost importance of his work.
    Joel Lipset

    April 24, 2011
  3. Another writer exploring East Anglia in a recent publication is Jules Pretty in This Luminous Coast. Looks like similar literary as well as geographical terrain to Sebald. Must order a copy and see!

    April 24, 2011
  4. Norfolk/Suffolk’s ’empty landscape’ is precisely what attracts artists and writers such as Sebald to muse upon the East Anglian skyscape’s ability to make the individual feel small; it’s not so dissimilar to the Dutch landscape in its ‘big sky’ effect.

    I could say that poor old Max is probably turning in his grave as the focus of attention but if it brings curiosity, literary appreciation and cash to the British tourist industry, then he’s bequeathed a real legacy.

    April 26, 2011
  5. Thank goodness this attention is coming. He may be turning in his grave, but ibet Susan Sontag is smiling, chatting with him.
    Joel Lipset

    April 29, 2011
  6. Wonderful many thanks. A TLS reviewer last year suggested The Rings of Saturn belonged to a world of East Anglian melancholy and linked it to the Fizgerald Rubaiyat which when I read i thought – yes!

    May 24, 2011
  7. That is well said.
    Sebald’s melancholy is so powerful.

    Joel Lipset

    May 27, 2011
  8. East Anglian melancholy – I think I have been suffering from it all my life!

    Some very interesting comments on here.

    Incidentally I think the Folio Society may well be bringing out an edition of The Rings of Saturn this year.

    June 8, 2011

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