You can learn a lot on a walk around Suffolk.
For instance, consider the slender iron bridge that crosses the River Blyth between Walberswick and Southwold. It was constructed in 1875 for a narrow gauge rail link between Southwold and Halesworth, and the train that ran on it is said to have been built for the Emperor of China – the imperial heraldic dragon could be made out under the carriages’ black paintwork. Want to know which Emperor of China? Kuang-hsu, actually, a child emperor who was keen on modern machinery but whose reformist political inclinations led the Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi (who died, by the. way, after a double helping of her favourite pudding, crab apples and clotted cream) to send him into exile. Tz’uhsi, incidentally, was a contemporary of Swinburne, who, in the 1870s, found plenty to be melancholy about in the haunting, sea- engulfed town of Dunwich, which was one of the most important ports in Europe during the Middle Ages and lies a taxing hike south of Walberswick. Diminutive Swinburne had a very big head: when he went to Eton in the summer of 1849, his was the largest hat in the school.
That’s the sort of crazy stuff with which this fascinating book is crammed. In the late summer of 1992, W G Sebald journeyed on foot through coastal East Anglia: some of the places he went and people he bumped into set his mind working on local history. The Rings of Saturn is the result. Thus the bridge over the Blyth triggers the sequence of four-page-long paragraphs that makes up the twenty-nine-page sixth chapter, which connects the bridge to the startlingly huge-headed poet as follows (I quote from the contents page): ‘The bridge over the Blyth – The Chinese court train – The Taiping rebellion and the opening of China – Destruction of the garden of Yuan Ming Yuan – The end of Emperor Hsien-feng – The Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi – Mysteries of power – The town beneath the sea – Poor Algernon’. The other nine chapters consist of similar fact-packed relays of history, natural history, fiction and autobiography.
Like the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, the author of The Rings of Saturn is a brilliantly gloomy connoisseur of calamity, preoccupied with ‘the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past’, which come to light in the course of his East Anglian investigations. Indeed, the book takes its title from just such traces: one of its epigraphs explains that Saturn’s rings are probably the fragments of a former moon, destroyed when it got too close to the planet.
I bring up Bernhard, but in fact it’s another Thomas whom Sebald invokes at the beginning and end of this curious and striking narrative, and to whose meditations on individual mortality and history Sebald’s are tuned. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne practised medicine in Norwich, now home of the University of East Anglia, where Sebald has been teaching since 1975. The excavations chronicled in The Rings of Saturn start with Sebald’s enquiries into the whereabouts of Browne’s skull, which became a kind of keepsake and then an anatomical curiosity after his remains were inadvertently disinterred a century and a half after burial. Browne might be said to have expected as much: ‘Who knows the fate of his bones, or bow often he is to be buried?’ he asked in Urn Burial, a knotty discourse on the archaeological and philosophical significance of some ancient sepulchral urns that had been discovered in a Norfolk field in 1658. They seemed to Browne to mock all human wishes for earthly immortality. In the fields and towns of Suffolk, W G Sebald has unearthed other repositories of relics of the past; as told here, the strange and often quite moving stories of these remnants echo the lesson Browne found in urns and ashes.