It’s with some shame that I admit I’ve had this book on my shelf for years but only just got round to reading it. Described as an influence by many of the psychogeographers that fill my bookshelves, I was expecting great things.
Based in August 1992, this piece of writing weaves history and landscape together as the author embarks on a walking tour of Suffolk. In the opening chapter, it’s clear that this ig going to be a multi-dimensional text, with Sebald weaving his own experiences with the subjects of those of his academic colleagues, settling on the work of Sir Thomas Browne and his relationship with the art of Rembrandt, which whisks us to Amsterdam and a detailed examination of the thoughts and theories behind Browne’s work.
This criss-crossing of the continent and different time frames defines Sebald’s work, and in chapter after chapter we move across the centuries as we move across the county. Personal observations of the world around him fling us to other periods, such as the examination of the changing fortunes of the fishing industry prompted by the view of the beaches south of Lowestoft, the biographical accounts of both Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement opened up by a chance TV documentary seen in a room in Southwold.
These trickles from the main river of the narrative are fascinating, particularly the exploration of Conrad’s life and the sea journeys that brought him to Lowestoft. His skill in weaving the narrative means that they never feel ‘shoehorned in’, but rather a natural tributary from the main flow of the journey. This section in particular sees us journey with Sebald back to an experience in Belgium before joining Conrad back in the Conrad before linking again to Casement and finally back to the present day. At one point, we move from the disused railways to Imperial China where we’re told the Dowager Empress “had a daily blood sacrifice offered in her temple to the gods of silk.”
However, what makes much of this book so compelling is not just Sebald’s skill at weaving together fascinating anecdotes, but much of the prose is incredibly poetic, such as the description of the train journey he takes in the second chapter to Lowestoft:
“Most of the time the carriage, pitching along unsteadily on the track, was merely coasting along, since there in an almost unbroken gentle decline towards the sea; at intervals, though, when the gears engaged with a jolt that rocked the entire framework, the grinding of cog wheels could be heard for a while, till, with a more even pounding, the onward roll resumed, past the back gardens, allotments, rubbish dumps and factory yards to the east of the city and out into the marshes beyond”
Much of the narrative feels melancholic due to the examination of lost worlds, seen most keenly when he visits once stately homes, both in the present and in memory, commenting that ”It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” Although we generally meet a new character in each chapter and it’s these biographies that underpin each section, he keeps returning to Browne, at one point examining his philosophy on life and Time: “The night of time far surpasseth the day”.
There’s a somewhat Hardy-esque feel to his criticism of industry, especially when he arrives in Dunwich, where the labyrinthine heath seems to induce a sort of dream-like consciousness as he wanders lost through a confusing landscape. It is at this point that his criticism of the industrial world is at its strongest as he declares, looking at the remains of the prehistoric forest destroyed by fire that “combustion in the hidden principle behind every artefact we create.”
This is not a wholly solitary journey – peppered not just with anecdotal and biographical accounts of historical figures, but also encounters with friends such as the poet Michael Hamburger (although I must admit that these are perhaps some of the least interesting parts of the book as he seems to drift off onto their tangents.
It’s not difficult to see why this text in particular has influenced many other writers. It weaves multiple narratives and some of the prose is an absolute joy – particularly when paired with personal experience. For me, the most powerful part was towards the end when he describes the destruction of trees in a storm: “Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound.”