"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 23, 2013

Best Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (1): Earliest Comical Stories (1882-1885)

Together with Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) shaped the genre of the short story (and of the modern play, but that is another matter). According to one source, Chekhov published 588 stories, of which 528 between 1882 and 1888 and the rest (60) between 1888 and 1904. In other words, his youthful output was prodigious: at age 26 he had already published 400 pieces. Many of these are buried in the original editions of the magazines of the time, they were never reprinted in book form. (Some of these uncollected pieces have become the subject of the interesting The Undiscovered Chekhov by Peter Constantine, who also wrote an informative article about these often experimental stories and sketches). But other early stories were selected by Chekhov for his Collected Works (brought out between 1899 and 1902), and that are the stories we are talking about now, as these in turn have become the basis of most translations into English and other languages.

The first and most influential of those translations were the 17 volumes of 201 stories translated by Constance Garnett (1861-1946) and published between 1916 and 1922 - thanks to Garnett, Chekhov became known in the West and influenced such authors as Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf and Mansfield. Garnett's translations are in the public domain, and are quite reliable - on top of that, Garnett has a felicitous hand where it concerns Chekhov, just as in her Turgenev translations. They are available on Gutenberg, eBooks@Adelaide and other sites with public domain books.

[Chekhov (left) in 1882, with his brother Nikolai. 
Photo from Wikipedia]

Chekhov was born in 1860 in the port town of Taganrog, in southern Russia on the Sea of Azov. His father, with whom he had a difficult relationship, failed in business and fled with wife and two of his sons to Moscow when Chekhov was only 16 and still a pupil at the local high-school. Chekhov finished school in Taganrog, supporting himself in various ways, before joining his family in Moscow where he started studying medicine. Chekhov wrote his stories (plus other newspaper work as a column with Moscow gossip) because he badly needed the money, both for himself and his parents and brothers who were largely dependent on him. Chekhov worked under difficult conditions, on the kitchen table in tiny rooms filled with noisy people. He wrote fast and looked everywhere for new materials. As most magazines had little space, he also learned how to be concise and paint a character or situation in just a few brushstrokes.

Here we will look at the often comical stories that formed Chekhov's earliest production, those from the years 1882-1885. Although he dashed them off to support himself and his family, they are certainly no hackwork.

One important theme in this period is satire of the gigantic Tsarist bureaucracy or more in general, of the hypocritical behavior, absurd rituals and bribery that are rampant in a strictly hierarchical society as the Russian one. He attacks these with surrealistic humor and with the exasperation of a young man who is still idealistic. Another group of stories finds its humor more simply in comical situations, or people behaving in a stupid or extremely naive way. In comparison to the later stories, Chekhov in these years still observes mostly from the outside, the situation makes the story, rather than what is happening inside the head of the protagonist.

[Chekhov monument in Taganrog. Photo Wikipedia]

Here are the 10 best stories from 1883-85:
  1. "The Death of a Civil Servant" ("The Death of a Government Clerk"; July, 1883). Russian society is extremely vertical, and Chekhov has written several early stories to criticize the exaggerated humility of those in lower ranks towards their superiors. In this story, a clerk sneezes while watching a play in the theater and his spit hits the bald pate of a high official sitting in front of him. He immediately apologizes, but when the reaction of his exalted victim is rather tepid, he apologizes again, and again. The next day he visits the official and once more makes his excuses in a rather emphatic way. His repeated obsequiousness and reference to something unpleasant, but minor, so upsets the official that the clerk is literally thrown out. Paralyzed with fear that he will loose his job, the clerk takes to his bed and dies.
  2. "The Daughter of Albion" (August, 1883). A landowner is fishing at the riverside, together with the English governess of his children. A friend comes to meet him. The landowner speaks roughly and impolitely about the governess in her own presence, for even after ten years in Russia, she still can't manage a word of the language, he explains. Then his hook is stuck at the bottom of the river. He has to undress in order to go into the water and retrieve the hook, but the governess doesn't understand him when he asks her to leave or look the other way. So he just takes off his clothes in front of her and steps stark naked into the river. She seems unperturbed. This story is a critique of lack of respect for others.
  3. "Fat and Thin" (October, 1883). Two old schoolmates, a fat one and a thin one, meet in front of the station. They haven't met for many, many years and strike up an animated discussion. The thin one, who is accompanied by his family, tells he has just been promoted to head clerk. The fat one, as it turns out, is already a much higher ranking official. As soon as the thin man hears this, all normal human feelings are gone and he looses himself in groveling humility...
  4. "The Chameleon" (September, 1884). Again an excellent "hierarchy" story. A man has been bitten by a dog and asks the local policeman to take action towards the lax owner. But who is the owner? The behavior of the servant of the law changes like a chameleon, depending on his guessing of who the owner of the dog might be. After all, he can't inconvenience the local landlord or other authorities with a complaint about their dog!
  5. "Oysters" (December, 1884) A father and his young son stand in front of a restaurant. The father has lost his job and has no money left, this is the first day that they have to start begging for food. The father, however, is too ashamed to do so. The restaurant advertises "oysters" and the boy asks what these are. A customer hears the boy and invites him to a good meal of oysters. At night, the father who didn't get any food, is still hungry, and the boy has severe heartburn...
  6. "The Swedish Match" (1884). Detective stories with logically reasoning sleuths became popular around this time in Russia, and Chekhov wrote two:  a novel - his only one! - called The Shooting Party (available as a Penguin Classic) and this story, which in fact makes fun of the genre. A man is thought to have been murdered and the detective by strict logical reasoning solves the case and arrests the culprits... until the murdered man is discovered, in the shed of his mistress with whom he was hiding for a few days of intensive lovemaking!
  7. "The Marshall's Widow" (February, 1885). That strong liquor was just as popular in Russia in Chekhov's time as today, is evident from many of Chekhov's stories. A widow of a Marshall every year has a Requiem Mass read for her deceased husband, followed by a lunch for the local notables. The lunch is always excellent and therefore very popular, but there is one problem: it is a teetotalist event, as liquor carried the Marshall to his grave. But the participants know how to solve that problem in various, ingenious ways...
  8. "The Fish" (July, 1885) Two men are trying to catch an eelpout in the river, using their bare hands to get hold of the slippery fish. They have been at it for an hour, when more forces arrive, including the local landowner. But the result is not as hoped for... A beautiful description of the river scenery.
  9. "The Malefactor" (July, 1885). A villager has been arrested and stands in front of the judge. He has stolen iron bolts from the railway, which endangers the trains. He uses the bolts as weights for his fishing rod, and has no idea of the difference between things rightfully belonging to him and what is government property - let alone the larger idea of the public weal. As appears from his defense, neither have the other villagers... 
  10. "The Huntsman" (July, 1885) The best of the stories from this period, foreshadowing the later Chekhov. A huntsman always lives alone in the woods, busy with his occupation, away from his wife of twelve years. He even never visits her. When by chance he comes across  his wife, she tries to make him come home (she still harbors tender feelings for him), but he sees no point in it. It is the fate of his wife that she is married to a huntsman, he claims and leaves again. At their parting, he gives her a ruble. A deft story without moralizing, with an unspoken tragedy hidden behind the simple words.
I have read Chekhov in the Constance Garnett translations available on eBooks@adelaide (see the links in the story titles). The selection was made among 42 stories from 1883-85. A few more stories from these years are available in other collections, for example those in Penguin Classics or Oxford Classics. 

February 15, 2013

Bach Cantatas (47): Trinity XIV

The fourteenth Sunday after Trinity introduces the theme of spiritual sickness and healing, via the story of the cleansing of the ten lepers.
    There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

    Galatians 5:16–24, works of the flesh, fruit of the Spirit
    Luke 17:11–19, Cleansing ten lepers


    • Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, BWV 25, 29 August 1723

      Coro: Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe
      Recitativo (tenor): Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital
      Aria (bass): Ach, wo hol ich Armer Rat?
      Recitativo (soprano): O Jesu, lieber Meister.
      Aria (soprano): Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern
      Chorale: Ich will alle meine Tage

      ("There is no soundness in my body") The Lutheran fondness for sin, decay, and "rotting of bones" infuses the somber opening chorus with off-beat violin. But the trombones and recorders playing a dirge-like chorale melody and the fugal chorus add enough elements of greatness to make this a superb chorale fantasia - a double fugue which incorporates a chorale tune and features a large instrumental ensemble. A tour de force in which Bach conveys a vivid sense of spiritual and physical sickness, the subjects of this cantata. In contrast, the following three movements are consciously bare, only accompanied by the continuo. In the tenor recitative the disease is likened to human weaknesses as lust, pride and greed. The bass aria asks where help can be found and then gives the obvious answer: Jesus, the Physician of Souls. The ensuing soprano recitative is a plea for mercy and spiritual healing and this is followed by an aria, again for soprano, which forms a thanksgiving for answering the previous prayers. It is quite delightful, a sort of dancing concerto for strings and oboes, echoed by the recorders, as if the soul is already joining in the chorus of angels. The cantata is closed by a four-part version of the final stanza of Johann Heermann's chorale Treuer Gott, ich muss dir klagen (1630).

    • Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78, 10 September 1724

      Chorus: Jesu, der du meine Seele
      Aria (soprano, alto): Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten
      Recitativo (tenor): Ach! ich bin ein Kind der Sünden
      Aria (tenor, flute): Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht
      Recitativo (bass, strings): Die Wunden, Nägel, Kron und Grab
      Aria (bass, oboe): Nur du wirst mein Gewissen stillen
      Chorale: Herr, ich glaube, hilf mir Schwachen

      ("Jesus, Thou who [has rent] my soul") Chorale cantata based on a chorale of Johann Rist (1641), only generally related to the readings for this day, as it deals with redemption and the Passion of Jesus, which cleanses the believer. The opening chorus is a chorale fantasia in the form of a passacaglia, a lament full of meditative profundity. The soprano has the cantus firmus, together with slide trumpet and transverse flute, and the melancholy theme is repeated 27 times. A noble and tender movement. The expressive duet for soprano and alto imitates the rushing steps of the text in a joyful way - the eager disciple following in the footsteps of Jesus. This is accompanied by an energetic basso continuo of organ, cello and violone. The tenor recitative contains an intense prayer for forgiveness and the tenor aria with obbligato flute is concerned with cleansing through faith. There is interesting word painting on "makes my heart light again," where the music suddenly turns into the major key, suffusing the image with a quiet radiance. The bass first reflects on the agony on the cross and then, in his vivid aria with oboe obbligato, holds a plea for a quiet conscience. The closing chorale sets the original tune in four parts.

    • Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, BWV 17, 22 September 1726

      Part I
      1. Coro: Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich
      2. Recitativo (alto): Es muss die ganze Welt ein stummer Zeuge werden
      3. Aria (soprano): Herr, deine Güte reicht so weit
      Part II
      4. Recitativo (tenor): Einer aber unter ihnen, da er sahe
      5. Aria (tenor): Welch Übermaß der Güte schenkst du mir
      6. Recitativo (bass): Sieh meinen Willen an
      7. Chorale: Wie sich ein Vatr erbarmet

      ("He who offers me thanks, honors me") Shaped by two corresponding passages from the Bible, one from the Old Testament (Psalm 50) and one from the New Testament (the story from Luke about the Samaritan, who among the ten lepers cured by Jesus, alone returned to give thanks). The main subject of the cantata is therefore gratitude. The opening chorus, a single large choral fugue, is preceded by an instrumental sinfonia. All recitatives in this short cantata are secco. The first aria, for soprano and two obbligato violins is an illustration of the soaring clouds from the text, which is based not on original poetry, but on quotations from the Bible ("Thy righteousness standeth like the strong mountains"). The aria is shaped like a Baroque concerto movement. The second part of the cantata starts with a simple recitative, a plain biblical narrative. The ensuing tenor aria can be seen as setting the words of the grateful Samaritan to music and has an interesting violin phrase. The closing chorale, the third stanza of "Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren" (1525) by Johann Graumann, does some word painting on "wind" and "fallen leaves."

    (1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

    February 10, 2013

    "Sylvie" by Gérard de Nerval (Best Novellas)

    The French have something with memory. Proust, of course, but also Alain-Fournier, and now in a novella I just read, Sylvie by  Gérard de Nerval. Just like Le Grand Meaulnes, this is a beautiful story about the innocence of youth. My attention was drawn to it by an essay of Umberto Eco (who also translated the novella into Italian), included in his On Literature. Eco claims Sylvie is one of his favorite literary works, and he analyzes the story in detail. It is indeed a most beautiful tale about the narrator's youthful and pure love for two girls, a hymn to a love never realized, and told from the interesting perspective of an older self.

    The author, Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855), was a French romanticist, who after the death of his mother was brought up by a great-uncle in Valois, a rural region with an idyllic landscape just north of Paris. He translated Heine and Goethe - his translation of Faust was used by Hector Berlioz for his legend-symphony La damnation de Faust. Living in Paris, De Nerval counted Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas, père, among his literary friends. Victor Hugo greatly admired him and of course also Proust underwent his influence. De Nerval's insistence on the significance of dreams was mirrored in the Surrealist movement of a century later, as emphasized by André Breton. Interestingly, De Nerval also behaved in a surrealistic way – he had a pet lobster which he took for walks on the end of a blue silk ribbon, saying: “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?”

    From the 1840s, Gérard de Nerval had several nervous breakdowns, and, disoriented, in 1855 he finally committed suicide by hanging himself. He left a brief note to his aunt: "Do not wait up for me this evening, for the night will be black and white."

    Sylvie was written in 1853. In his essay, Eco points out the use of temporal ambiguity in the novel, and he tries to figure out the time scheme in intricate tables. That is not so easy – there is conscious ambiguity here and the narration shifts back between past and present, and the lost time of youth leads to ever deeper memories inside memories.

    The narrator lives a debauched life of the theater and drink in Paris, when he is suddenly reminded of his youthful love for a peasant girl named Sylvie. Although of a different class, Sylvie was his playmate when he was a young boy, they seemed almost like brother and sister. Then the narrator meets the "ideal beauty" Adrienne, and falls in love with the tall blonde girl. Adrienne, however, enters a convent and dies an early death. She is the narrator's idealized love, something which is mirrored in later life in his love for the actress Aurelie. He meets her in a dance where she kisses him, a mirage of glory and beauty, filling him with bliss.

    Later, the narrator returns to Sylvie, who is now sowing gloves, and plays at bride and bridegroom with her by dressing up in his aunts house. But nothing comes of it and when, again later in time, he revisits her, the charm is gone, and he leaves her to marry one of his school comrades. There is a large contrast between the first half of the novel, which is euphoric (enchanted, uplifting, the kiss as a mystical experience) and the second half, which is dysphoric (depressed, embarrassed, the kiss as merely affectionate). Obsessed with the fantastic images of ideal women he fabricates in his mind, the narrator eventually destroys his chances of forming a relationship with a real woman.

    And not for nothing is the subtitle "Recollections of Valois: the recollections are brought about by visits to the area where the narrator spent his youth, and in those memories particular places play a large role - the place names themselves become memories, again, as in Alain-Fournier and Proust, ringing in the mind like distant bells.
    Sylvie is available at Internet Archive in English translation. The original French can be found at Wikisource.

    Best Novellas
    Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

    February 2, 2013

    "The Rings of Saturn" ("Die Ringe des Saturn") by W.G. Sebald (Book review)

    The Rings of Saturn, An English Pilgrimage (Die Ringe des Saturn, Eine Englische Wallfahrt, 1995; English translation by Michael Hulse 1998) is a great postmodern prose work, at the same time autobiography, historiography, literary criticism, philosophy and travelogue. The book rings with intertextuality. Like Sebald's other work, it is illustrated by gritty black and white pictures, often photos taken by Sebald himself, or images collected by him. On the surface it is the account of a walking tour in Suffolk in East Anglia (a county close to the author's home, as he lived in Norfolk, having made England his home since around 1970), through a landscape that reminded me in its flatness of Holland, but it is decidedly not a travel book: the tour through Suffolk only serves as the stimulus for the narrator's (who might and might not be Sebald) sometimes arcane historical and literary meditations, which usually turn towards war, destruction and decay. The people he describes are often grossly eccentric, creators of alternate universes of the mind, but with the shadow of annihilation hanging over them. Each chapter begins with an observation about the place the narrator is visiting, but then jumps almost without transition to reflections about persons or historical events connected with that place – often things that happened at the other end of the world. The connections are usually so tenuous that I was reminded of the "butterfly effect:" how the flapping of a butterfly's wings in England can create a typhoon in, say, China.

    [Rings of Saturn - Wikipedia]

    What is the meaning of the title? In the first place, in astrology Saturn is the planet of melancholy and the book is obviously a study of that state (although not without humor). Next, the word “rings” suggests ripples of water, reaching out farther and farther, until everything is connected with everything – a meaning that is finally also supported by the fact that Saturn's rings are the debris of a crashed planet, whose fragments ultimately belong together. And on a technical level, the image of the planet stands for the “saturnine” circles through which Sebald's narrative proceeds, linking one digression to the other.

    Recurring images and themes line the length of the book (such as that of sericulture, which I will talk about later) that takes its intertextual keynote from the Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of Sir Thomas Browne, a baroque thesis written by the 17th c. essayist, himself a native of East Anglia, in response to the local discovery of an ancient gravesite. And indeed, as Sebald says: “Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?” There are staggering figures to support this view: just to name a few disasters described by Sebald: 500,000 deaths a year in Belgian Congo between 1890 and 1900, more than 20 million deaths in the in the West largely unknown Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th c, China, and so on. Through its links with these events (see below for a detailed discussion), a single English county turns out to contain an inconceivable world of devastation.

    Sebald has written a meditation on historical loss, and the capacity of humans for both cruelty and forgetting that cruelty. But Sebald also stresses the importance of memories and the idea that nothing entirely disappears thanks to the power of art. He writes as if every memory is fleeting and must be noted down urgently before it slips away. The gritty photos are part of the process of remembering. The Rings of Saturn is a carefully composed book, rich in beautiful ideas. It is also decidedly a work of fiction – some of the persons and events in the book are obviously imaginary. It is, although Sebald talks rather about “prose fiction,” a new form of the novel.

    Here follows an overview of the ten chapters of The Rings of Saturn listing the main intertextual references.

    The narrator finds himzelf hospitalized in a state of physical and emotional paralysis, exactly one year after the walking tour he took through Suffolk in August 1992, which forms the subject of this book. In the description of his state are echoes of Kafka's Metamorphosis. He remembers: “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery … our world… no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.”

    [Thomas Browne - Wikipedia]

    The stay in the Norwich hospital leads to an exploration of the 17th c. writer Thomas Browne, whose skull was at one time kept in the hospital's museum. This leads to a discussion of Browne's masterwork Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, a consideration of burial rites and the various ways of disposal of human remains, ending with a meditation on transcience.

    [The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp - Wikipedia]

    In the section on Thomas Browne, also Rembrandt's painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp" is taken up – interestingly, the narrator takes the side of the corpse of the criminal in this public dissection. He also remarks on the strangeness of the corpse's left hand (which is a second right hand). The narrator muses interestingly on the possibility that Browne was in the audience.

    [Somerleyton Hall - Wikipedia]

    Start of the narrator's walk down the coast of Suffolk, from north to south to Orford (after which there will be a turn west in chapter IX). The walk starts in the northern tip of the county at what is left of the fairy-tale palace Somerleyton Hall, once a Victorian railway king’s monument to vanity. The owner, nouveau riche Samuel Morton Peto, was the largest employer in the world of his time.
    Meeting a gardener at Somerleyton leads to a discussion of the WWII wartime bombings – in this area were several military airfields from which the bombers bound for Germany left (Sebald has written about the devastation these bombings caused and the German forgetfullness about this tragedy in On the Natural History of Destruction).
    On the nearby coastline the narrator visits the delapidated town of Lowestoft (where Joseph Conrad first came ashore in England), around 1900 a flourishing seaside resort, where even German royalty came to stay, but now an economic wreck.

    Walking south along the coast from Lowestoft, the narrator plunges into the history of the herring industry from ports along this coast, and its demise. He also notes that herrings retain their luminosity after death, which - he claims, probably fictionally – led in the late 19th c. to research into their luminous substance to use it for practical applications.

    When the narrator reaches Benacre Broad his mind turns to one George Wyndham Le Strange, who used to live here in the large mansion Henstead Hall, completely isolated from the world. "Some said that one summer Le Strange dug a cave in his garden and sat in it day and night like St. Jerome in the desert." We also learn that Le Strange was part of the tank regiment that liberated the concentration camp of Belsen-Belsen, which may have contributed to his madness. This section includes a grainy black and white photograph of what appear to be piles of bodies in a wood, reminding the reader of the picture of captured herring a few pages earlier. It is probable that the section about Le Strange is fictional – I have not been able to find any other reference to this eccentric.

    The chapter concludes with the mention of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Borges, in which the imaginary books from the story are cited as valid scientific works in a discussion of time. "The denial of time, so the tract on Orbius Tertius tells us, is one of the key tenets of the philosophical schools of Tlön. According to this principle, the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past merely as memory."

    [Naval Battle of Solebay - Wikipedia]

    The narrator has reached Gunhill in Southwold and remembers the English-Dutch naval battle that took place here in 1672, which included a bombardment of the town. This leads to memories about a previous trip the narrator made to Holland, where he visited the Mauritshuis (where the Rembrandt painting mentioned above is on display), the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, and Amsterdam, returning to Norwich with a small plane from Schiphol Airport.
    The next day we find him browsing in the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room where albums with war images direct his mind to the terrible statistics of death in WWI, as well as the mass executions in the Balkans during WWII. One person linked to these atrocities is Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the UN (although unnamed by Sebald), and the narrator ironically mentions the fact that Waldheim's voice was used on space probe Voyager II, to greet other intelligent beings in the universe.

    [Roger Casement - Wikipedia]

    The recollection of a documentary on the life of Roger Casement, which the narrator saw while half asleep in his hotel room, leads to a detailed exploration of Joseph Conrad's experiences in the Belgian Congo, where Conrad had briefly encountered Casement. This in turn leads to thoughts about the horrors of colonization, as described in Conrad's magnum opus, Heart of Darkness. Conrad was like Sebald another author who immigrated to England, where he first spent three months sailing on ships out of Lowestoft. The author goes on to chronicle the case of Roger Casement, who had written strong critical articles about the Belgian activities in the Congo. In 1916 the Irish Casement was hanged as a traitor, for allegedly supporting the Irish rebellion (Ireland was a colony of England at that time).

    [Waterloo - Wikipedia]

    The narrator also discusses a visit to Belgium, a country he doesn't like very much, due to the cruelties in Africa. He visits the monument of Waterloo and sees the diorama about the battle, which leads him to the thought that this cannot be a correct representation of history. “It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

    [The Empress Dowager Cixi - Wikipedia]

    At the Bridge over the River Blyth the narrator muses over the miniature railway train that used to run here in 1875, but that was – supposedly – originally built for the Emperor of China. This leads to thoughts about the Taiping Rebellion which ended in a mass suicide in 1864, the destruction of the Summer Palace near Beijing and the looting of its treasures by the British, and the terrible Empress Dowager Cixi, who slowly poisoned her nephew Guangxu in order to remain in power herself. The Empress had a strange fixation on silkworms, in her lonely palace she sat listening to the greedy noise of the worms feeding on mulberry leaves - at least, so we are told.

    [Swinburne - Wikipedia]

    Next we get the spectacular demise of the once-mighty port of Dunwich, which over several centuries toppled inexorably into the North Sea - caving in because of the power of the waves. The poet Swinburne lived in Dunwich and the narrator notices that the poet's birth and death dates correspond to those of the Empress Dowager. He had a disproportionally big head with wild red hair on it, and was said to eat his meals greedily and monotonously like silkworms.

    The narrator mentions the military radar stations set up in Dunwich. Then, hiking over the heath near Dunwich he loses his way in a sort of labyrinth. When he finally manages to escape and arrives in the town of Middleton, he visits the home of his friend Michael Hamburger, the translator of poetry by Hölderlin, Celan and Sebald himself. His life of exile roughly parallels Sebald's, although Hamburger was 20 years older and being Jewish, had to flee Europe. Walking around the house, the narrator has the deja vu feeling that not only has he seen this place before but that it is his place, a house he lived in years earlier. "Why it was that on my first visit to Michael's house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does?”

    [Edward Fitzgerald - Wikipedia]

    The narrator arrives in Boulge and is reminded of Edward Fitzgerald, the 19th c. translator of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. He also addresses the question why Edward FitzGerald never completed anything except this fabulous translation. Woodbridge, his next destination, leads to memories of a previous trip to Ireland, where the narrator stayed with the Ashburys, a mother, a son and two daughters living a dreamy life in a totally delapidated estate, Clarahill. They do not have the money necessary for the upkeep and gradually the spacious house crumbles away. There is a hint that the family wanted him to stay and marry one of the daughters, Catherine.

    [Orford Ness - Wikipedia]

    The narrator is hit by a disorienting sandstorm before arriving in Orford. This coastal town faces a long sandbank, Orford Ness, that during the Cold War housed a military installation where secret weapon research took place. The narrator visits the now deserted Cold War site.

    The narrator starts moving inland, in a western direction, through an almost empty landscape. In this countryside, he visits a farmer, Alec Garrard, who spends his life trying to build a model of the Temple of Jerusalem – an useless endeavor he knows he will never finish, while being ridiculed by family and neigbors.

    [Chateaubriand - Wikipedia]

    In Ilkethall St Margaret in The Saints the narrator is reminded of the beautiful love story of the French author and diplomat Chateaubriand and Charlotte Ives, the daughter of a countryside pastor.
    When he finally visits Ditchingham he sees a strange grave with "air holes" in it, and remembers from a previous visit the large trees that once stood in the park of Ditchingham Hall. This reminds him of the huge storm of October 16, 1987 that uprooted 14 million trees in Suffolk/Norfolk, the most severe storm the country had experienced since 1703.

    The walk is over and the narrator directs his thoughts to the beginning, to Thomas Browne, who also wrote a strange book called Museaum Clausum. A passage in this book leads him to thoughts about sericulture and silk worms, and a survey of the history of silk in major European countries. The narrator depicts the plan of the Nazis for the development of the silk industry and although he doesn't mention it, there is a silent analogy between the methods used for killing silkworms and the Holocaust.
    Silk is, in fact, one of the themes that bind the book together – the father of Thomas Browne was a silk merchant and silk appears in almost every chapter. In fact, the silkworm, or the act of spinning, is another emblem of the process the author has engaged in, for The Rings of Saturn is a book which is “spun out” much like a silkworm spins her web.
    The book then concludes: “[Browne] remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost forever.”


    W.G. "Max" Sebald (1944-2001) has been called the most important German author of the postwar era. Since 1970 until his untimely death in a traffic accident in 2001 (caused by heart failure), Sebald lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. He taught German Literature at the University of East Anglia, an institution known for its creative writing course that saw several important writers as its graduates, for example Ian McEwan (the university is described in McEwan's Sweet Tooth).

    Sebald was an academic who came late to literature. In 1988 he published a long poem, After Nature (Nach der Natur. Ein Elementargedicht). This was followed by four unique prose fictions: Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle, 1990), The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen, 1992), The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history, and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages. In the same style we have the essay On the Natural History of Destruction (Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch) from 1999Sebald's other work consists of three volumes of academic essays about his specialism, Austrian literature, and a book published posthumously, Campo Santo, with prose fragments Sebald was working on at the time of his death and some more essays. The essays, however, are written in a normal academic style and very different from the four "novels," although of course Sebald's opinions about Austrian literature (Schnitzler, Stifter, Kafka, Hofmannsthal, Bernhard, Handke) are very interesting.

    In the five years before his death, Sebald had come to be widely recognized for his extraordinary contribution to world literature. His death at age 57 was a great loss - but we can be grateful for what we have. 

    I read the German original published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. The excellent English translation (made under supervision of the author) was published by New Directions
    Professor Sebald's homepage at the time of death, University of East Anglia - with picture of W.G.Sebald.

    Itinerary of The Rings of Saturn. Fan web page.

    Best Non-Fiction


    (Auto-) Biography

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    The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



    The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering

    Japanese Pilgrimage by Oliver Statler


    The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
    The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
    Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom
    Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
    This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.