The difficulty of representing the past accurately—even if that past is itself a dream, a reconstruction of a reconstruction, a palimpsest of a palimpsest—is one known to people other than writers, of course. I was a fervent model-maker in my early teenage years, often devoting all of my after-school time to making intricate reproductions of buildings from antiquity. Of these, the Parthenon was the object of an almost obsessive interest. After making my first model of it for a class project when I was about twelve, using cardboard toilet paper rolls to stand in for the original’s elegantly fluted Doric columns, I embarked on creating a proper scale model, three feet wide by six feet long, the ambitiousness of which now strikes me as almost absurd and the construction of which was never completed, although it absorbed the next five years of my life. During that period my skills improved. I studied dozens of books and, eventually, created elaborate rubber molds from which I could cast the forty-six columns of the peristyle and other architectural elements. I reproduced as meticulously as I was able the bas-reliefs of the frieze, which I worked in Plasticine on inch-high strips of cardboard, and the great chryselephantine statue of Athena, which in my three-feet-to-an-inch scale rendering was thirteen inches high, cast in plaster, and adorned with real gold leaf.
Given how intense my focus on this project was, it’s odd that I now neither know nor care what became of the elements that I had finished. Or perhaps not odd, since later in my adolescence the desire to build my model suddenly evaporated. All at once, it seemed, the effort required to finish casting the columns was impossibly daunting, although the casting process, which was quite simple compared to the research and the artisanal processes required to create the molds, was by then the only thing that stood between me and completion. After years of fervent daily activity, the entire project was beginning to seem pointless; as I entered my high school years, it was enough for me to descend every few days into the cellar and survey the disassembled pieces that were neatly lined up or stacked on the large worktable, the columns, the architrave, the pediments with their heavy ornamentation, the gaudy cult statue gleaming even in the darkness of the slightly damp underground space. It was as if, having imagined the model for so long, having so minutely researched the structure and pored over all the books and plans, the vision of it that I had for so long in my head was sufficient; I knew what it should look like, I knew where each piece, down to the tiniest gutta, needed to be positioned. And so the model itself now struck me as an afterthought.
By this point I was seventeen or eighteen and the interests that had sustained me through a solitary puberty, particularly classical archaeology, with its exciting promise of great riches lurking just below the surface, had yielded to a keen interest in literature. I began to keep a diary; I started to write stories and poems. I wanted to learn Greek; the books that I took out of the library each week were volumes of Sophocles and Plato’s Phaedrus, works that left me with inchoate and exalted yearnings that no model could ever depict. And indeed not long after this period of my life I went off to university to study Greek literature, which, however much it has suffered at the hands of time, has only rarely been the object of the kind of intentional ruination that has left such scant traces of so many ancient structures.
That odd youthful pastime of mine is no doubt why I was so strongly affected by a certain passage toward the end of a novel called The Rings of Saturn, originally published in 1995 as Die Ringe des Saturn, by the late W. G. Sebald, the German writer who had emigrated in the sixties to the United Kingdom, where he spent the rest of his life and which is the setting for much of his writing. It was in England that Sebald wrote his dissertation, in English, on another German writer, Alfred Döblin, author of the masterwork Berlin Alexanderplatz and a Jewish refugee from Hitler—just as was, for example, the great scholar Erich Auerbach, whose magisterial study Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature begins with an analysis of the looping, digressive style, known as ring composition, that is found in Homer’s Odyssey. Döblin and Auerbach, in fact, died within weeks of each other, in 1957: the kind of near-coincidence beloved of Sebald, as we shall see.
Small wonder that, as has been observed by many critics by now, emigration, wandering, flight, and exile are the hallmarks of Sebald’s strange novels. Vertigo (1990) features dreamlike Alpine travelogues narrated by a neurotically unhappy figure who could or could not be the author himself (“what else could I do … but wander aimlessly around until well into the night?”), as well as vignettes from the lives of those great travelers Casanova and Stendhal, the latter of whom is plagued, in Sebald’s narration of the Frenchman’s trip to the site of the Battle of Marengo, by anxieties about how we represent the past, anxieties that in fact explain the title of the novel. (“The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head,” Sebald writes of Stendhal, “and what he now saw before him … occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.”) The Emigrants (1992) consists of four long narratives about men, some German, some Jewish, and finally including the author himself, whose worldwide wanderings are all ultimately revealed to be deeply connected to the tragic history of Germany in the twentieth century. The Rings of Saturn, which was published in 1995, I shall describe presently. As for Sebald’s final novel—the author died in a car accident in 2001, at the age of fifty-seven—it is called Austerlitz: a reference, of course, to another great Napoleonic battle, but here the name of the title character, yet another Ausgewanderter, who, we learn, had come to England as a child in a Kindertransport and whose adult journeys in search of information about the fate of his mother structure the novel’s action—if we may refer to the movement of a narrative that is so diffuse, so meandering, so ruminative, as “action.”
Given my own history with such journeys in search of the Holocaust past—for during the early aughts, in fact just as Sebald’s final novel was published here, I had begun a book in which I tried to piece together the fates of certain relatives of mine who disappeared during World War II—it would be natural to assume that Austerlitz would be my favorite of his novels. And indeed, toward the climax of that fictional tale it is revealed that, during the wandering that he undertakes in search of his origins, the protagonist, Austerlitz, has been carrying with him a copy of a book called Heshel’s Kingdom, a real work by the South African writer Dan Jacobson that has much in common with the one that I would later write. Heshel’s Kingdom traces its author’s travels through Lithuania during the nineties, where he had set out in search of traces of his grandfather Heshel’s lost world, a world very much like the one my relatives in the Polish shtetl of Bolechów inhabited. This real-life memoir, which Sebald’s fictional character carries everywhere with him, is, like my own book, an example of a now-flourishing genre of narratives about emotionally fraught Jewish returns to the irretrievably lost “old country” (as Jewish émigrés of my own grandfather’s generation called Eastern Europe); still, I could hardly have predicted that I would end up writing such a book back in the early nineties, when I was in graduate school writing a dissertation about Greek tragedy and indeed when one of my closest friends was Dan Jacobson’s nephew, David, who spoke often of his uncle and his work.
Austerlitz is to some extent anomalous among Sebald’s novels precisely because of its explicit mention of the German extermination of the Jews of Europe, which haunts his other narratives without ever quite being made explicit. To my knowledge there is only one time in Sebald’s work that the word holocaust occurs, and there it refers not to what Germany did to the Jews but to what, in the Book of Genesis, Abraham intends to do to Isaac. In a typically digressive passage in The Rings of Saturn, which indeed consists of nothing but digressions, a series of tales that both describe and mirror its narrator’s meandering walks around the East Coast of England during a period of inexplicable depression, the narrator muses on the 1658 work by Thomas Browne called Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial, whose discussion of how easy it is to burn human bodies is paraphrased at one point:
it is not difficult to burn a human body: a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey, and the King of Castile burnt large numbers of Saracens with next to no fuel, the fire being visible far and wide. Indeed … if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust, a man may carry his own pyre.
The scene to which Thomas Browne here refers is the one that, in Mimesis, the refugee German Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach uses as an exemplum of the tantalizingly opaque style of biblical narrative (which, like life itself, leaves many details “in obscurity”)—a style that Auerbach favorably contrasts to the Greek technique of ring composition, whose elaborate digressions, meandering away from the primary narrative but always circling back to it in the end, work to floodlight, as it were, every aspect of a story, leaving nothing in obscurity.
As I have implied, The Rings of Saturn is the most emblematic of Sebald’s strange style, which is why it is in fact my favorite of his novels; that style being characterized by frequent recourse to the technique hinted at by his title’s reference to rings. Like Homer himself, Sebald uses ring composition to great effect. But unlike the narrative rings, circles, digressions, and wandering that we find in Homer, which seem designed both to illuminate and to enact a hidden unity in things—take, for example, the scene in Book 19 that Auerbach analyzes, the one in which the old nurse Eurycleia notices the scar on the disguised hero’s leg, the beginning of a digression that spins ever further into Odysseus’s past, ultimately bringing us to the very moment of his birth and naming, which is the key to his and his epic’s identity—unlike Homer’s narrative rings, the ones we find in Sebald seem designed to confuse, entangling his characters in meanderings from which they cannot extricate themselves and which have no clear destination.
In The Rings of Saturn, the meticulously traced trajectories of both history and nature lead only to dissolution and defeat. In the opening pages of the novel, for instance, we are told that the narrator’s penchant for long wandering walks around the countryside brings him repeatedly in contact with what he calls “traces of destruction”—whether of the people of the Congo, whose oppression at the hands of Belgian capitalists is the subject of one of the book’s most harrowing excursuses, obliquely inspired by one such walk; or of the Dutch elm tree, the devastation of which by a virus in England in the eighties is described in another lengthy digression. The narrator’s subsequent encounters, unlike the surprise meetings and reunions in Homer, are never happy ones. A pleasant walk on the grounds of a seemingly deserted country estate leads to a conversation with an old man who begins recalling the British bombings of Germany; a friendly visit to the country home of Sebald’s real-life friend Michael Hamburger is also inexorably overshadowed by this awful theme, since much of that visit is taken up first by the German Sebald’s guilty thoughts about Hamburger’s escape from Berlin as a child—he was yet another Jewish refugee from Hitler—and, later, by Hamburger’s own melancholy reflections on his lost past.
As you make your way through his twisting narratives, it becomes ever more difficult to escape the impression that the circling merely exhausts us while never bringing us any closer to the subject. Homer’s rings whirl us toward revelation; the circles in Sebald’s restless narration lead us to a series of locked doors to which there is no key. Small wonder that his stories are often introduced by disquieting near-coincidences—the fact, for instance, that the birthday of Hölderlin’s translator should fall a few days after that of the poet himself—such noncoincidence reflecting the aura of missed opportunities and failed connections that haunts his work. Like the two routes, “Swann’s Way” and the “Guermantes Way,” famously recalled by Proust’s narrator, which seem to lead in opposite directions but turn out to be parts of a giant circuit, Sebald’s meanderings, too, ultimately form a giant ring that ties together many disparate tales and experiences. But if Proust’s ring appears to us as a container, filled with all of human experience, Sebald’s embraces a void—a destination to which, as in some narrative version of Zeno’s paradox, no amount of writing can deliver us. The theme of the failure of narrative in fact shadows The Rings of Saturn from its opening pages, in which Sebald’s narrator recalls someone saying, apropos of Flaubert, that “fear of the false sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways.” And yet even this statement of failure is subject to failure, since after all how can we claim to know about Flaubert’s crises when (as the narrator goes on to muse), “Who can say how things were in the past?”
The irretrievability of the past turns out to be the main subject of the long conversation that takes place during the narrator’s visit to Michael Hamburger. Hamburger describes to him how, many years after the war, he had returned to Berlin and gone to the building where his parents had had their apartment, a building where the plasterwork garlands, the familiar railing, the names on the mailboxes—many of which, Hamburger notes, have not changed—now appear to him
like pictures in a rebus that I simply had to puzzle out correctly in order to cancel the monstrous events that had happened since we emigrated. It was as if it were now up to me alone, as if by some trifling mental exertion I could reverse the entire course of history… But I could neither make out the word nor bring myself to mount the stairs and ring the bell of our old flat. Instead I left the building with a sick feeling …
His inability either to read or to move seems to sum up Sebald’s own project, in which language fails and motion is pointless. Everything is left in obscurity.
The futility of Hamburger’s attempts to reach back to the past, let alone reconstruct it, let alone restore what has been destroyed by time or other forces—of attempts even by this master of language, a distinguished poet and literary figure—is the subject of another tale that Sebald tells in The Rings of Saturn, forming one of the final narrative rings that make up the novel. This tale is in fact the very one that, as I mentioned earlier, evokes such powerful emotions in me, one of those emotions being a feeling of nostalgic recognition, since the story in question is about an obsessive model-maker.
The narrator’s encounter with this figure takes place immediately after a rather allusive episode: his brief visit to a dilapidated estate belonging to some Anglo-Irish aristocrats, who had fled Ireland during the Troubles, some of whom spend their time sewing together bits of fabulous old fabrics that they find around the house, only to undo the stitches later, disintegrating their own creations. It’s a story that bears an unmistakable resemblance to the one we find in the Odyssey about Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who promises the Suitors that she will marry one of them as soon as she finishes weaving a shroud for her aged father-in-law but, in order to prolong her capitulation for as long as possible, secretly undoes each day’s weaving by night. Because weaving often figures in Greek literature as a symbol for storytelling, for “plotting” (in both senses of that word), it is possible to take the story of Penelope’s tactic as a dark parable about the disquieting possibility that there are stories that can have no ending, that merely spin on pointlessly.
It is as if there, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer were dreaming of Sebald.
From this house of mythic stasis the narrator of The Rings of Saturn moves on, traveling next to see an old acquaintance of his called Thomas Abrams, a farmer, a pastor, and, we learn, an avid amateur modeler. Abrams, the narrator recalls, had begun his hobbying career by making replicas of ships and other vessels. But by the time Sebald’s novel takes place he has spent the past twenty years working obsessively on one model, a model of a single building that, when you consider its maker’s résumé, is a most likely subject.
What Abrams is working on is a reproduction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The vast model, which covers ten square yards, seeks to re-create everything, the “antechambers and the living quarters of the priesthood, the Roman garrison, the bathhouses, the market stalls, the sacrificial altars, covered walkways and the booths of the money-lenders, the great gateways and the staircases, the forecourts and outer provinces and the mountains in the background … ” And yet Abrams, we are told, is haunted by a sense of futility. The more he studies, he tells the narrator, the more new information there is derived from the discoveries of archaeologists, the more difficult it is to make progress—a remark that not only recalls Penelope’s weaving but reminds me, at least, of Erich Auerbach’s statement describing his own attempt to reconstruct part of a lost culture: his observation, in the epilogue to Mimesis, that “if it had been possible for me to acquaint myself with all the work that has been done on so many subjects, I might have never reached the point of writing.” Perhaps Auerbach was right after all about the virtues of blanks and opacity; perhaps too much knowing can lead to total inertia. And indeed, the narrator of The Rings of Saturn observes, apropos of Abrams’s model of the Temple, that “it is difficult to see any change from one year to the next.” Abrams mournfully concludes his conversation by sharing with the narrator his realization that that no amount of reproduction can hope to capture the original.
Sebald’s model-maker is in fact based on a real person, an Englishman named Alec Garrard who spent thirty years working on a 1:100 scale model of the Temple. But it is hard not to think that if Garrard hadn’t existed, Sebald would have had to make him up. The unfinishable model of the Temple is the perfect symbol of Sebald’s manner as well as of his subject, both of which are aligned with the pessimistic model of narrative, Erich Auerbach’s “Hebrew” style, which derives its uncanny power and devastating realism precisely from that which cannot be represented.
There is something else for which Sebald’s story about the doomed model-maker—the story that, for reasons that will be obvious by now, has a special hold over me—may be the ideal symbol. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes Michael Hamburger as being simply “a writer,” and yet the fact is that he was a distinguished poet and memoirist, too; and perhaps best known as a translator of German into English (of Sebald himself, in time, not long after that author’s death). Sebald’s omission paradoxically draws attention to what he would elide. If the story about the model of the Temple may be taken as a metaphor for our tragic relationship to the past, for the inevitable failure of our attempts to preserve or rescue or re-create what is no longer present, the fraught elision of Hamburger’s career as a translator gestures starkly to the “Hebrew” way with respect to literature in particular: to the futility of translation, indeed of any kind of writing that seeks to “carry across”—which is what the word translate means—an original into a new material, a new mode, a new time.
From Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, by Daniel Mendelsohn, published in September by University of Virginia Press.
Daniel Mendelsohn is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, where he is the editor-at-large. His books include An Odyssey, short-listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize and winner of the Prix Méditerranée étranger; the international best seller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and many other honors; a memoir, The Elusive Embrace, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; the definitive English translation of C. P. Cavafy’s Complete Poems; and three collections of essays. He teaches literature at Bard College.