In The Dancer and the Drum by Bruce Johns,
With these questions proving difficult to resolve, we take a short holiday in Suffolk. It was planned months ago to put the winter behind us, but now seems timely for a different reason. I have grown jaded with research, and with the self-imposed discipline of not straying far from the facts. The open skies and scouring winds of the east coast will clear my mind and sharpen the choices confronting me.
To this end I pack my dog-eared copy of The Rings of Saturn, whose itinerary overlaps with ours. There is no Sebald Trail – an idea fragrant with irony – but I am by no means the first to be curious about the mixture he used of fuel and air, of truth and make-believe, to achieve the book’s curious mode of propulsion.
Like him, we walk on Dunwich Heath and find not a bleak wasteland evoking the end of days but a pleasant wilderness busy with labradors, while the cliffs over which the medieval city disappeared, fortifying Sebald in his pessimism, are smaller and less perilous than expected. But our closest encounter with the great man’s ghost comes at Covehithe, on the coast north of Southwold. A sandy path leads down to a long, deserted beach. The waters of the broad are placid and shaggy with blonde grasses. We walk for a mile or so before seeing anyone else, a lone trudger as Sebald himself might have seemed. The dunes to our left have broken off to make a low promontory carious with sand martin nests. It was from this modest elevation that Saturn’s narrator gazed down on a couple making love and reflected on the inevitable breaching of the height on which he stood. To our right the sea, still biding its time, merges distantly with the sky. Waves shuffle back and forth with a determined pointlessness, leaving a few plastic cups tossed overboard from ferries and a scattering of oranges, as gaudy as buoys. We peel one and taste the flesh, to our surprise finding it untainted.
Solitude. Memory. Survival. The Rings of Saturn explores its themes obliquely, evoking the spirit of place, mixing fiction with verisimilitude so that the joins hardly show. More reverie than travelogue, the book somehow manages to dream the past into being. On the brow of Covehithe cliff my slavish clinging to the facts seems hopelessly prosaic in comparison, a failure of nerve as well as style. Why not plug the gaps in what is known, following my own trains of thought instead of a strict chronology? That prospect, rejected when I started out on my quest, fills me with excitement. I decide to begin again, not spurning what has been written so far but injecting some vivid, if not strictly truthful, colour.
That evening, however, being our last in the cottage, I pay more attention to the jumble of unrelated artifacts and pictures that passes for a period atmosphere in the rented sector, and notice a pair of prints in the corner of the sitting room. Looking more closely I see that they date from the late 18th Century and depict ‘Beauties’ from St Giles and St James – two of my ancestors’ stamping grounds. The coincidence strikes me even before I realise that ‘Beauty’ is probably a euphemism for prostitute, a woman of the kind I have just been writing about. No matter that they are types rather than individuals, the one simply attired, a rookery belle, the other turbaned and glamorous: they remind me of the real lives I have been trying to retrieve from the scraps at my disposal, the poor dead – or the dead poor, whose dignity counted for so little. And I see that dressing them up in my own imagination would add insult to their many injuries, even the poverty they struggled against belonging to someone else. Aghast at my lack of resolve, and grateful for being spared the bother of rewriting, I go home next day with faith restored in my scrupulous vocation.