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This report is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

On W.G. Sebald
‘The sea over the land’
W.G. Sebald Faces the North Sea
Iain Bamforth
W.G. Sebald’s prose has a spectral, submerged, lulling effect because its true territory is aqueous. And this aqueous element extends not over the low-lying, muddy, featureless estuary of the Thames – ‘the old river in its broad reach’ – as it winds out of London past generations of wharves and cranes to Gravesend and the Essex marshes and debouches along the low shores of Suffolk to the north, the vista immortalised by Marlow at the opening of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, when an entire imperial civilisation and all its dreams of conquest seem to slip into the ooze of time, but over a former stretch of terra firma off the coast of Anglia and now entirely mantled by the sea.

This is the westernmost part of the landmass that once joined the south-eastern coast of the British Isles to the Hook of Holland, north-western Germany and Denmark during and after the last Ice Age. Eighteen thousand years ago, the sea level was considerably lower and tundra extended from the present-day Pas de Calais to the coast of Scotland. The English Channel was the bed of a large river draining south-west into the Atlantic. There was even a freshwater lake in its centre, now known as the Outer Silver Pit, which may have marked the confluence of the some of the great rivers of Europe: the future Maas, Scheldt and Thames. Cenozoic silt deposits in East Anglia suggest that an arm of the Rhine extended as far north as the fens. The contemporary archaeologist ...

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