I finished W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn yesterday, and it has won me over; I admire this book, although I still find it a bit baffling. But this is not a bad thing, not at all. First of all, how do I categorize this book when I’m counting up the things I’ve read this year — is it fiction or nonfiction? How do I categorize this post? The book’s publishers have labeled it “fiction,” this word appearing on the back cover to tell bookstores where to shelve it, but I wonder what Sebald would think of this. To me, it feels more like nonfiction, an account of someone — someone like Sebald — who takes a walking tour on the eastern coast of England and writes about it and so much else. It has the feel of a long, meditative essay.
Sebald describes the stages of his narrator’s journey, telling us about having walked a certain number of hours on a particular day and about getting lost in a maze on another day and about looking out across the sea, but these things are only small parts of the story. He also digresses into long stories about many other things. And here is a central question of the book — how do all the stories fit together? Why did he choose to tell these particular stories?
These stories include the history of the herring industry; a short biography of Joseph Conrad and an account of the devastations of colonialism in Africa that Conrad witnessed; an account of how the production of silk spread from China to Europe; histories of Swinburne, Chateaubriand, and Edward Fitzgerald; massacres in Bosnia; the opening up of China to the west, and many others. Most of these stories (all of them? I’m not sure) connect with the landscape and the towns the narrator is walking through; his location is the starting point for meditations on far-flung times and places.
The narrative veers off in different directions without much warning; I often found myself looking up from the page trying to figure out how I’d gotten to some new subject and then having to go back to hunt down the path the narrator follows from story to story. This is partly why I felt a bit baffled and disoriented while reading; I never knew where I’d end up, what person or what century I’d be reading about next.
Many of these stories tell of the violence humans inflict on one another. It tells tales of horror and destruction that cover the globe. The tone is very matter-of-fact, though; the writing is unemotional, letting the stories themselves do the work of creating an emotional impact on the reader. Now and then, but only very occasionally, the narrator will comment on what all these stories add up to, and the picture is bleak (these quotations are in different places in the book):
If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.
It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.
Within the overall context of the task of remembering, such colorful accounts of military spectacles and large-scale operations form what might be called the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next.
This last quotation sums up the book, in a way — it labors on the “task of remembering” and tells some of the “highlights of history,” not to gain perspective on them or to draw conclusions about them, but simply to recount them and fix them in our memories. If history staggers blindly from one disaster to the next, we can do little better as we attempt to understand it. Looking at the Waterloo Panorama, a reconstruction of the battle site, the narrator says:
This then, I thought, as I looked around me, is the 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 book both tells how things are and denies its ability to tell how things are. This is why I’m not troubled by my slightly bewildered and baffled response to the book; it purposely fails to guide the reader through it, to offer the comforting conclusions and the larger perspective.
I must mention the beautiful and haunting photographs; these are sprinkled throughout the book — pictures of the landscapes the narrator sees, of historical figures, of manuscripts and handwriting, of maps. Sebald himself is in one picture; he’s leaning against a huge cedar tree, a tree he tells us will soon collapse in a hurricane. He is a figure of innocence and ignorance — what we all are in the face of an unknown future.
I would like to read this book again sometime; I don’t know when, but it’s that kind of book, the kind that is worth coming back to.
Update: There’s an interview with Sebald here if you are interested; thanks to Brad for pointing this out to me.
7 responses to “The Rings of Saturn”
This sounds interesting. I think about the long winding internal dialogs that I think as I walk through the woods or along a beach — pretty rambling. I think there is something in the nature of a walking tour that tends towards this sort of discourse, at first disconnected, but all fitting together in the larger picture. Maybe that is why many hikers I know talk about hiking when they feel a need to work things out. It sounds like Sebald writes about some fascinating things.
I agree with Cam- this does sound interesting. I have not read anything by Sebald, so I did a little research after reading your post. I read an online New Yorker coversation with Sebald, and wow! – his words fully support your assessment of his work and even the photograph of him. He says, “Certainly, my own life experience is that when I thought I had things sorted and I was in control, something happened that completely undid everything I had wanted to do. And so it goes on. The illusion that I had some control over my life went up to about my thirty-fifth birthday. Then it stopped. Now I’m out of control.”
The interviewer also asks about the photographs in his books and suggests that they too are there only to document what happened- “It does seem that you were saying that some of the photographs are for that purpose, to document coincidence.” Sebald’s response is simply, “Yes.” As you have concluded, Sebald’s intent regarding events was simply “to recount them and fix them in our memories… not to gain perspective on them or to draw conclusions about them.”
Thanks for the interesting and perceptive review. This book is one I need to add to my list.
Your post makes me curious about the book. I think I’ll go check out more on it, and see how things go. Thanks.
This sounds really good. It sounds a bit like Austerlitz that I bought recently but haven’t yet read. I want to say it is also categorized as fiction (literature for sure), but when you flip through the book is is full of photos as well. I am looking forward to reading it and now will have to see if I can find a copy of Rings of Saturn as well. I like the idea of the meandering quality of his writing/or thinking.
A very nice post about the book. I am glad you liked it. I read it nearly two years ago now and I still remember those quotes you pulled out. I too found myself many times wondering how the story got to where it did. I really love the meditative quality. My mind wanders too when I walk but I can’t say that it wanders anywhere close to the interesting places Sebald’s does. I had no idea what to think about the book when I finished it and I still don’t know what to think of it; only that I liked it and also want to read it agains someday.
I have never read any Sebald but you make me want to go and pick up a copy! I’ve always felt faintly put off by it (for no good reason whatsoever), but you’ve given me a very clear indication of how it is to read, and I do feel very curious now. Thank you for that, Dorothy!
Cam — you are so right, and that’s why I’m so interested in books about walking. I love the way they are about rambles both of the body and the mind. And yes, there’s something about a walk that lets one’s mind do some good thinking.
Brad — thank you for that Sebald quotation; I will have to find the interview. He is a fascinating writer, isn’t he? I’m looking forward to reading his other books (although with a break in between them).
Dark Orpheus, I think you’ll like it; it’s well worth checking out.
Danielle, Austerlitz is on my list of things he’s written I’d like to read — it’s interesting to know that he does similar things with the quotations in both books. I’m curious to know your thoughts about his writing when you get there.
Stefanie, thanks; I think there’s something valuable in being bewildered by a book — about taking a lot of time to figure it out. And yes, the meditative quality you point out is wonderful.
Litlove, I do think you’d like him if you ever do get the urge to pick up a book of his. I know how it is, though, to be put off by something — I suppose sometimes you are/I am right about it and other times it’s worth giving the book a try anyway.