Friday 5 March 2010

The Rings of Saturn

I'd been meaning to read some W.G. Sebald for a while, partly because Patrick Kurp rates him highly, and our tastes seem to coincide to an almost uncanny degree. As it happened, a copy of The Rings Of Saturn arrived just before I got the news about my mother, so it has accompanied me through this (continuing) crisis, and will no doubt be for ever after associated in my mind with it. (By a similar, but happier, process, I often find that if I think back over places where I have holidayed, I remember immediately what I was reading - very often Saul Bellow. Humboldt's Gift in storm-lashed Positano, Augie March on Corfu, Herzog in Dieppe...). Reading Sebald has proved strangely consoling, the perfect distraction, escapism even. The Rings Of Saturn is a strange book, not in any conventional sense a novel. It has affinities with the kind of thing the great psychogeographer Iain Sinclair writes - if less convivial and fantastical than Sinclair. Dispensing with what he called the 'grinding noises' of the machinery of plot, Sebald provides no more in the way of structure than a walk, from Lowestoft to Norwich, undertaken by himself, or a version thereof, a self of whose outward circumstances we learn very little. Paul Klee described drawing as 'taking a line for a walk', and Sebald seems to be doing something similar, expect that the line - and indeed the walk - are only intermittently discernible. What is happening is essentially a mental journey, formed of digressions and allusions growing out of each other, taking in such topics as silkworm breeding, herring fishing, Croatian wartime atrocities and the October hurricane (a brilliantly vivid description). The book is peopled with exiles - Conrad, Chateaubriand, Michael Hamburger - and the self-exiled - Swinburne, Edward FitzGerald, various reclusive eccentrics in country houses. The pervasive figure of Sir Thomas Browne, another East Anglian, tops and tails the book. For a lover of digressive and miscelleneous literature - Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne's Essays, Sir Thomas Browne indeed - this is irresistible stuff. What The Rings Of Saturn adds up to - apart from a deeply satisfying reading experience - is hard to say, but it is full of facts (with some errors - deliberate?) and wonders, superb descriptive writing, keen insights and a strong sense both of place and of history. Like Sinclair in London Orbital, Sebald catches what it's actually like to walk around in the marginal, strange, overlooked places of modern Britain, and always sees the past glimmering darkly behind the present. I shall be reading more of him - in happier circumstances, I hope.


  1. Sebald's '"Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov" offers an original perspective on Speak, Memory, one of Sebald's most primary texts (as any reader of The Emigrants knows). A fascinating passage suggests how much Sebald's literary technique owes to his fellow emigrant: "Nabokov also knew, better than most of his fellow writers, that the desire to suspend time can prove its worth only in the most precise re-evocation of things long overtaken by oblivion. The pattern on the bathroom floor at Vyra, the white steam rising above the tub at which the boy looks dreamily from his seat in the dimly lit lavatory, the curve of the doorframe on which he leans his forehead—suddenly, with a few well-chosen words, the whole cosmos of childhood is conjured up before our eyes."'

    From: "Speak, Memory: What kind of reader was W. G. Sebald?" by Ruth Franklin, Posted Monday, March 14, 2005.

  2. I find Sebald wonderfully sustaining, and have read Rings of Saturn 3 times. Nourishing and sustaining

  3. I read it about soon after it was published and I think I was too young for it...will give it another go some day.