Some thoughts on the opening chapters of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn*
*All quotes from the text come from Michael Hulse’s translation of the book, Vintage Classics; New Ed edition (1 April 2013)
I tried to keep up with Twitter and #TheReadingsofSaturn back in July and… well, kind of failed! Then I thought I’d write about it instead. I’d never read Sebald before this summer – so a thank you is due to Robert Macfarlane’s summer online reading group for enticing me in. I have to admit I found it compelling, beautiful and puzzling by equal measure. It certainly appealed to my love of strange melancholia and eerie webs of words, and has clung to me in a misty, almost shroud-like way since. Perhaps that is a little intense; I do not mean to say it has profoundly depressed me, rather made me see, think and write a little differently, which is always an important element of reading.
A note before this mini-essay; I’ve read nothing else about Sebald, nor have I looked at any critical essays or followed all the threads from the reading group. These are thoughts that I’ve been mulling over splayed out, mainly stemming from the first few chapters of the book; I might be way off course in places in terms of what was ‘meant’ (if, indeed, it is ever possible to know.
Throughout the book I had the sensation of being swept up and somehow disintegrated – rather like Saturn’s former moon fragmented by its tidal effect in the opening quote. Yet, somehow, the book also pulls you back together again, reconfigured, like Saturn’s rings. In being swept up, though, there’s the sensation of being caught in a wave; like the masses following media hype, or many instances of tipping into excess(iveness) throughout history… so for me there’s a theme here that mirrored even in the way the book is written. To chose an empty flat landscape from which to explore this is crucial – it is the landscape left after a tsunami passes, perhaps. But I don’t find the landscape frightening or too eerie – to me it is almost soothing, balm-like; a relief to fall into after the terrifying horrors of (human) history.
Isn’t it odd that the book begins with the search for a single skull amidst tales of mass death and brutality in humankind? This element of story trailed behind me as I read, along with one other key moment I’ll refer to later.
It’s interesting that the narrator describes the dissection of the human body – and a flawed representation of that dissection too – right at the beginning of the book, as if laying out its subject (the fate of humans consumed by greed and hate to violent ends?). Perhaps he is querying any attempt at exposing or relaying ‘truth’ as being ultimately flawed, or only to be interpreted through the eye of the storyteller?
In a work where the opening chapter spans the detail of the hand’s anatomy to the galaxies of stars above, Sebald’s vast scope suggests nothing is outwith his grasp – this is a book of everything and nothing and all that’s in between. His prose is a collection of oddities, of forgotten stories and part-remembered truths; a cabinet of curiosities as varied as those objects found buried with the dead in Browne’s catalogue of burial urns.
Browne scrutinizes “the mysterious capacity for transmigration he has so often observed in caterpillars and moths,” – Sebald’s prose is in itself transmigratory; its form and focus shifts like haar on the North Sea, or a heat haze over prairie-like fields.
There is very much a sense of ‘blink and you’ll miss’ in the Rings of Saturn. “It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.” Sebald’s prose is at once dense and light-footed, evolving at speed, transforming past luxuries into present tomfooleries, like the miniature train on which tourists balance “like dressed-up circus dogs or seals” in the grounds of the once-stately Somerleyton.
In this era of fake news, Trump and Brexit, this descent into circus-like chaos seems all too painfully familiar.
In The Rings of Saturn we slip from fairytale to horror and back almost imperceptibly – the result is a series of shocks; electric in their ferocity, reminding us of humankind’s worst excesses. Excess of luxury, of wealth, of greed meets excess of violence, of torture, of madness.
Sebald’s descriptions of stately homes tumble the world into a few acres – the pinnacle of each country’s natural wonders are fused into a single space for a privileged few to marvel at. He reminds us of the vicious backbone of wealth on which these luxuries run – of dictatorial regimes, of businesses running indigenous cultures into the ground, of silk for Nazis and riches from the deaths of millions. Thus framed, the prose blends beauty with violence in seamless passages that merge with the empty expanses of the post-industrial Suffolk landscape. These luxurious horrors stand out all the more for being placed on this backdrop.
“Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist.”
Such is Somerleyton, such is Sebald’s book.
There’s an interesting note to be made here regarding time – that although it passes it seems humanity is doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. There’s a sense that time passes yet nothing changes; that all somehow stagnates in a twilight zone.
“Outside was the beach, somewhere between the darkness and the light, and nothing was moving, neither in the air nor on the land nor on the water. Even the white waves rolling in to the sands seemed to me to be motionless.” [Hotel view, Lowestoft]
This inertia, this inability to change our own self-made horrors, an inability to prevent them happening… it may be this that lands the narrator ‘paralysed’ in a hospital bed. In saying this, however, it is at this point that he acts – he begins to write.
The narrator continues in his notes on Lowestoft to say that it ‘comes back to life’ the next morning – but it’s a strange life if ever there was! The narrator describes the pollution haze from petrol fumes, followed by a hearse procession, which quickly tumbles into a description of Frederick’s grim demise in his beautiful garden.
The futility of the individual acting alone to try and ‘save’ or alter society is beautifully, eerily captured in the description of the fishermen lining the beach in small tents just along the coast from Lowestoft. Each is well-provisioned to cater for themselves. Contact with neighbours is rare. The number of fishermen rarely changes; one leaves, another takes his place. They are rather like sentinels on the very edge of everything – facing emptiness in many senses, from a fishless ocean to a blanked-out colour palette of waves and air, and they are surrounded by sounds devoid of human speech or language. There are no visible communication lines between them. And yet, though seemingly selfish, they are coherent and steadfast, together, tethered to their cause. Harmlessly strangely stoical, or dangerously inert?
This image in particular stayed with me, haunted me (taunted me?), throughout the rest of the book. I’d love to know what others find in the fishermen’s ritual.
I have no doubt the book will continue to run rings around me, ever concentric, for many days, weeks, years to come. I’ll keep wandering / wondering through it.