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.