A friend of mine, a writer, a very good writer, said to me that as soon as he finished reading “The Rings of Saturn” he immediately started from the beginning again, because he couldn’t figure out what had just happened to him. I was wondering how you approached this in the writing of it, the idea of narrative form.
This makes me feel better because it describes my reaction entirely — “this book is great, but … what is Sebald doing exactly? What is it that I just experienced?” That I didn’t start from the beginning again says something about my lack of discipline, not my lack of interest. I do want to read this book again, but not immediately, although I may read other Sebald books soon, and I think reading those will help clarify what I’ve already read.
In the course of answering Cuomo’s question, Sebald says this about the writing of Rings of Saturn:
I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere, and which you would never find in London. And in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else, and so it’s a form of unsystematic searching, which, of course, for an academic, is far from orthodoxy, because we’re meant to do things systematically.
I love this — this is what is so wonderful about walking, and about reading books about or inspired by walking. Taking a walk can be a way of opening yourself up to the world; if you pay attention, you will find things, things will happen to you. They will happen to you sometimes even if you are not paying attention.
About researching, Sebald has learned much from watching dogs:
But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.
He goes on to say that after you’ve discovered things in this seemingly random, dog-like way, you have to use your imagination to connect all those things you’ve found, and that way you’re more likely to have something new to say, rather than covering the same old ground, so to speak. This is a great explanation of what it’s like to read Sebald — he takes so many disparate stories and weaves them together in unexpected ways and you find yourself seeing the world in a new way.
I can’t resist giving you another quotation about dogs from the interview; speaking about Kafka, he says:
If you read a story like “Investigations of a Dog,” it has a subject whose epistemological horizon is very low. He doesn’t grasp anything above the height of one foot. He makes incantations so that the bread comes down from the dinner table. How it comes down, he doesn’t know. But he knows that if he performs certain rites then certain events will follow. And then he goes, this dog, through the most extravagant speculations about reality, which we know is quite different. As he, the dog, has this limited capacity of understanding, so do we.
This makes me want to read more Sebald (I love the way he is so inspired by dogs) and the Kafka story — has anybody out there read it before?
And one last Sebald quotation:
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.