Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 1

Robert Macfarlane is currently hosting a Twitter reading group on W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. I bought a copy last year and hadn’t yet read it, so this seemed an excellent opportunity. I thought I would collect my thoughts together on the blog as I go, to form a kind of reading diary.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it begins as an account of a walk from Lowestoft to Bungay, undertaken by Sebald in August 1992 – but it also includes digressions into memoir, history and science. I’ve added a little to my tweets here for clarification, but have not expanded on them. I have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions in italics. Finally, if you’re interested in following (or participating in) the Twitter discussion, search for hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn or #TRoS.

(Apologies for any strange formatting – I can’t seem to save the paragraphs correctly.)

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This is my first time reading The Rings of Saturn (and Sebald in general). Opening impressions are how fluidly it moves from outdoors to claustrophobic interior, through literature, art and biology, all hanging together with the underlying theme of mortality.
And extraordinary images, such as the academic Janine Dakyns’ office full of paper:

The carpet, too, had long since vanished beneath several inches of paper; indeed, the paper had begun climbing from the floor, on which, year after year, it had settled, and was now up the walls as high as the top of the door frame, page upon page of memoranda and notes pinned up in multiple layers, all of them by just one corner. Whenever it was possible there were piles of papers on the books on her shelves as well.

(translation by Michael Hulse)

I found the opening quite disorienting: the sudden leaps from a coastal walk to immobility in hospital to compiling notes, each leap a year apart. I wasn’t expecting it to start that way.
The images are interesting… ostensibly illustrations, yet not. I mean, the first one in the book is of a blank hospital window! Even when they show, say, a street or coastal landscape mentioned in the text, the images feel somewhat disconnected.
Does “place” survive as stable category or surface here?
In what I’ve read so far, there tends to be a relative glimpse of Suffolk landscape, then Sebald will go into a more detailed scientific or historical anecdote. Makes memory/history seem more stable than landscape.
I love this description of the fishermen (on the beach a few miles south of Lowestoft) in chapter III: “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”
What other works does the book evoke for you?
I find myself thinking of Enrique Vila-Matas, and a book like Never Any End to Paris which confronts a real place with its counterpart in the imagination.

How does Sebald’s style cast its strange spell? How does it work (on you)?

A discursive, measured prose style that at times lulls me into assuming it’s documentary… then it will shift into something that goes beyond facts and imprints itself on the mind.

I’ve just read chapter IV, and that whole passage on naval battles and our inability to comprehend the suffering really struck me.

Where, in this book so drawn to human darkness, does guilt seem to reside?

So far as I’ve read, guilt seems to reside at all levels, depending on where Sebald’s focus lies at a given time. When he’s taking an overview, it’s often systems and ideologies who are guilty, but with individuals who knew what was happening.

Places might be guilty by association – the end of chapter IV could even be said to make outer space complicit in a human atrocity.

The “vanishing point” & “the view from above” are the two commonest perspectives in The Rings of Saturn. What are their implications for reader & narrator? How do we “see” in this book?

“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realise how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end…”

Generally, an ‘overview’ implies knowledge of a situation, but I think for Sebald it’s the opposite.

Book details

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).

2 Comments

  1. I’m too immersed in other things at present, and about to go on holiday, so shan’t be able to join in. Pity, I’d love to reread this; one of my first posts on the blog touched on RoS in passing. S was such a stimulating, intelligent writer.

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