Here is the second weekly round-up of my contributions to Robert Macfarlane’s Twitter reading group on The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (my first round-up is here). As before, I have made only minor edits to my tweets, and have included some of Macfarlane’s daily questions for context. By the end of this week, I had read the first seven chapters of the book in total.
You can find the discussion on Twitter under the hashtags #TheReadingsofSaturn and #TRoS.
The German subtitle of The Rings of Saturn, left out of the English translation, is ‘Ein Englische Wallfahrt’; ‘An English Pilgrimage’. What does walking lead to here? What is its ‘work’, what are its natures? What kind of pilgrimage is this?
Walking seems to be a means of moving into and through a place/situation, in order to gradually uncover it (if not necessarily to understand it – see Sebald’s walk into Lowestoft, for example). I think he places walking in opposition to having an overview (flying over something).
Having said that, the book lives in my mind most vividly as a mental journey, rather than as an account of a walk.
Silk & sericulture thread through The Rings of Saturn; text & textile interweave. “That…silk…what does it mean?”
I think most of the references to silk are yet to come in my reading, but so far I associate strongly with images of death – for example, the Celestial King’s body held together only by his silken robes, or the silk fishing nets full of dead herring.
The Rings of Saturn is an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male book in terms of narrator, characters & cross-references…What, for you, are the consequences of this skew?
Normally I would say it makes for too partial a view. But I can’t help thinking that, because The Rings of Saturn is such a personal, idiosyncratic account (i.e. not purporting to be a survey of anything in particular) that any range of references would have come across as just as partial.
Still, this is an issue I want to bear in mind for the rest of the book – I might change my mind once I’ve seen the shape of the whole.
Roger Casement & Joseph Conrad: to what ends the long excursus into their lives in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn? Why the many mediations (we enter their stories through a ‘BBC documentary’)? And why close the chapter with Casement’s signature?
Casement/Conrad feels to me like an interlude in the journey (it’s inspired by a period of rest, not walking) and an underlining of key themes (mortality and atrocity).
Perhaps ends with Casement’s signature to signify a reconstruction of his life, or agreement with him.
What are the functions of listening and hearing in The Rings of Saturn, which is in many ways such a heavily visual book?
(My answer here was in response to a tweet from @__synaesthesia, who commented on how often sounds in Sebald’s book were silenced.)
I have also been struck by the silences in The Rings of Saturn – Sebald and Michael Hamburger talking about the “soundless month of August”, Le Strange’s housekeeper having to eat with him in silence, and so on. Silence in the book often seems tense rather than peaceful.
James Wood, in this essay, argues for Sebald as a surprisingly funny writer, with “an eccentric sense of playfulness”. Do you agree? How far & where do “gravity” & “levity” coexist in The Rings of Saturn?
I think there’s a sense of playfulness in Sebald’s whole structure, building up these idiosyncratic digressions into something that’s ultimately serious. Chapter by chapter, there’s also playfulness in the juxtaposition of different subjects within a passage.
The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse (1998), Vintage Classics, 296 pages, paperback (source: personal copy).