TagThe Rings of Saturn

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 3

It’s time for the third and final round-up of my contributions to the Twitter discussion of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, organised by Robert Macfarlane. As before, I’ve included some of Macfarlane’s question prompts for context. The first two instalments of this blog series are here and here.

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Chapter VIII ends on Orford Ness, a shingle spit formerly used for military testing. How do you (close-) read what happens in these extraordinary pages?

It reads to me like an inversion of the typical passage in The Rings of Saturn where Sebald will go somewhere and recount a memory. Here we have a photo of the bridge to the site, framed as though a parody of a country house;but instead of recounting a story, Sebald is confronted by the limits of what he can understand about this place. It becomes another example of the recurring theme of humans not being able to comprehend the broader picture of destruction.

The farmer building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem at the start of chapter XI of The Rings of Saturn reminded me (not necessarily appropriately!) of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, when he talked about needing to build in ever greater detail to be accurate.

What are the implications of the closing pages (and sentences) of The Rings of Saturn? What aftermaths will this book leave for you?

The ending caps off some of the book’s main themes – for example, drawing the darkness out of something as seemingly ordinary as silk.

The final image haunts me: Sebald has repeatedly suggested that flying above/gaining an overview of something does not provide understanding. Now a soul departs its body and sees nothing of the world as it rises, because all is draped in black.

One thing that has struck me reading The Rings of Saturn is that I never once thought of it as fiction. I’m used to novels that blur the line (such as Knausgaard, or Cercas’ The Impostor), but for some reason The Rings of Saturn always read to me as non-fiction. I’m still not sure why.

In response to this last tweet, Tom of Wuthering Expectations pointed out to me that parts of Sebald’s book (such as the Chinese Emperor’s train running on a line in Suffolk) are actually made up. I had no notion of this, and of course it settles the “fiction or non-fiction” question. Yet it’s so hard to shake off my abiding impression of the book; I that’s down to the power of Sebald’s style.

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I have to say, I found this Twitter discussion an enjoyable and valuable way of engaging with the book. I don’t know what I would have made of The Rings of Saturn had I been reading it ‘solo’, but I do know that I wouldn’t have got as much out of it as I did.

(‘Blogging as I go’ has also been interesting to do, even just as a series of weekly round-ups. I might experiment with the format a bit more in future.)

Book details

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

Reading The Rings of Saturn: week 2

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.

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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.

Book details

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

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).

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