W.G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of SaturnSebald is someone I studied at University, on a course called ‘History, Time and Memory’ which focused on modern and post-modern writers and thinkers. On this course I studied and wrote about another of Sebald’s famous books, Austerlitz. Much of the research I did about Austerlitz was related to identity and trauma, particularly in reference to the personal and historical trauma of the Holocaust. I remember there was also a lot of talk about history, modernity and the presence of the past. Having now read two of his books, most recently The Rings of Saturn, I can see that these themes are not confined to one work, but are deeply entrenched in Sebald’s writing more generally. Which is far more interesting, and makes sense when you consider Sebald’s reputation.

There was much made of the fact that Sebald is generally considered not to be a writer of novels in the traditional sense – that he has created his own genre that sits somewhere between history, fiction and autobiography.

Sebald, as a writer and individual and narrative voice seems very keen on archiving, in both The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz. He’s a writer weaving together a series of disparate stories and historical events into one semi-coherent narrative, which leaves the reader with an odd sense of having been duped; you’re being led down the garden path a bit in The Rings of Saturn, and it’s a fascinating journey.

The key, I suppose, is active reading – this is defiantly not a piece of writing you can sit back and take at face value, because of the way it makes you constantly question what exactly you are reading. Is it true? What is true? How much of this is borrowed or stolen, how much of it actually happened? There was an uncanny section, just before we start to hear about the life of young Joseph Conrad, where the narrative fell exactly into step with a passage from Conrad’s most famous novel Heart of Darkness. There was a feeling as though I’d missed a step on the stairs – a familiar voice speaking in an unfamiliar text, a familiar word pattern, a familiar progression occurring in a different place. This one instance made me sit up and realise how much more there is to The Rings of Saturn than meets the eye. It’s almost Joycean in the way that it presumes a certain amount of knowledge of the canon in order to make it coherent for the reader. Serious stuff.

‘Haunting’ is a word often associated with Sebald, and one that seems even more apt in this text than for Austerlitz. Perhaps because this book deals with a lot of European and coastal history, it is deeply evocative of time passing and standing still as it does in seaside places more starkly than others. The ghosts of war, the erosion of the land, the changing face of buildings still standing. Sebald’s walking tour in many voices, identities and mediums (Sebald’s work often includes photographs) is a surprising an absorbing read that requires a bit of space. For long train journeys.

I’m certain this is a book that would bear endless re-reading. I look forward to picking it up ten years from now and shedding different and more focussed light on it. For now, at least, I’ve got a feel for it.

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