W.G. Sebald – The Rings of Saturn


As you’ll see on our copy’s file-card, we’ve variously tried filing this as a novel, a classic, a memoir, a travel book and history. We didn’t think it belonged in philosophy, but it might as well go there as any of the others. These days there’s a movement called ‘psychogeography’ and that’s probably as good a classification as any if we had enough other books even remotely like this to make a section (anyone wishing to donate any Iain Sinclair is welcome to as soon as they like). It has a sort of bleakness that is reassuring. In a period of enforced jollity and compulsory good cheer you might find this refreshing.

In essence, this is a book about the fens. If it had been a proper novel it would be a bit like Waterland by Graham Swift. A little bit. The narrator, who’s sometimes the author, ambles around making connections between things, defying mortality through close scrutiny of the world, much as the Epicurian philosophers of the Second and Seventeenth Centuries did. He avoids being too specific about who’s saying what to whom, which takes a bit of getting used to. So does his unparagraphed writing, broken up only by photos and chapters. He’s also discussing exile. Sebald, despite lecturing in almost accentless English and being perfectly capable of writing in it, wrote the book in German and had it translated. That slight sense of removal makes the attempt to integrate so many different aspects of the subject impressive rather than annoying. The book is asking questions and forming hypotheses, not delivering Great Truths. His generation of West Germans grew up in the remnants of someone else’s Great Truths and look for epiphanies in small details.

It might be handy to have your computer or smart-phone on standby when you read some of it. I was pretty much up to speed on the stuff about mulberries, Baldanders, Swinburne and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and the references back to another investigator of East Anglian antiquity, Thomas Browne, is sort of my home territory (this should get you started). However, I’m rusty on even translated German poets (except the Rilke that people my age all tried to sound like we knew in the 80s) so Michael Hamberger’s translations of Hölderlin were the sort of thing I noted down to look up later and never quite did. Because Sebald frequently cites Jorge Luis Borges, librarian and sly fantasist, I keep having to check how much of his erudition is an elaborate leg-pull couched inside real-but-implausible details. As far as I can tell it’s all factually accurate, if not true.

That makes it sound a bit daunting. It is. This book’s rewards have to be earned. (There’s a film about Sebald’s peregrinations called Patience. It’s by someone who made films about Joy Division and Radiohead, but don’t let that put you off). The best thing to do is what my students did when I was on a pet subject; nod, make a few notes for later and then just hang on and wait. After two hundred-odd pages of exploring branch-lines of scholarship and memory, human brutality and dead writers, it all starts coming together. Not in a plot-driven way but as a view of the world, a contemplative compassion.

(But, I implore you, when reading this counter-history of East Anglia and one man’s reconsideration of his own life and the legacy of Facism, try not to think of this..)

By Tat Wood