Where new writing finds its voice

The Rings of Saturn

Michael Spring

WG Sebald
The Harvill Press, 1995

Sometimes, a book appears which doesn’t conform to the rules, a book which seems to be without tradition or ancestry, but which has such solidity that it makes us wonder why books have not been like it before. The Rings of Saturn is one of them. It is also eminently readable too, even though a straightforward description of it doesn’t seem too encouraging.

The story is that of a journey, made sometime in the 1990s, on foot through Suffolk. It is told by a German academic (the author) who has lived and taught in England for some years. The academic is a solitary, thoughtful and depressive individual, whose tale of what he sees, and the thoughts these sights inspire, is refracted through so many prisms (illness, tiredness, confusion, the death of a friend) that it becomes a misty meditation on the nature of the human endeavour. For WG Sebald, that endeavour is summed up in our history, a history that now moves so slowly that it has almost ended.

Here is the narrator recalling the aftermath of an operation: 

Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds … I gazed at the indigo vastness and down into the depths where I supposed the earth to be, a black and impenetrable maze.

That black and impenetrable maze is the subject of this book. 

I hope that this isn’t putting you off, because this strange account of a solitary journey, told after something like a nervous breakdown, and scattered with odd, grainy photos, is like a fairytale, cast on the air to children by a marvellous (but slightly odd) teacher.

Some questions immediately arise. Is it fiction, or is it something else? How much can we trust the author (or narrator)? Are those photos real or staged?

The Rings of Saturn is partly a celebration of the power of the mind, whose prime purpose is to remember and record human endeavour; partly too, it is a meditation on the potential within us all for cruelty and waste. It is also an obituary, because Sebald’s bleak view seems to be that nothing now of any heroic or purposeful dimension can ever be achieved (and perhaps never could). The collapse of any grand or important purpose has led to the collapse of the human story. This is How the West Was Won run backwards. 

Starkly put, each day our world becomes more narrow, our goals less impressive, our ability to respond to the tragedy that is all around us more limited and confined. We are all (Sebald’s first book was called The Emigrants) in exile, lost in a world we cannot make sense of or find a purpose for.

‘Memories lie slumbering,’ he says, ‘until they are woken and in some strange way blind us to life… and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business!’

Thankfully (if by now you are about to scurry off to the bathroom for an open razor or a giant pack of sleeping pills) there is a but.

There is simple, shining heroism in Sebald’s tales of Joseph Conrad (the Polish sailor who won his Nobel prize for his writing in a foreign language), of Roger Casement, the Irish patriot who fought against human rights abuse in the Congo, and who was eventually executed by the British, and finally in the life of Sebald’s fellow exile from Germany, the poet Michael Hamburger, who spent a lifetime arguing against the dumbing down of society.

This meditation (‘a challenging nocturne’ someone called it) is stitched together with magical details, details about Sebald’s and other lives, which shine like bright glass beads in a secondhand shop, and are the more fascinating because of the grey background against which we now live. Even in this gloomy atmosphere, whilst we may sometimes be depressed, we must at the same time aspire.

Sebald died in 2001 in a car accident (on a foul night that I remember). This and his other classic works (The Emigrants, Vertigo, Austerlitz) is a memorial more solid than granite.