Is this book fiction or non-fiction? memoir or history? travelogue or invention? random stream-of-consciousness or carefully constructed exploration of ideas? Each time I read it, I struggle to understand Sebald’s purpose here, and each time I come away with something different.
My first voyage through Sebald’s world occurred in the late 1990s, and I was struck by his wide-ranging knowledge. Reading his book was like a lesson in history, minus the footnotes. These days, it takes only moments to find the following: analyses of the literary and historical works the narrator references; an annotated “litmap” of the places, both real and virtual, the narrator visits; a photo missing from the English-language editions of this book (outraged reader response: Wait, what!?!); an in-depth discussion of Sebald’s use of images; and so on. Would these resources have changed my first reading? I can’t say. I remember thinking, as I peered at the final image, “How did he get from a walking tour of Suffolk to a history of sericulture? What is this book about?” I couldn’t figure out what made me connect with this meandering collection of memories embedded within stories embedded within descriptions.
Sebald’s photos (evidently discovered at car boot sales over several years) are odd: a mesh-covered window, a rocky landscape scratched almost beyond recognition, a white lighthouse looming over dark row houses. They “illustrate” the narrator’s tale, which ambles through history as he ambles through the mostly depressed area of early 1990s East Anglia (begging the question of which came first for Sebald — the photo or the tale). Once busy port towns (Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Dunwich) seem to crumble before his eyes, manor houses and piers sink into the heath or “German Sea”, an aviary’s last survivor pushes frantically against its cage wall: what the narrator notices as he hikes through Suffolk sets his mind wandering along historical trails in Africa, Asia and the American continents.
I particularly noticed during this most recent reading that what the narrator finds everywhere is violence and destruction. Nature herself is responsible for some — hurricanes, ocean storms — but most of the destruction is man-made, not just because of war, but also through efforts to control nature (felling age-old trees to create carefully managed grounds, mass drownings of silkworms to harvest their cocoons, overfishing herring almost to extinction). Underlying all Sebald’s musings is a world ravaged by WWII and the Holocaust. Born in Germany in 1944, Sebald spent his adult life teaching literature in England. All his novels [in addition to The Rings of Saturn, there are Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), and Austerlitz (2001)] work in similar ways as he composes literary fugues on the theme of humanity’s penchant for creating mass horror : fuzzy photos illustrate musings on famous writers, outsiders and emigrants, and the inevitable dissolution of empire.
There is no narrative arc in The Rings of Saturn, unless it’s the one the narrator traces as he walks the coastline of Suffolk. He questions our understanding of the past: “… the representation of history … requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”
I suspect Sebald’s works are his own efforts to understand how and what Germany was in the 20th Century, something not attempted by the country during his youth there. He rarely refers to the horrors of WWII, yet inferences abound. For instance, he writes that Hitler’s efforts to make Germany self-sufficient in silk production resulted in research on
the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration.
About two-thirds of the way through, in a section on the loss of Britain’s wide-spread forests Sebald points out, “Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn.” Everything we make, he explains, requires combustion. “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.” He goes on:
From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread. In Italy, France and Spain, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, in Canada and California, summer fires consume whole forests, not to mention the great conflagration in the tropics that is never extinguished.
We are surrounded by conflagration, all of our own doing.
Sebald’s writing is dense (single paragraphs will go on for dozens of pages), esoteric (Thomas Browne, Edward Fitzgerald, Chateaubriand), non-linear, full of melancholy. Reading anything by Sebald is hard work, for he wanders here and there; sometimes his trails lead somewhere, but often they simply fade, like tracks through tall grass, and I’m left wondering why he’s abandoned me. I still haven’t figured that out, and I know I need to visit his world several more times before I can make sense of it. At least it’s a world I’m happy to re-enter, regardless of the challenges I know await me there.