W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do not feel as I am supposed to, as a good literary citizen should, about Sebald. I am certainly entertained by him (I have read Austerlitz as well as The Rings of Saturn) but no more than entertained. His appropriative art in this novel creates something like a “curated” website avant la lettre, some art student’s Tumblr, as we flip from Sir Thomas Browne to the dowager Empress Tzu Hsi to Joseph Conrad to Swinburne to Chateaubriand and more, all evoked in Sebald’s long sentences, their archaic diction and ornate syntax punctuated by dreary photographs beckoning us to find their puncta:

I could not believe that anything might still be alive in that maze of buildings down there; rather, it was as if I were looking down from a cliff upon a sea of stone or a field of rubble, from which the tenebrous masses of multi-storey carparks rose up like immense boulders.

Who wouldn’t have fun with this? Quoting Conrad’s father on Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea, the novel announces its own intention:

That prodigiously boring book seemed to him to mirror his own life. C’est un livre sur des destinées dépaysées, he once said to Konrad, sur des individus expulsés et perdus, sur les éliminés du sort, un livre sur ceux qui sont seuls et évités.

On the other hand, do I need a three-page paraphrase of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or a recounting of Conrad’s journey up the Congo? Thomas Browne is one thing; I appreciated Sebald’s portrait as I fear I never went beyond the Norton Anthology excerpt from Religio Medici, read long ago in my undergrad days. Likewise Chateaubriand, whose memoirs I have not read and of whose Atala I have only the dimmest memories. But Borges’s is one of the best and most memorable short stories of its century, and Conrad’s voyage is well-known as the basis of its canonical fictionalization. Mostly I wished as I turned Sebald’s pages that I were reading Ficciones or Heart of Darkness again, which have something more to offer than Ripley’s Believe It or Not items narrated by the Angel of History.

As for history’s losers, the exiled and lost and shunned elegized by our rambler, I certainly appreciated Sebald’s images: the medieval port succumbing to flood, the forests ablaze as humanity advances, the magic garden of Yuan Ming Yuan (later destroyed by the resentful British), the competing tracts on sericulture with their variously utopian visions. I take it there is some polemic against magical realism implied here: Sebald suggests that a lyrical catalogue of impossibe-to-invent facts, patterned subtly by its governing images and united by tone, is superior to an overplotted collection of hysterical fancies. With some vulgarity, no doubt, though, I found the best passages in The Rings of Saturn to be the most novelistic ones: young Conrad reading through his parent’s travails, the machinations of the dowager Empress, the history of the unlucky Ashburys in their desolate house, a scene in which Sebald almost approaches the hated Dickens:

Unfortunately I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.

I think some praise Sebald’s prose for mastering the historical indirection theorized by Western Marxism; instead of narrating history as the march of progress, he “seize[s] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” per Benjamin, or gives us a broken form to testify to what wholeness would look like, per Adorno. But I do not see such rarefied political correctness in this novel—if Sebald sides particularly with the oppressed, I cannot detect it. The Rings of Saturn eulogizes the African victims of European imperialism, yes, and the Jewish and other Eastern European victims of fascism, but no less does it gather the dispossessed Anglo-Irish and French elites and the eastern shoreline of England and the forests of the anthropocene into its reliquary, returning genocide to natural history:

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.

The novel mourns what is gone because it is gone, lamenting the victims of time, which means all of us in the long term, rather than any particular historical victim. In that sense, it is anti-historical, even nihilistic. I do not mean this as dispraise at all: I like Conrad and Borges, for Nietzsche’s sake! But I do question some of the solemn overpraise that drifts Sebald’s way—he is “memory’s Einstein,” says one blurb on the back of this book, whatever that means.

Consider that the era that canonized Sebald has also canonized Lovecraft. And The Rings of Saturn is similar to Lovecraft’s stories: both stage the disheveled intellectual encountering the version of the sublime favored by their respective genres—the pulp sublime for Lovecraft involving aliens and monsters, the after-Auschwitz/culture-and-imperialism late modernist sublime of historical oppression for Sebald—a scenario requiring both authors to employ a style of quasi-parodic antiquarianism that aestheticizes even as it ironizes the mind’s attempt to organize the abyss of a meaningless and excruciating universe.[1] It is not an unworthy literary project, but it is a limited one. Its predetermined stylization eliminates the risks that writers with more capacious visions and more various tones inevitably run. Borges is ever on the edge of tastelessness, Conrad of melodrama, but Sebald’s tact is impeccably good (as Lovecraft’s is impeccably bad). Prophecy is the most gratuitous form of mistake, said George Eliot, but nevertheless I wonder if the tactful do not belong more to the history of fashion than to the history of literature.


[1] Borges fits some of my admittedly reductive description. But the complexities created in his work both by his personal attraction to men of action and violence, alien to Sebald’s melancholia, and by his globally peripheral cosmopolitanism make his work more various and more comprehensive than that of either Lovecraft or Sebald, though he admired the former and one imagines that he would also have admired the latter.


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