Ever-Decreasing Circles

One of the great pleasures in life is finally setting aside time for a writer you’ve been wanting to try for ages, and W.G. Sebald is someone who definitely falls into that category.  After hearing several bloggers I admire talk about his work recently, I belatedly got down to reading Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), and a wonderful read it was too.  Still, on finishing the book, I did find myself scratching my head a little: is this book a work of genius, or the height of self-indulgence?  Let’s leave that there for a while…

Die Ringe des Saturn is a travelogue of sorts, a collection of anecdotes centred upon Sebald’s walking tour through the English coastal county of Suffolk.  The writer makes the decision to go on his trek after recovering in hospital from a fairly serious bout of illness, and this causes the book to have a profound sense of both intro- and retrospection, colouring his thoughts and the descriptions of the countryside with which he provides the reader.

This, however, is far from being a straight account of what Mr. Sebald did on his holiday.  Unable to stick to a simple, descriptive retelling of his tour, Sebald goes off at tangents at every opportunity.  A glance out over the cliffs to the choppy North Sea soon segues seamlessly into stories of seventeenth-century naval battles or colonial wars in South Africa.  At times, it’s a little like Christmas dinner with a senile old uncle, with a story from the past just around every corner…

Of course, this is all very deliberate.  While Die Ringe des Saturn may, at first glance, appear to be akin to something written by Bill Bryson (albeit more stylishly and with less toilet humour), there are patterns to be found in the apparent madness of the structure.  A recurring theme is the cruel nature of time, eating away inevitably, unstoppably, at institutions once thought eternal.  His visits to stately homes, once regal, now moth-eaten and drab, reflect his gloomy view of his own mortality.  Even the land itself is proven to be less than permanent – in one chapter, he gazes out over the remains of a once-thriving coastal town, a church precariously balanced on a cliff the only reminder of a settlement which has been swallowed by the unforgiving sea.

Sebald also uses Die Ringe des Saturn to examine post-colonialism, with most of the chapters either looking back at Imperial times or examining how the end of the Empire has affected the places he visits.  Seen through this lens, the apparently random collection of academic anecdotes he comes up with (including tales of house burning in Ireland, slave-driving in the Congo, intervention in Chinese civil wars, a trip to the battlefields of Waterloo) actually make perfect sense.  There’s a structure to the book, a carefully-planned design which holds it all together to form an impressive finished product.  Now, if only I could work out exactly what that is…

Reading Die Ringe des Saturn was great fun as it’s the kind of book you can savour slowly, stopping after each of Sebald’s musings to ponder on the significance of the vignette you’ve just finished.  The language is slightly unusual in German (Sebald’s Wikipedia page claims that his German is occasionally a little old-fashioned), and it can take a little deciphering.  He frequently uses the very German Russian-doll construction of using a series of relative clauses one within the other, leaving the reader hanging until the end of a very long sentence to discover how the first clause actually ends.  It certainly makes you concentrate very carefully on the text 🙂
Another fairly unique element to Sebald’s writing is his use of photographs to support the text.  The book is full of his snapshots, or reproductions of paintings or public documents, and the effect is to give the text a more non-fiction feel, making it into more of an academic work.  However, underneath this dry top layer of the text, there is a sense of a narrative, an underlying fiction which works against the apparent historical, factual writing above.  I am very aware that this makes extremely little sense outside my head…

Die Ringe des Saturn is a wonderful read – the fact that I ordered a copy of Austerlitz immediately after finishing it shows that I was very impressed -, but I was still not entirely sure what to make of it.  Was it a wonderfully-plotted work, or did Sebald simply ramble on about things I didn’t really need to know?  Luckily, the answer eventually popped into my head in the form of a polite query (the sort of thing a certain Amateur Reader might say…): why can’t the book be both a work of genius and the height of self-indulgence?  They’re certainly not mutually exclusive…

And I think that’s where I’ll leave it for today – if anyone has any other ideas, you know where to find me 😉

13 thoughts on “Ever-Decreasing Circles

  1. I'm still stuck in the middle of Austerlitz but not because I didn't like it but because I liked it too much and I didn't have enough time to fully dedicate to it.
    I think part of the charm is the rhythm of the sentences that's why I thin he is hard to translate. What I saw of the English translation was very far from the originla German.
    I'll get to this as well sooner or later.


  2. Guy – Well, it took me long enough 😉 I now have my copy of 'Austerlitz', so hopefully it won't take me as long to get to this one.

    Caroline – I can well imagine that the sentence-structure would be a nightmare to translate 🙂 Challenging for non-native speakers like myself, but very enjoyable 🙂


  3. Caroline – Sebald closely supervised the English translations of his novels to the point of aggravation (from the translators' point of view).

    Why Sebald would be any harder to translate than Mann, Stifter, Storm, Grass, etc. is a mystery. Michael Hamburger and Anthea Bell know what they are doing.

    A clue to the purpose of Rings of Saturn is the repeated presence of Borges, the presiding spirit of the novel like Nabokov is in The Emigrants and Kafka in Vertigo. Sebald may write about things you don't need to know. He needs to know them, and more, endlessly more. Or the “he” in the novel, at least, who is a fiction.


  4. Sounds like something I might enjoy, but it also sounds as though it's one of those books that might not translate well to English. I wish you'd do a comparison of a German to English translation sometime. It would be interesting to know what I'm missing out on.


  5. It's like Sebald wrote ten blog posts. Planted some clues and red herrings in each. Then deliberately excluded the hyperlinks. Literature as a game. He left the validation to readers to make connections, maybe seek out the references to paintings, diaries, news clippings, etc.


  6. Tom – I find Sebald to be challenging, more so than Storm or Mann (Grass is another one I struggle with a little). I'm just glad I don't have to work with someone looking over my shoulder like that 😉

    I agree that Sebald writes about things he needs to know, but in such a way that we begin to wonder whether we need to know about them too – which is quite some feat…

    Violet – I think that you're pretty safe with Sebald's translators, especially given the supervision they were under…

    I have thought about a comparative post, but to be honest, it all seems too much like hard work 😉

    Rise – That's quite a blog 😉 I'd like to see someone keep that up for years though!


  7. Interesting notes on the original German.

    This is very much on my TBR pile, but not until the Autumn. It feels like a rainy weather read somehow.

    Also, having read the comments, I now feel the need to read some Borges first. Homework!


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