The Rings of Saturn by W.G.Sebald

Review by Igor Biscan

Indeed, in historiography, the indisputable advantage of a fictitious past have become apparent: secondary or tertiary worlds as imagined in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius manifest themselves from the ideas and representations of the world onto the physical world itself. In the final analysis, says a voice in The Rings of Saturn, our entire work is based upon nothing but ideas. Yet these ideas – or representations – are flimsy as film, and they change over the years and which time and time again cause one to tear down what one had thought was finished, and begin again from scratch: this from farmer Thomas Abrams who has devoted 20 years to building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem, a model that can never in reality be completed since it needs constant revision as archaelogists and scholars make new discoveries, imagine from ruins a complete whole, one may say an idealised whole outside time. Borgesian throughout, in The Rings of Saturn we never know quite where we are: only the imagined past seems a permanent orienting position.

Fiction is the more real. Sebald’s narrator is a fictional one in that it can be given the distanced and flat perspective on things. It can blend seamlessly into other first person narrative voices; it can with equal ease take an omniscient view. The long paragraphs (bearing little relation to paragraphs as we usually encounter them) compress disparate elements of story, theme, imagery and linkages with the rest of the book. Long lists of catalogued exotica (here I am reminded very sharply of Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, and not just here) combine with this compression to require a slow reading, a savouring of the sensuous surfaces of life, and function with other devices to mourn, if ironically, the attempts to overcome time and death (Umberto Eco has written that we love lists because we fear death, and our possessions perhaps, ideational or material, are like those ordering lists that can be classified and set into quasi-permanence) yet in reality, as far as we can know some stable underlying reality, Just as people supposed they could uphold some straight line, some dramatic and unexpected deterioration would compel them….to the last post, prisoners in their own homes. Ostensibly writing about the decay of country manors, Sebald is constantly thinning the line between psyche and physical – land, weather, buildings.

It would take an infinite line of academics to complete a commentary on the book (each commentary of course producing yet more commentaries). Duplication is the curse of humanity in ideas, copulation and mirrors, mirrors and paintings being covered in Victorian times at homes of the dead so that departed souls could move on unimpeded by reflection of themselves or representations of the world: memory too is a curse; memories can blind us to life. As for writing about our memories, as a memoir, as the Vicomte de Chateaubriand confesses, this removal from life through memories and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! I dare say that the same is true for writing reviews.

Yet, as the Vicomte goes on, And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, an there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is! – so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. Yet life itself, the ‘reality’ of it, is a chain of unexpected calamities, time and time again. One is like Kafka’s insect caught between impossible existential threats. Out in the flat landscapes of Suffolk, beneath the huge skies, without a soul in sight, Sebald as author-narrator recalls, At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past…. Destruction and decay are everywhere, the very will of the past. After exploring an old military research station, he is engulfed by a sandstorm where all shape and form is lost, sky and land are lost, and he imagines the world as it will be when it has finally worn itself out. Definition so beautifully evoked in exotic stories, almost fairytales, of far away times and opulent places, definition as the rage to order the world in encyclopaedic taxonomies, classifications and catalogues all go under in the dark and indifferent chaos that engulfs all feeble order. Elite ruling families, palaces, the land itself, entire dynasties go down. All that remains is one disaster after an other.

There is a psychic space where one loses even the ability to name feelings, perhaps the most dreadful space of all. Or it may be that feelings are socially and literarily structured as convenient communal bulwarks against affective disorder, and that to be open – on the flat land, under the big sky – to what is really there, inside, outside if these have valid distinctive meanings, is to experience something deeper and stranger than conventional emotions. At any rate, I knew then as little as I know now whether walking in this solitary way was more of a pleasure than a pain. Walking, of course, is a convenient metaphor for many things, as the new psychogeographers have theorised. Yet it’s more than praise to the writer for having so successfully evoked the inseparable melancholy tone from its physical counterpart to suggest that the bodily basis of thinking – or writing – is so well represented in the labyrinthine footpaths, dead ends and, one startling image, a signpost with nothing written on it. The solitary way is bleak and relieved only from the image of its own fragility and decay by re-presented, imagined worlds – and all worlds are imagined anyway. The rings of Saturn are there and not there, tied to forces which they require for their orbit, insubstantial as ice particles, but there perhaps as much as imagined worlds are, similarly held in place by forces of nature including history, yet containing an autonomy.

Frequently Sebald evokes a peopleless world: empty streets seen from a hospital window, the marshes, an aeroplane high in the sky although carrying hundreds of people seeming but as an object. When he lets a thought take him in what he calls his ‘notes’, ‘these notes’, he will bring to life a complete fiction based on fact, possibly a fiction that is located within a dream of the imagined author, fictionalised conversations and situations of real historical figures. Mostly these figures are wealthy, live in opulence, are part of the ruling elite, played crucial but often hidden roles in the course of history. The solidity of their wealth and power as evoked imaginatively is in a fictional permanence which is located in only the place that memory can create permanence, a permanence doubtless imagined not only by an observer looking back but also by the imaginary worlds of those who lived, and who still live. The latter as the former will in a different discourse succumb to erosion, decay, collapse, burial. But history qua history can be willed as a process of selection. One ‘thread’ followed by Sebald from the Chinese Empress’s cultivation of silk worms to the bizarre Third Reich educational programme for producing silk takes in the Norwich workers who, years before the Industrial Revolution, were strapped to wooden machines resembling instruments of torture, driven to bad dreams by their work yet who were, at this point of the history of silk making items of a truly fabulous variety, and of an irridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds. There is so much the reader needs to do to question and explore the many spaces Sebald opens up.

Since quotidian details of the author-narrator’s encounters with people on his walk are few and far between, one is invited by this lacuna to flesh out the real people of the world, to question whether we do this by evoking a simulated thickness of reality through imagination, that is by seeing others through structures similar to literary modes of representation, or whether we are in our world in a more direct apprehension of it. We may know that we are going to share the same dismal destiny as our forbears, yet in the physical encounter with the world, with Nature, with people, with our visceral defiance of war and cruelty perhaps there is enough to live by. The mind is subordinate to the body and the ground it walks upon, secondary to ideas which it knows it is the source of. It may be odd these days to welcome pain and pleasure equally, but in the end the pain of memory and its freedoms, and the constraints of the human condition that allow its freedoms are, whether we like it or not, how it is. For the wretched Vicomte too, life was worth it even though he once despaired, The chronicler…. inscribes his experiences, in an act of self-mutilation, onto his own body. In the writing, he …. is already in the tomb that his memoirs represent.

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