Friday, 28 March 2008

The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald

This book is difficult to define, as I think are most books by Sebald. It's a mix of travel and memoir with a fair amount of history and philosophy thrown in. The starting point is a walking tour of coastal East Anglia but the narrative is easily diverted for example the outline of a dragon on a bridge takes us to Imperial China, where the bridge had been originally built for a young emperor. All the seeming disparate elements of the story are connected beautifully and the whole runs together in a dream-like stream of consciousness style. The overarching theme of the book is the transience of everything and the repetitive nature of history, how human progress is marked by the forests we have chopped down; how certain villages are fighting an endless, futile battle against coastal erosion; the thousands of trees destroyed in the 1987 hurricane that swept south east England.

The haunting atmosphere is enhanced by the eerily beautiful black and white photos that dot the text. Sebald was considered by many to be a major European writer and certainly his intelligent commentary is well worth reading, though some of his attititudes and style quirks can be annoying.

7 comments:

Janice Thomson said...

That would be a book I think I would enjoy. Thanks for the info.

Golebnik said...

It’s funny to see this book mentioned now. I wonder what drew your attention to it …

I came to it by chance when it was first published in 1998 – eek! ten years ago this coming summer! – after seeing a piece about it on Channel 4 News, back in the days when they used to have a little arts feature on a Friday. It was the first Sebald that I read, and I was captivated by it. There is definitely nothing else like it. I like the fact that it is marked ‘Fiction/Travel/History’ on the jacket.

I would have to say it is the second least accessible of his ‘novels’, after Vertigo. If you haven’t read them yet, I cannot recommend The Emigrants and Austerlitz highly enough.

Also I was delighted when I found out that the wonderful visual artist Tacita Dean is also a Sebald fan, as she has done a couple of works inspired by him. Recently she made a rather touching film about Michael Hamburger, who translated Sebald’s poetry (but not novels) into English, and who also has a passion for growing apples. For my part I have merely nicked some phrases from Sebald books as titles for pieces of music …

There was also a superb Craig Brown parody of Sebald in Private Eye once, which I have photocopied and stuck inside my copy of The Rings of Saturn. Let me know if you’re interested to see it.

Rabbits' Guy said...

We are but campers on a distant shore ... tie yourself not to a wall. You must leave or it must fall. Can't remember who wrote it ... sort of the same story I guess.

Tracey said...

Thanks for the great insight!! This sounds like a book I would likely enjoy...it sounds intriguing (so long as I can deal with his style). I'll put this one on my 'reading list'.

Tracey

Crafty Green Poet said...

Golebnik - I only buy second hand books so I'm usually well behind in terms of when I read things! I've read Austerlitz, actually preferred Rings of Saturn. I couldn't quite get into the style of Austerlitz. A parody of Sebald sounds intriguing...

Tracey, Janice, if you find copies, hope you enjoy!

Rabbits Guy - thanks for the quote!

Golebnik said...

Crafty Green Poet, I’ve put a copy of the Craig Brown parody here for your delectation. Having just read The Rings of Saturn, you’ll understand it completely. Anyone who hasn’t read Sebald will be quite mystified by it, though!

Crafty Green Poet said...

Golebnik - thanks for that link, its very entertaining and amusing!