A SHORT WALK THROUGH THE RINGS OF SATURN
W. G. SEBALD’S MASTERPIECE HAS VIRTUALLY NO CHARACTER, NO CONFLICT, AND NO DRAMATIC INTERACTION. IT GORGES ITSELF INSTEAD ON SETTING AND THEME, AND THE RESULT IS INDEFINABLY BEAUTIFUL.
There are only a very few authors in my life as a reader whose work seemed so arresting to me that, upon encountering it, I felt compelled to try to read every word. It’s a peculiar relationship, this read-every-word relationship, and I don’t know if I can say uniformly that it is a beneficial relationship. Still, it’s a joyful and exciting thing when you’re in the midst of it, textual compulsion. For me, the work of W. G. Sebald is the most recent example of this textual compulsion, and my case of it dates back about five years. Other examples of the illness in me, from adolescence on, are, in chronological order: Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett, Stanley Elkin, Thomas Bernhard, William Gaddis, Ryszard Kapuściński, and Lydia Davis.
Obviously, there are other writers of whose work I have read all or most, i.e., James Joyce, Herman Melville, Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Bruno Schulz, Thomas Pynchon, and so on. (No particular order to this list.) But with Sebald, and those mentioned above, there’s a difference. The difference with true textual compulsion is that there has to be that element of sacrifice. Are you foregoing food and social relations? Are your personal relationships suffering? Are you going to read these books more or less sequentially? In sophomore year of college, when I was enrolled in Angela Carter’s class in fiction writing, my discovery of Beckett was so overwhelming that for a semester I really did little else but read Beckett and go to class. Well, I also took drugs. That is, there were three things I did: went to writing workshop, took drugs, and read Beckett. I had a sort of Beckettian throne, a large revolving globus hystericus of a chair that I had stolen from the lounge of the graduate center of Brown University, that grim, unforgiving building designed in the eastern bloc style, in which I would also take more drugs and feebly attempt suicide in the following academic year. This globus hystericus was the perfect throne for reading Beckett. With textual compulsion, I would argue, you should always arrange an appropriate reading environment.
These remarks will meander in the way that the book under discussion, The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, meanders, but having said so it is also true that I feel obliged to fulfill some of the responsibilities of the essayist, namely the relation of genuine factual material (Sebald does the same in his book), so let me note that The Rings of Saturn was the third work of “prose fiction” by W. G. Sebald, after two prior “novels,” Vertigo and The Emigrants. I am using these apprehensive quotation marks to indicate terms such as “prose fiction” and “novel,” simply because I don’t believe these designations are entirely suitable, or in keeping with the author’s own intentions. As the first chapter of The Rings of Saturn makes clear, the book attempts to catalog everything (or most of what) the narrator thought during a walking tour he took along the eastern coast of England in 1992. (The lost German subtitle to The Rings of Saturn is “An English Pilgrimage.”) If I’m reading correctly, the first chapter gives the date of composition as 1994–95, following the author’s stay in a hospital in Norwich, during which Sebald began composing notes about his earlier perambulations. In this way, the book makes no attempt to forbid the idea that its narrator is the author W. G. Sebald himself, and yet the question of identity in Sebald is a supple one, and, moreover, whenever you are certain you know the truth about a person, you are liable to be standing on slippery terrain. W. G. Sebald, that is, in The Rings of Saturn, may well be a construction not entirely identical to the author of the same name.
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