Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Rings of Saturn

After a summer of fiction that I found mostly only ok, it’s been such a pleasure to immerse myself in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (trans. Michael Hulse). Is this representative Sebald? If so, what book should I go to next? My pleasure in the book is a special surprise—for whatever reason I was not expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.

The novel is the record of a trip through Southeast England by Sebald the narrator (to what extent similar to the author I do not know). Right here at “travel narrative” is probably one of the reasons I was dreading the book, but it is far more a journey through the mind and through history than anything else. Most of the book comprises reflections spurred by the countryside and one another about history and its figures, with special attention to the history and decay of the British Empire. The style is pensive and Sebald takes his time to let his sentences unfold in a cascading series of thoughts and images. Here he is thinking about fire:

A few years ago, on a Greek island that was wooded as recently as 1900, I observed the speed with which a blaze runs through dry vegetation. A short distance from the harbor town where I was staying, I stood by the roadside with a group of agitated men, the blackness behind us and before us, far below at the bottom of a gorge, the fire, whipped up by the wind, racing, leaping, and already climbing he steep slopes. And I shall never forget the junipers, dark against the glow, going up in flames one after the other as if they were tinder the moment the first tongues of fire licked at them, with a dull thudding sound like an explosion, and then promptly collapsing in a silent shower of sparks.

Here, the discussion of fire bears on the passage that immediately precedes it, where Sebald reflects on humanity’s capacity to burn itself out. He moves between topics metonymically like this thoughout—the page after this one not coincidentally shows a picture of a garden maze shaped like a brain. There are pages and pages of this prose full of sharp imagery and history facts come alive, and the passages make me so enamored of their subjects that I am tempted to run out and read biographies of all of the historical people he discusses—he even makes me want to give Swinburne’s poetry another chance, which is quite a feat.

Probably I would have enjoyed the book even more had I been able to devote the time to reading more of it sooner—I stretched out the reading over a longer period than preferable. My schedule this semester is getting out of control fairly fast it seems. But in those times I could carve out to read a chapter, The Rings of Saturn brought a calm reflection and beauty.

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