November 28, 2009
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
The rings of the planet Saturn are really one continuous ring made up of innumerable small particles. One well established astronomical theory suggests the rings are debris left over from a moon that was pulled apart when its orbit fell too close to Saturn. Light reflected from the varying substance of the rings is what makes Saturn appear to wax brighter and ebb dim.
W.G. Sebald’s book, The Rings of Saturn, does not concern itself directly with the planets or astronomical topics, but with a very personal exploration into how a contemporary person can possibly shoulder an awareness of shared human history, and not be obliterated by it. His title serves as a kind of map legend for how his book is meant to be followed and understood. The Rings of Saturn begins where many stories end—that is the moment of surrender. Our narrator, fresh from a walking tour of Suffolk, England, has found himself hospitalized in a state of physical and emotional paralysis, noting that “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery … our world… no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.”
Sebald, born in Germany in 1944, has concerned himself in many of his books, with the aftermath of Word War II— specifically its effects on the collective psyche. In The Rings of Saturn this sense of collective memory is not just an idea discussed, but an experience created via Sebald’s narrative style and occasional photographs which serve not simply to illustrate, but work as sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous counterpoints to the story. The plot of this book is simple: our narrator sets out on a walking tour, noting the local and regional history as he goes. But Sebald immediately begins to complicate the idea of personal experience, introducing characters either known to him as friends or literary figures he has a personal rapport with, letting their voices take over, until it is difficult to say who is guiding the reader—Sebald himself, or a kind of merged voice made up of whatever persona from the past we have tuned in to. The overall effect is both disconcerting and strangely equalizing. Reading this book is akin to dreaming someone else’s dream—not just experiencing another person’s internal landscape, but also grasping that particular sense of ineffable significance that only a dream conveys.
The major themes of The Rings of Saturn are memory, the fear of death because of the loss of self-awareness, visibility and invisibility, and the idea of the human capacity for both cruelty and forgetting. Sebald’s rings are the rings of history and human experience—at one moment, taken together and when the light catches them right, they give off a mesmerizingly beautiful incandescence. At another moment, one sees them for what they materially are—the dregs of utter destruction swirling in a void.
What makes this book worth reading is that these huge, heady, existential, tectonically vast ideas never hijack the deeper purpose of the book—that is to point out the profound beauty and human compassion that Sebald sees even at moments of great despair. It is a perfect book for anyone who has ever questioned how to live in a moment when the weight of the sheer amount of history seems difficult to bear, or as Sebald puts it, “Will what I have written survive beyond the grave? Will there be anyone able to comprehend it in a world the very foundations of which, have changed?”
In story after story, Sebald returns to the idea of continual accrual and collision—of births and deaths, of the changing of the landscape both suddenly and gradually—and that this continual cycling is what produces the light that signals life. Hence why the invisibility of that airplane, cutting across the sky in the hospital window frame, signified a fissure in Sebald’s life—the fissure being the moment of understanding that there is no permanent grasping of meaning. Like the rings of Saturn, which are really only one ring, sometimes what lies beneath is visible, sometimes invisible, sometimes bright, sometimes fading, as things become one thing for a time, and then drift apart.
The Rings of Saturn
written and with photographs by W.G. Sebald (296 pages/New Directions 1995)
translated by Michael Hulse
reviewed by LJ Moore email: editor.moore (at)gmail.com