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 Kapu´sci´nski, 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.
If there were a general theme to Sebald’s oeuvre it would seem to be suggested by the title of his work of “nonfiction,” On the Natural History of Destruction. There’s an allusion along these lines in the first chapter of The Rings of Saturn, wherein the narrator discusses the landscape of his subsequent walk: “At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccompanied sense of freedom [on this walk] but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with traces of destruction.” To be reductive, that is, Sebald was a postwar German writer for whom the legacy of World War II was omnipresent. The melancholy of dilapidated architecture is everywhere in his work, among his many and varied melancholic hues. In fact, Sebald was so noteworthy for his melancholy that on the occasion of his death, in 2001, in a car accident, I had heard it said that the accident was no accident. (And yet since his daughter was in the car with him, this is difficult to imagine.) His books are suffused with melancholy and loss, with the despair and disrepair of memory, with suicide and death, and these are among the many reasons I like his work so much.
His father served in the war, in the German army, attaining the rank of captain, and was a French prisoner of war thereafter, until 1947. With her husband away, Sebald’s mother fled the Allied bombing to a remote part of Bavaria, where her parents resided, and there Sebald was born, in 1944, and lived until his father returned from the war. The young Sebald found himself in these early years in the care of his devoted maternal grandfather, who was a sort of town constable, and an amateur natural scientist.1 When his father returned, Sebald was, it is said, already resistant to him and perhaps ungovernable, and the relationship did not dramatically improve. It’s not hard to see beneath his published work, therefore, to the insistent interrogative What Did You Do During the War, Daddy? even if this is to trivialize the howl that roils under the elegant Sebaldian surfaces. By his own account, he knew nothing about the Holocaust until he was fifteen or sixteen (“Only when we were seventeen were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. There it was, and we somehow had to get our minds around it—which of course we didn’t. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out what had happened. In the mid-60s, I could not conceive that these events had happened only a few years back”).2 One can only imagine the uncomfortable revelation that the generation of the ’60s in Germany must have experienced in the apperception of its nation’s wartime legacy, especially in the presence of a profound and conspiratorial silence. A silence that Sebald also experienced in his own family.
This question of sympathies, of the capacity to imagine sympathetically, is especially germane to any discussion of this work. For the simple reason that a posthumous criticism of Sebald, leveled particularly at the aforementioned cobbled-together work of “nonfiction,” On the Natural History of Destruction, finds its traction in the fact that though a German of the ’60s Sebald nonetheless militates for, in his posthumous “nonfiction,” a greater openness, by German writers, as regards the aerial destruction of German cities during World War II. A critic in the New York Times Book Review, in response, went as far as to accuse the book of “a revisionist and somewhat disreputable line of thinking that has surfaced in German writings on the Holocaust in recent years,” namely the refusal to engage with the culpability of Nazism:
Although he dutifully acknowledges the immutable reality that led to the Allied attacks (“a nation which had murdered and worked to death millions of people in its camps”), Sebald seems to be suggesting that the precipitating horror of Hitler’s reign has been sufficiently atoned for and that the time has come to acknowledge a “shameful family secret” that leaves aside the tribal particulars of guilt and focuses instead on the ecumenical nature of human suffering. In a sleight of hand so deft that it is easy to miss its implications, Sebald repositions the Germans as unmourned victims.3
A similar argument, one we might call the they started it argument (cf. the use of atomic warheads in the Pacific theater), appeared in several other reviews of Sebald’s “nonfiction” work, most notably in the somewhat dubious New Republic, where Ruth Franklin wound herself up even further: “But these criticisms all overlook the aspect of Sebald’s book that, for a non-German reader, is the most obvious, and the most shocking: the utterly ahistorical way in which Sebald discusses the bombing campaign, without giving even a hint of moral or political context.”
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to rebut these criticisms at any length, although I think they are fundamentally misguided and miss the narrow literary substratum in which Sebald’s essays (and lectures, for the first two pieces in this collection of posthumous writings were delivered as lectures) were meant to be regarded. Not as exhaustive or historically thorough arguments about the legacy of the war, though they do contain some unbridled rage along those lines, but primarily as inquiries into how literature can and ought to deal with calamity, in this case a calamity that is almost entirely unspoken of and unspeakable by German writers.
As William T. Vollmann noted in these pages,4 On the Natural History of Destruction is a very difficult book to find appealing. It’s shrill, violent, needlessly cruel in spots, and it doesn’t traffic in any resolution whatever. But that, in truth, is often how literature comports itself, at its most satisfying. It describes, and on occasion prescribes, but rarely tidies up. As Adam Phillips has remarked about On the Natural History of Destruction: “[Sebald’s] is a longing for truthfulness that redeems nothing. He doesn’t believe the truth will save us, he believes that the truth is the only thing we have got to work with.”5
The most disappointing result of this belated summary judgment of Sebald is that the broad outlines of it sometimes get read backward against the earlier work, enabling the careless or dogmatic reader to look for “some of the chinks in Sebald’s literary armor that may have been overlooked before.”6 Suddenly, even Sebald’s attempts to render Jewish characters seem vaguely suspect in certain quarters, and he’s even, according to a reductio ad absurdum, minimizing the Holocaust.
While I find this sort of response explicable (identity politics exists for a reason), I do think that the goal of imaginative writing (and Sebald, in my view, is an imaginative writer) is to attempt to conceive of what goes largely unconceived. To disenfranchise writers by virtue of national origins and ethnicity is to argue for the impossibility of humanism, literary universality, and reconciliation. I’m not willing to go that far. Nor, apparently, was Sebald.7
Meanwhile, if almost all of Sebald’s “prose fiction”—The Emigrants, Vertigo, and especially Austerlitz—deals with the war-
time legacy in one way or another, what of The Rings of Saturn? It’s entirely different. Since its manifest material involves walking around and looking at scene-
ry, the windblown seashore, the unquiet waves, its concerns seem otherwise. It’s really a travel book. But as with Montaigne’s essays, Sebald’s manifest material is not at all the ultimate concern of the work. The Rings of Saturn, like a walk with no particular endpoint in mind, ranges widely. The Second World War appears, undoubtedly, but so do the Irish Revolution, the opening of the Congo, herring fishing and its economic importance, silk manufacturing, the relationship between art and sugar, and many other bits of arcana. The subdivisible nature of its contents defies summary. The war recurs in the aleatory movement of the narrative along the English seaside, but the war is just another haunting in what amounts to a deeply afflicted book, one which does not alight anywhere for long, as if it would be painful to do so.
The “action” begins with the announcement of the narrator’s intention to “walk the county of Suffolk,” after which this narrator almost immediately embarks on one of his strange journeys of digression, which in the course of the first chapter looks something like this:
(Sebald himself gives a précis of each chapter in the table of contents, but herein, I have made my own topographic surveys without recourse to the t.o.c., which functions more like an operatic overture than as an actual synopsis of what follows.) The first chapter serves as a thumbnail sketch of the method of the whole of Rings of Saturn, in which, as you can see, there is virtually no character, no conflict, and no dramatic interaction. If John Hawkes’s celebrated dictum—“The true enemies of the novel [are] plot, character, setting, and theme”—were applied here, I think we would have to conclude that Sebald had successfully eliminated the two former foodstuffs in The Rings of Saturn and was living gluttonously on the latter two, setting and theme. What a risky opening!
And I didn’t even mention the photographs yet! Coincident with his teenage coming-to-awareness as to the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, W.G. Sebald also had a rather terrifying run-in with a photo album belonging to his biological father in which were to be found photos from the old man’s time on the Polish front. The photos, apparently, were carefully arranged and pasted in, and, in general, they contained almost nothing but destruction and waste. Sebald’s obsessive use of photography in his work, according to this argument,8 derives in part from the unforgettable rude awakening of this photo album. Accordingly, from the first, in Sebald’s “prose fiction,” we find the use of uncredited photos, a mix of “found” photos from old magazines and newspapers, archival material from libraries, and photos taken by the author himself. Indeed, Sebald’s obituary remarks on his exacting presence in a certain copy shop near the University of East Anglia, where the author was often to be found shooting down and cropping the photos that would later appear in his oeuvre.
The photos are one of many consistent and delightful pleasures to be found therein, and there’s a canny, allusive, and playful way that he makes use of them. You are never certain if the thing photographed is an exact representation, or a placeholder, and since there are no captions, he doesn’t clear up the ambiguities for you. Nevertheless, it has occurred to me to wonder if there isn’t a way that all this photography devalues the literary effect of the work. Sebald, an assiduous describer and naturalist in his own right, does a great job of describing landscapes, especially in The Rings of Saturn, where the sense of place is essential to the work. So what do the photos do that the language cannot? Except make us overreliant on them?
Still, and this is the interesting part, the allusive and fanciful use of these photos does seem to strike a blow for imagination. That is, it is at his most representational that Sebald’s work feels most constructed. Most literary. Mercifully, the gesture is so quintessentially Sebaldian that it would be, at this point, inimitable. There has been no explosion of photo-based literature in the wake of Sebald, and for that we can be grateful. (Though friends who teach writing have told me of the occasional outbreak, among their students, of short stories with Sebaldian photos. This is regrettable, since despite the photographic gesture in Sebald, his works do seem to support a very old-fashioned and literary notion, viz, that words can still do things.)
A couple more ideas about these photographs. For example, it’s interesting to me that they appear as “photos throughout,” as we used to say in the book business, and never as a photo insert. This means that the photos are almost always printed badly, on the paper stock that is used for the book itself. Not on glossy photo-insert paper. This implies,
I think, that we are meant to look at them precisely as beat-up, worn-out, photo album photos, in the thematic context that they appear. Additionally, the question of copyright does hang over them, which is to say, why no photo credits? We know that Sebald took many of the photos himself, but what of those he did not? In certain cases he undoubtedly obtained permission, and in other cases perhaps he didn’t. It’s reasonable to assume that some old postcards are contained in The Rings of Saturn, and in all his work. Did he simply give up searching for copyright holders? A similar appropriation takes place in The Rings of Saturn in the area of quotations. In his refusal to use quotation marks when citing texts, Sebald makes the quotations sound as if they were, occasionally, in his own voice. This is a bit misleading to the casual or uninformed reader. However, for me, it bolsters that interpretation which sees The Rings of Saturn as a collage text or junk shop of memory, where all kinds of things go to be turned over at leisure and without undue worry about their long-term relevance. There’s a provisional feeling to the book, to the way photos and quotations are included. Oh, this is kind of interesting too! It’s up to the reader to do the work of evaluating the relevance of particular textual constituents. And this is, again, the continental idea of a reader-centered text, a prose work in which the reader must take an active part, and for me this is a way of thinking about literature that I have always found particularly thrilling.
All of which reminds me of a recent encounter I had with another textually compulsive individual. A month or so ago, I was giving a reading in New York when, in the break between myself and the other performer, I was approached by a slightly careworn and oddly dressed guy about my own age. It took me a few moments to recognize him. It was a fellow I’ll call Ron G., someone with whom I’d gone to college back in the early ’80s. He’d been, in those days, a gifted painter and a bit of a ladies’ man, as well as a sort of punk-rock enfant terrible—at a time when there weren’t many of these in Providence. Ron wore the first Mohawk I had ever seen up close. His humor was sardonic and low-key. He seemed, in 1981 or 1982, only slightly menacing.
In the years after school, his story became altogether sadder. He got more and more eccentric, until, while living in the East Village and trying to make good in the art world, he’d finally become, as they euphemistically say, a street person. In this period, he had a long thicket of hair, and he inclined toward various appropriations of Indian garb. He could, when you ran into him, be heard talking to himself. In fact, I was at a party in a church basement in the mid-’80s, when Ron turned up in search of free coffee or cookies or perhaps simply in search of somewhere warm to sit. He didn’t really seem to know what was going on and he was talking to himself quite volubly. The effect of this was deeply unsettling.
At the reading, it was clear that Ron had cleaned himself up quite a bit, he was recognizably himself, and he was polite and friendly, if less hip and fashionable than he had once been.9 And yet after reintroducing himself to me he launched into an astonishing monologue about World War III, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and his brother who had been shot down in Sarajevo, how he’d himself been tortured and beaten for years by the conspiracy, and how everyone we knew from college had now been replaced by doubles. Was
I, he wanted to know, the real Rick Moody? Or was I too a double? He had manufactured a rather villainous demiurge in charge of all this stuff, I learned later, someone called Hanson.
While, with mounting anxiety, I tried to figure out how to react to Ron, he whipped out a stack of dog-eared photocopies, and began showing me articles from the New York Times and the Daily News, going back a hundred years in some cases, articles that he said contained encoded messages about the coming terrorist attacks.
There was, he went on, a lot about me in these pages. And in fact he produced an advertisement from the Times dated, I think, 1903, for a furniture company owned by someone named Leonard Moody.
Ron’s requirements regarding an item’s collectibility, it soon became evident, involved, above all, superficial linguistic conjunctions between things. Because my name was Moody, any reference to any Moody proved that there was a significant role for me in the World War III of his feverish predictions. Elsewhere, he scrawled, in pencil, a few notes on some of the photocopies he gave me which had to do with the letter V. Why V? Probably there was no reason but that it sounded good. Finally, I asked Ron how I would contact him if I needed to find him some day, and he said that there was a certain copy shop downtown. “I’m always there,” he said.
Now, that is textual compulsion. Moreover, his devotion to research and to photocopying reminded me of nothing so much as the work of W. G. Sebald.10
To elucidate Sebald and his photos, however, I’m primarily using flow charts—as in the following map of how chapter two proceeds in The Rings of Saturn—in order to suggest how, despite the cost to language, illustration can give us a flavor that elevates a work instead of weakening it. Illustration can also move us to interact with books in new ways, in ways that surprise and energize. This is especially true with a writer like Sebald, who is self-evidently fascinated by hybridization, and in whose hands the action of hybridizing can create great reservoirs of literary energy. You don’t know what this book, The Rings of Saturn, is, and nowhere is there an authorized genre designation to clear up the matter,11 but you know that the voice is beautiful, and that the arrangement of text and photo on the page is beautiful. If you are patient, you are liable to fall in love with the meandering, no matter where it goes, because here the journey is the important part of the experience, not the arrival [see diagram, above right].
Chapter two is arguably more linear than chapter one (or at least my drawing of chapter two is more linear than my drawing of chapter one), in that it doesn’t double back on itself quite as often, but it does have some tortuous hairpins, and it clearly maps onto chapter one, in that each ends with the imagery of death, Frederick Farrar’s death here recalling Browne’s Urn Burial at the terminus of chapter one. Chapter three has a similar orientation, relatively free of a palimpsestic layering of images, though it introduces one of the book’s many leitmotifs, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” for reasons that readers of that story will find obvious. I could go on describing exactly what’s in The Rings of Saturn, of course, as though I were a contemporary book reviewer whose only task was plot summary, but, as I’ve said, what’s important is not what The Rings of Saturn is about but, rather, the way in which it says it, or attempts to say it, by virtue of digression and lateral construction, rather than through the “grinding,” as Sebald himself has said, of plot machination.
I suppose, during the period of my textual compulsion, with respect to Sebald, I was reacting self-evidently to his works as exemplars of a history of European literature, or of European novel-writing, which is the tradition that primarily interests me as reader and writer. American literature, with its conservative epiphanic architecture and its Hallmark-style naturalism, repels my own textual compulsion, in most cases, by virtue of its devotion to a rather narrow range of effects and strategies, strategies that, at this point, have come uncomfortably close to formulae. As I have argued elsewhere, when the notion of the epiphany becomes a predictable or required event in a story or novel, occurring at foreordained junctures in the story’s course, then for me this effect no longer bears the possibility of genuine revelation (the original purpose of epiphany). I can’t be moved by appeals to sympathy if sympathy is my only allowable response. This is precisely how melodrama and sentimentality do their worst [see “The Traditional Narrative” on the following page].
In this diagram, the announcement of the conflict takes place in column one, at point zero in the narrative time of the story. The “rising action,” naturally, would take place after the announcement of the conflict (who is the murderer of this corpse we have just found, e.g.), until the first climax. At this point, we think we know how the story is going to turn out, until a reversal of some kind, which relieves us of our certainty, followed by further “rising action,” until a “legitimate” climax (the detective and the murderer fighting hand to hand), a denouement, and a conclusion. While it would seem that this diagram refers largely to popular fiction (and popular fiction is the address at which it is most often to be found at home), or perhaps to the grim three-act structure suggested by film theorist Robert McKee, this story trajectory is also essential to far more literary fiction than we might like to imagine.
Need I point out that the structure is also, well, kind of phallic? It is practically borrowed from the graph of male sexual desire and release, as Kinsey or Hite might describe it.
The short story I usually keep nearby when trying to give concrete examples of this traditional phallo-naturalist narrative is “The Use of Force,” by William Carlos Williams. It happens that I like this story a great deal. A suburban doctor (back then Paterson was more suburban) makes a housecall, in which he attempts to do a throat examination on a small girl in order to rule out diphtheria, at the time a potentially deadly scourge. The girl, however, refuses to open her mouth. The story as a whole, and it is quite brief, proceeds through the various expedients the doctor exploits in order to effect examination. There is blood, there are tears, and in the course of them the doctor/narrator avows his love of and devotion to the “brat,” while coming to find her parents “contemptible.” The story ends, perhaps self-evidently, with the revelation of the girl’s inflamed throat. She is in the beginning stages of illness.
“The Use of Force” is a good story to teach to beginning writers because it’s so direct. If anyone can make such a predictable plot complicated, it’s Williams, whose own tastes in psychology run to contradictory, deep, and sometimes “unlikable” narrators and characters, both in his poetry and prose. And yet in the huge outpouring of stories since Williams, stories that are obliged to (a) introduce the conflict in paragraph one, (b) never stray from it, (c) use dialogue to portray conflict, and (d) conclude the story by resolving epiphanically, I find no such inclination in the direction of complexity. I suppose I admit one should know how to make a story like this, but mainly in order to avoid doing so.
A contrary example, and one that I have ruminated over at some length, is John Cheever’s “The Jewels of the Cabots,” the last story in The Stories of John Cheever. For my money, it’s among the best stories in that masterpiece. It’s a narrative about digression, and about how digression, as a storytelling impulse, can be a rich and evocative way of making a narrative. A mind at work, a mind in the consideration of the past, does not move in a consistently orderly direction, and its digressions are often as meaningful as its linear moments. Therefore, “The Jewels of the Cabots” begins with a murder that is never exactly resolved, touches briefly on anti-Semitism in New England, likewise unhappy marriages, before moving on to a lengthy digression about summer camp and the fraternity of young men, which in turns gives way to one of my favorite passages in all of contemporary literature, a longish aside about the difference between “facts” and “truths”: “Children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts.”
The story then goes on to include the sort of material it disavows. When at last “Jewels” gets back to the Cabots and their atomized family, it does so playfully
but stubbornly, without the resolution that readers of John Cheever’s early work might come to expect. Indeed, the story, just like Mrs. Cabot, its darkest personage, changes the subject—with the words, “Feel that refreshing breeze”—whenever it risks colliding with the conventional phallo-naturalist story structure.
Another good example of a more European, or perhaps Latin American–flavored narrative is to be found in Robert Coover’s excellent and celebrated short story “The Babysitter,” in which almost all possible permutations of a couple’s night out in the suburbs are manifest in the text.12 The babysitter’s boyfriend comes over, the babysitter’s boyfriend doesn’t come over, Mr. Tucker tries to make time with the babysitter, Mr. Tucker doesn’t. The police arrive. The children run wild. Or the police don’t, and everything is fine. There is no way to read Coover’s story and arrive at a single tidy sequence of events in which characters learn and grow and reflect. In fact, a graph of the sequence of events in the “The Babysitter” would have to look something like this:
In which, as the diagram indicates, there are sympathetic vibrations between the various paragraphs of “The Babysitter,” mutual implications, sonorities, antipathies, fabrications, delusions, but very few certainties.
The Rings of Saturn is similarly premised. It is bricked up with building blocks of adjacency and synecdoche, and this masonry is just as horizontal as it is vertical. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no forward movement, or that events and descriptions do not amass energy as the book moves forward, because just the opposite is true (the arrows in the included flow charts try to demonstrate this), but simply that movement in Sebald’s “prose fiction” does not come exclusively or primarily in the form of Event A directly causing Event B in turn producing Effect C. Look, for example, at chapter four of the book, in which things begin, all at once, to become quite a bit more variegated [see diagram on the following page].
(In this diagram, I have set some text in a reddish color to indicate where death and destruction are recurrent as leitmotifs.) Now that Sebald has the first three chapters of material to serve as his mulch, repetition and the reapplication of metaphor become essential instrumental voices in the orchestra of The Rings of Saturn. The reference here to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson recalls the first chapter, as does the renewed evocation of the town of Norwich. Likewise, the reference to an encountered photo history of World War I brings back the reference to same in chapter two, and so forth.
This density of repetitions and thematic obsessions, I’d argue, becomes more overpowering in the middle chapters of The Rings of Saturn. And because of this repetition it becomes easier, at last, to attempt a taxonomy of the specific tropes or figures on which Sebald relies. For me, the most effective gloss would of necessity fall back on the work of Freud (the pre-structuralist and continental work of Sigmund Freud). In particular, I’m thinking of The Interpretation of Dreams, in which Freud delineates condensation and displacement as preeminent aesthetic principles in dream work. Of the former he remarks, “If in any particular instance we compare the number of ideational elements or the space taken up in writing them down in the case of the dream and of the dream-thoughts to which the analysis leads us and of which traces are to be found in the dream itself, we shall be left in no doubt that the dream-work has carried out a work of compression or condensation on a large scale.”13 And here is Freud, later, on displacement, “We may put it this way: in the course of the dream-work the psychical intensity passes over from the thoughts and ideas to which it properly belongs onto others which in our judgment have no claim to any such emphasis.”14 If destruction, calamity, and destitution are the thematic concerns in The Rings of Saturn, they nevertheless appear like rocks in a harbor, mostly concealed by the tide; elsewhere, there are the digressions of Sebald’s walk, in which the heterogeneity of the material is as common as the homogeneity. It’s like a maze, this book (specifically a yew maze, in fact), or perhaps a quincunx, a silkworm, a herring.
In chapter four, there are also radical temporal shifts, dramatic enough to merit a comparison with the literary greats of this technique, Proust, or Musil, or, say, Alice Munro. The effect of all this jumping around is to suggest that subconscious time (or literary time), as well as subconscious space (since the same chapter hops back and forth from England to Holland, just as other chapters teleport into even more far-flung locales), are not binding forces at all. Or: biographically speaking, Sebald may have taken the walk in question in 1992, as he seems to have begun taking notes beginning in 1993, finishing them in 1995, but he is not at all beyond moving back into 1991, or even earlier, skipping back to the “present,” whatever the “present” means in the context of such impressionistic notes, just when it suits him.
Any number of critics have termed the experience of reading The Rings of Saturn “dreamlike,” and given the (arguable) reliance on dream-work strategies it’s an apt description. There are also dreams within the greater dream of The Rings of Saturn. Despite my own dislike for dreams in literature (I am an adherent of the Henry James dictum: a dream recounted is a reader lost), I find that in this factually ornamented textual model a sprinkling of “actual” dreams along with the dream-derived infrastructure of the whole brings about a generous helping of Das Unheimliches, as in this lovely passage: “I was on Dunwich Heath once more in a dream, walking the endlessly winding paths again, and again I could not find my way out of the maze which I was convinced had been created solely for me. Dead tired and ready to lie down anywhere, as dusk fell I gained a raised area where a little Chinese pavilion had been built, as in the middle of the yew maze at Somerleyton. And when I looked down from this vantage point I saw the labyrinth, the light sandy ground, the sharply delineated contours of the hedges taller than a man and almost pitch black now—a pattern simple in comparison with the tortuous trail I had behind me, but one which I knew in my dream, with absolute certainty, represented a cross-section of my brain.”
The above gives the impression that The Rings of Saturn is a cipher, a puzzle to be hermeneutically solved, but that isn’t really accurate. More accurately, this “prose fiction” is given simply to recirculation and to the action of metaphorizing, so that again and again it seems to spin out analogies for its own construction. The Rings of Saturn is, therefore, fractal, in the genuine and unsensational meaning of the word, in its tendency to subdivide and re-create its improvised shape on smaller and smaller scales: “A pond becomes
a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter, and audience?”
That is, beyond condensation and displacement, amid a richer vein of metaphor than even Freudian constructs can suggest, there is also, again, the simple act of repetition, and this reminds me that I have attempted to catalog, using newfangled databases, occurrences of the word destruction in Sebald’s work. Here’s what we have so far. Campo Santo has thirty-two references and the following lovely passage: “The monumental theatrical scene of a ruined city presented to an observer passing by reflects something of Elias Canetti’s later comment on Speer’s architectural plans: for all their evocation of eternity and their enormous size, their design contained within itself the idea of a style of building that revealed all its grandiose aspirations only in a state of destruction.” (In fact, that particular page of Campo Santo uses the word three times.) As you can imagine, On the Natural History of Destruction makes liberal use of the word, notwithstanding a writer’s normal inclination to find synonyms where there is a terminological overreliance. Destruction appears there on sixty-four different pages, including page twenty: “The majority of the available sources for the destruction of the German cities—sources widely dispersed, of different kinds, and usually fragmentary—are notable for a curious blindness to experience, the result of extremely narrow, biased, or skewed perspectives.” A similar perception is bespoken by the character Austerlitz, in the novel of the same name, and is among that novel’s six invocations of destruction: “Somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” If existing databases make impossible a complete search of The Rings of Saturn (I have fallen back on an old-fashioned means, counting by hand), one does encounter the word with great frequency, as in the following about one of the many shadow protagonists of the book: “We may draw from this the conclusion that it was precisely [Roger] Casement’s homosexuality that sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power.”
According to my old-fashioned means, I have found (and I’m discounting near synonyms like annihilation) at least eight other references in this “travel book.”
As with the above example of Roger Casement, the middle chapters of The Rings of Saturn, arguably the strongest in the book, also make use of another dreamlike effect, which I’m going to call impersonation. Any number of ersatz protagonists emerge in these pages, among whom is, notably, Casement, a British citizen whose whistle-blowing in the nineteenth century and support of Irish revolutionaries in the twentieth earned him a treason conviction in the United Kingdom. This story, along with a brief sketch of Joseph Conrad’s life, occupy most of chapter five [see illustration at right].
It’s not hard, in this diagram, to see that the action of impersonation, in fact, is largely about fleshing out the character called W. G. Sebald. Conrad and Casement are the examples at hand. The resonances are obvious, the mutual implications. All three (Casement, Conrad, Sebald) are exiles, are three intellectuals of the first order; all three are moral thinkers of various types and shades. Just as when Sebald, the author, recounts the story of St. Sebolt (in chapter four), or Seybolt the master dyer (in chapter ten), he is creating congruencies for himself, perhaps in an effort to better render the psychology and (German) trauma that give birth to this work, if not to circumnavigate it. We can feel this doubling of Sebald in subsequent chapters, in Edward FitzGerald, the translator of The Rubaiyat, protagonist of chapter eight, in the utterly heartbreaking love story of the Vicomte de Chateaubriand that occupies chapter nine. Sebald the exile seems to be in the process of losing himself, of being subsumed into the work (more so now, after his death), and at the same time in the process of discovering himself wherever he alights.
A final outstanding question for me concerns the title of The Rings of Saturn. It’s a book about walking around Suffolk County! So why this title? The second of Sebald’s epigraphs gives us the relevant hint. I dislike epigraphs generally, and can’t fathom why you would want to have your book depend on your epigraph, and yet I admire the sympathetic emanations of this one: “The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” An encyclopedia entry, apparently. There is the requisite destruction to the epigraph, but here it’s the rings orbiting that are of interest to me. The rings, I’d argue, intend to replace the phallo-naturalism of American literature with a more interesting shape. The Rings of Saturn, the book, is circular, that is, and not only in its Nietzschean reiterations but also in miniature in, e.g., chapter ten, the final chapter [see illustration on following page].
Chapter ten not only revives Sir Thomas Browne, whose Urn Burial appears in the earliest pages of the book, but likewise the image of the silkworm, which appears multiply throughout. The chapter then orbits around this image of the silkworm, like the rings of Saturn around the mother planet, until, at its close, by summoning Thomas Browne yet again, we are returned to the opening chapter.
If that weren’t enough to suggest how circular Sebald’s strange encyclopedic book is, there is also the map of his footpath through the county of Suffolk, as I reconstruct it [see illustration below].
This is a cut-rate map, but you get the idea. Sebald takes the train from Norwich to Lowestoft, goes by foot down the coast till just beyond Orford, then moves inland, to Ditchingham churchyard (the last place he visits in the book is a graveyard), before catching a train back to Norwich and his home. The broken line on the map indicates the portion of the journey not included in his account. It sure looks annular to me, circular, reiterative, although it could also be the sloppy outline of a quincunx. What should we call this? Vagi-ludic? Uteri-impressionistic? Labial-aleatory?
My commentary here amounts to a lot of talk about shapes of things. So it seems to me now. And I like a good discussion about how literature has a shape. I favor the notion that a book’s shape does not always have to be simplistic or superficially accessible. I like when people are challenged by books. A challenge reassures me that life resists explication. And yet in this case a description of shapes and structuring notions about literature does nothing to describe my very strong feelings about this book. While I was writing this essay on Fishers Island, where I live, I despaired of my ability to describe, directly, why I have such a passionate relationship to The Rings of Saturn. So I too went for a walk. Readers of The Rings of Saturn will remember Sebald’s melancholy trip through the military apparatus of Suffolk, in chapter eight, and my walk duplicated some of this terrain. Because the place where I am most given to walking on Fishers Island, an expanse of grassland overgrown with bittersweet, wild raspberry, gorse, cornflower, and Queen Anne’s lace, is clustered with military bunkers from the period when Fishers Island was intended to guard New York harbor (a hundred miles to the west) from German U-boats. In fact, my own house is an outbuilding from this long-ago military installation. It once served as part of a military hospital. There’s a faint desperation to Fort Wright, as the neighborhood is called, even though it is mainly populated, in summer, by financiers from Greenwich and New Canaan. The way a history of military intention undergirds the present; the way, as Sebald says, the money earned in the slave labor of the sugar trade is still in circulation, “still bearing interest”; the way imperialism protects itself, insures its continuity, these are subjects fit only for despair, unless, in the acknowledgment of these “facts,” in the recognition that all things recur, all cruelties, all juggernauts of destruction, all melancholies, all instances of hopelessness, you stumble on the absolute and irrepressible joy of knowing.