I am a simple person. When discussions arise as to whether we view ourselves as intellectual, spiritual, or sensual, I come down, heavily, on the side of the senses.
I taste thought with my tongue; I roll debate around my mouth trying to determine when to bite, and when to spit out. I worship with my eyes and my touch. You say God; I say bird song and kitten fur, cool water and lavender.
However, I am not writing this to tell you that I am a simple person. I am writing this to tell you about the book, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.*
When reading Sebald’s book one can be forgiven for, first of all, thinking this was recollection of a true journey. There is a reality to the first person narrative that makes it difficult to believe this is fiction. One could also be forgiven for thinking the book was published decades rather than just years back (discounting the reference to Cherry Coke). The style of writing, the uninhibited richness of phrase, and the faded and seemingly aged photos that accompany the writing all combine to create an aura of a time pre-World War II.
What one could not forgive, though, is calling this book a simple book. It is probably one of the most unusual, intellectual, spiritual, and complex books I have ever read. And this leads to a dilemma: How can I, a self-avowed simple person, hope to have a meaningful discussion of a book so immeasurably complex?
Easily — by discussing it simply.
Beyond a low electric fence lay a herd of almost a hundred head of swine, on brown earth where meagre patches of camomile grew. I climbed over the wire and approached one of the ponderous, immobile, sleeping animals. As I bent towards it, it opened a small eye fringed with light lashes and gave me an inquiring look. I ran my hand across its dusty back, and it trembled at this unwonted touch; I stroked its snout and face, and chucked it in the hollow behind one ear, till at length it sighed like one enduring endless suffering.
…till at length it sighed like one enduring endless suffering. Sebald’s writing can’t help but appeal to the sensualist when you read phrases such as this. I came across several such in the book and had to stop and read each again and again, just to savor the wonderful combination of words, the images they created. Sebald’s writing is strongly sensual, and as such, has much appeal to me.
However, surrounding these phrases is a bewildering stream of consciousness that flows without mercy from subject to seeming unrelated subject, aided and abetted by Sebald’s haphazard introduction of characters both dead and alive. One is ultimately left fearful of missing a connection somewhere along the way and ending up ten pages down the line thinking that the protagonist is speaking when really, it’s the caretaker. And all you can do at that point is realize that you should have read the passage this way, but had read it that way, instead, and this made all the difference in the world.
Ultimately, The Rings of Saturn would have never been anything more to me than a confusing and difficult to read collection of beautiful and unrelated phrases if I hadn’t found the key to the book on page 36.
On this page, when the protagonist tours an aged and famous manor, Somerleyton Hall, he writes in his journal about how much of the earlier splendor of the hall is now gone, lost to fire, age, and neglect. Now, as he walked among the aged and eclectic mementos that filled what was left of the great residence, he ponders his surroundings:
As I strolled through Somerleyton Hall that August afternoon, amidst a throng of visitors who occasionally lingered here and there, I was variously reminded of a pawnbroker’s or an auction hall. And yet it was the sheer number of things, possessions accumulated by generations and now waiting, as it were, for the day when they would be sold off, that won me over to what was, ultimately, a collection of oddities. How uninviting Somerleyton must have been, I reflected, in the days of the industrial impressario Morton Peto, MP, when everything, from cellar to attic, from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste. And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.
And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion. The common thread that runs throughout this book is the cycle of life; the old giving way to the new, and the purpose, dignity, and yes, even beauty that can accompany death, which Sebald sees as a metamorphisis for new life. This is born out, again and again, in the writing: When Sebald described the beauty of the funeral for Apollo Korzeniowski, Apollo’s death making way for Apollo’s son, Konrad to achieve greatness; the burned trees of the rainforests making way to civilized order.
Once I had the first key I could then see the second key, the second thread that binds the stories — a thread of silk. Sebald liberally sprinkles references to silk throughout the book, as an adult would sprinkle clues for a child at an Easter Egg hunt.
References to Thomas Browne’s father being a silk merchant; the purple piece of silk in the urn of Patroculus; the silken ropes given to Hsien-feng’s viceroys so that they may hang themselves, an act of benevolence as their sentence decreed that they …be dismembered and sliced into slices.
And towards the end, Sebald writes:
Now, as I write, and think once more of our history, which is but a long account of calamities, it occurs to me that at one time the only acceptable expression of profound grief, for ladies of the upper class, was to wear heavy robes of black silk taffeta or black crepe de chine.
The worm builds its cocoon to continue its cycle of life, its metamorphosis. The worms are killed, and the cocoons are gathered and unwoven, spun into silk. From death arises beauty.
Of course, once I had found keys one and two, the third was trivial to spot. The third and final key to Sebald’s book is the very name of the book, itself: The Rings of Saturn. The rings of Saturn, which are made up of destroyed moons — beauty, based on destruction.
Realizing our association of so much beauty with so much death could lead to madness. And so we return to the beginning of the book, when we meet the protagonist, heard but never seen, as he looks at what’s left of his world through a wire covered window and thinks about the journey that brought him to where he is.
W. G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn”. You must read this book. (Recommended to me by Jonathon Delacour.)
*I discuss much of The Rings of Saturn in this review. If you have not read it, you may consider this review to be a spoiler. I, however, consider it the start to a discussion, or at the least, a sharing of my interest in this book. Use your own judgement as to whether you wish to proceed or not.