Ben Winch's Reviews > The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
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really liked it
bookshelves: austrian, mainland-european
Read 2 times. Last read November 2017.

About 100 pages into The Rings of Saturn, in speaking of human rights activist and Irish martyr Roger Casement and his involvement in the Belgian Congo, W. G. Sebald writes:
In order to pre-empt any petitions for pardon that might have been made by persons of influence, excerpts from what was known as the Black Diary, a kind of chronicle of the accused’s homosexual relations found when Casement’s home was searched, were forwarded to the King of England, the President of the United States, and the Pope. The authenticity of this Black Diary, kept until recently under lock and key [...], was long considered highly debatable [...]. But since the release to general scrutiny of the diaries in early 1994 there has no longer been any question that they are in Casement’s hand. We may draw from this conclusion that it was precisely Casement’s homosexuality that sensitised 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.
Does any one else have a problem with this? I should explain that until this passage, though homosexuality has been hinted at earlier, no argument whatsoever has been advanced re either its general sensitising influence or its sensitising influence on Roger Casement. Yes, Casement is shown to be sensitive – a decent man with integrity who speaks out on the suffering he witnesses. But “We may draw from this conclusion...”?! We may, I suppose, draw whatever we like from it, but Sebald’s language strongly suggests that his conclusion is the rational, not to say logical, one. To me, Sebald’s is a foregone conclusion. Transparently, he’s looking for evidence of a theory he long ago decided was correct. And it may well be so: maybe, yes, Roger Casement really was sensitised by his homosexuality. But Sebald’s text does nothing to prove it. In this passage, he oversteps the mark. Is he fiction writer (or let’s say “creative” writer, since The Rings of Saturn is not necessarily fiction) or proselytist? What need for that throwaway assertion re homosexuality? Doesn’t it just cheapen and undermine his narrative? And on the other hand, if he really wants to convert us to his viewpoint hasn’t he failed? The passage doesn’t work as essay either.

And it’s not the only time. Earlier in that same Congolese chapter, in a passage concerning Joseph Conrad, he had first overplayed his hand:
Korzeniowski [...] now saw the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium, with its ever more bombastic buildings, as a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb of black bodies, and all the passers-by in the streets seemed to him to bear that dark Congolese secret within them. And indeed, to this day one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness, dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere. At all events, I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.
Now I know Belgium is the butt of many European jokes, but this is pretty outrageous! Again, without rational or logical transition, Sebald jumps to his assertion, revealing as he does the kind of prejudice that, were it directed against many another minority, would surely see him blacklisted. Granted, Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo was A Bad Thing, which might have led to a “distinctive ugliness” in Belgium and even to the “macabre atmosphere” of certain of its salons, but how could it lead to stunted growth, “hunchbacks”, or lunacy? He doesn’t specify. He doesn’t even come close.* Thanfully, it’s a rare slip; either Sebald’s distaste for Brussels and his belief in the higher sensibility of homosexuals are subjects very dear to his heart or a (that word again) sensitive editor has excised all other such slips surmising correctly that they have no place in a work of art.

Could this (this editing work) be the source of the, to me, often random-seeming, and sometimes jarring disconnect between, elements of the polyphony that Sebald strives to unite? That when he seeks, openly, to connect these elements it is only by such shallow personal leaps of reasoning, which the work, if it’s to cohere at all, must ultimately do without? Certainly there’s an air of great restraint about much of this, and, maybe, a sense that a scaffolding has been removed and the resultant structure is unstable. But understand, I don’t see a mess here, exactly: it’s a beautiful thing, and not a jumble or a junkheap like so many novels I might find halfbaked. Instead, I see smooth blocks of prose like storeys in a tower, shunted into position one atop or beside or below the other, some jutting, some diagonally facing across the general thrust of the structure, and balanced in pleasing harmony – not falling. To mix metaphors, I see a windblown tree or top-heavy plant, but in proportion – a graceful thing, just planted at a weird angle and therefore subtly uncanny, disturbing. To paraphrase some source I’ve forgotten, it reminds me that (some?) art is successful to the degree that it risks failure. And Sebald’s art flagrantly risks failure, yet is saved by his (or his editor’s) judicious unhooking of it from its scaffold – a scaffold which, in previous times, in other cultural climates, might have been thought integral. (Either that or its removal would likely have torn all that was personal with it – the entire frame-device of Sebald’s narrator’s walking tour – without which we’d basically have a group of essays.)

All of which is to say, hey, I like it, but I can see why the younger me didn’t. I was put off, maybe, by what glimpses remain of Sebald’s personality. As a young person, I felt I had to trust an author; I still do to some extent. Sebald, who’s so damn cagey even while seeming to offer himself up (ie: while not hiding behind a “character”), very likely baffled me. Maybe I teetered on the brink of accepting him but, when in a few misplaced sentences he revealed himself a cultural chauvanist, I lost heart. In reaching after a message, I think, he undermined what message was there, in his prose, already. For this reason – for the fact that he doesn’t undermine his own message all that often – I now accept the semi-cryptic nature of his disparate juxtapositions. Beautiful prose too!


Granted also that, in certain contexts, such a diatribe is not only permissible but hilarious, as in various works by Thomas Bernhard. But it’s all about context. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s narrator is in this respect nothing like Thomas Bernhard’s narrators, whom Bernhard is at pains to make seem near-lunatic themselves. This positions Bernhard’s diatribes firmly in the realm of fiction. He may agree with the prejudices and bile spouted by his narrators, but he does not try to convince the reader. In Sebald’s case, he posits his narrator, in contrast, as the voice of reason, as a transparent screen for his (Sebald’s) own concerns and observations. True, this narrator may not “be” Sebald, but we are given no clue as to what or who else he might be. The strong inference is that Sebald believes what his narrator says to be true. And, unless I’m missing something, passages like the above are stated without irony.

Earlier Review (2012)

Granted, it’s a fair few years since I read this, but how is it I remember not a thing about it? I also tried Austerlitz but couldn’t finish it. All this talk of supposed innovation, but really he just seemed a Bernhard disciple to me, with photographs. Given the gushing responses by many whose tastes I respect I will probably try to read Sebald again, but it may take a while.

[2017: I now believe it was Austerlitz, not The Rings of Saturn, that reminded me so strongly of Thomas Bernhard. For those who think maybe I imagined the connection entirely, check here for a few quotes from Sebald in which he admits to it: “Yes, I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away.” And so on and so forth. Not that I care much in the case of The Rings of Saturn though, since in this case Sebald is sufficiently himself. Other Bernhard disciples: Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Ligotti.]
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Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma This is one I'm looking forward to. I've liked his other titles, particularly Austerlitz. Think it could be something hemispheric?

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch As I say Mike, I don't remember a thing about it, and I just haven't warmed to him so far. The only thing I've read by Sebald that I enjoyed was an essay on Robert Walser.

Just out of curiosity, how do you keep finding these second-string reviews of mine? I hide 'em away by not putting 'em in the update feed, but you keep ferreting them out.

Eldonfoil TH*E Whatever Champion Stop hiding them, Winch. I love when even third and fourth-stringers get into the game.

message 4: by David (new)

David I love Sebald, and I think he's very different from Bernhard—whom I also love. I couldn't get into this one, however. I'll try it again someday.

message 5: by Ben (last edited Sep 25, 2012 05:08PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch I just hide 'em cos they're dull. I mean, I wanna go on record but without the fanfare, you know?

Re the Bernhard thing, sure, they're different, but I don't think you can deny the style strongly resembles Bernhard. Sebald's way more po-faced and throws a lot more random non-fictiony elements in there, but it's all going through the Bernhard filter, you ask me. Which is fine - obviously I don't expect anything I read to be without precedent - but I did get the strong sense that most of the people gasping in astonishment at Sebald were in part gasping at Bernhard, though they didn't realise it. As I think I've said elsewhere, I felt vindicated when I discovered Sebald had known and looked up to Bernhard and admitted to the influence.

message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch Apart from all that, I just couldn't relate because I couldn't find the root or centre or purpose in Sebald. I mean, why? I get it, dude can write, but is this all just random exercise of the intellect or am I supposed to feel something here?

Michael You have to give Sebald another try. His prose is close to magic and absolutely unique. Of course it helps if you are the melancholic type, but Sebald is for sure one of the most important german writing authors.

message 8: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Winch OK, I'll try again... one day.

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