Friday, January 26, 2007

Rings of Saturn (Book Review)

"Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life." ~W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1998)

This book is just under 300 pages — mere child's play back in my college days. Something that would've taken a week to read, or perhaps a single afternoon (if I timed my schedule just right).

And yet, it took me months — literally months — to finish this one.

And, no, that doesn't mean W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn is a bad book. Quite the contrary.

Rather, an unhealthy lack of free time — coupled with unyielding waves of existence-related anxiety — made Rings particularly difficult. I'd read 10-20 pages here and there, and then find myself with no relaxing time alone for a couple weeks, at which point I felt it was best to simply start over.

I believe I read the first 20 pages a dozen times before I joined a gym in my "new" neighborhood, where I could read whenever a stationary bike was available.

And yet, even still, four more months passed before I turned the final page — just yesterday afternoon.

The novel begins in a Norwich asylum, where the narrator (presumedly Sebald himself) was sent in 1992 to recover from a nervous breakdown. The cause of the breakdown isn't immediately certain, except to say that it followed a year of leisurely travel around the English countryside.

The pages that follow are a recollection of said travels. Or you might even say: the pages that follow implictly relay not so much the events but the sensations that precipated the narrator's collapse.

This is, as you've likely surmised, a rather peculiar piece that has the appearance of non-fiction (though it may, in part, be fiction). It's a travelogue that explores everything from the people that Sebald encounters, to all of the conversations, explorations and contemplations that result.

This is, for lack of a better expression, a beautifully sad book.

I was constantly amazed by Sebald's ability to blur the past with the present, describing century-old events as though he witnessed them first-hand. And all such accounts would begin when the narrator steps foot inside a new hotel or hostel: he meets the inhabitants and the staff and tells their stories — and the stories of their ancestors — as though they were his own.

There are stories about wars; executions; first loves... and last.

In fact, these aren't so much Sebald's memoirs as they are those of the people he ecounters.

In this regard the text was, at times, rather confusing. Other people's history becomes so inextricably interwoven with the author's that you often forget who's talking. The complete and total lack of quotation marks and paragraphing doesn't help matters, either.

And as annoying as I sometimes found that to be, this technique (an MLA nightmare) was not without purpose. It reveals, instead, a Walt Whitman-esque "oneness" with the universe.

But unlike Whitman, Sebald doesn't strive so much to sound a "barbaric yawp" as he does an existential whimper.

And so with poetic prose and beautiful descriptions that conjure all of the senses, you come to understand — clearly, and painfully — the author's bittersweet awareness of what he terms "traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past."

It is for this reason — and this reason alone — that I had I difficulty finishing Rings, even when time presented itself.

I was ultimately at the gym to work out, after all. But some passages in Rings were so... real... to me, I often had to choose between packing up and going home... or closing the book.

And though I regularly chose to shut the book, that's not to say the nausea, and all that it implied, quickly passed.


thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy said...

I should add that I'm still not entirely certain if this book was a first-hand account of Sebald's travels... or an entirely fictional story about a made-up narrator.

Thus far, my attempts to determine one or the other have turned up inconclusive.

Handful Of Hell said...

This pasage sounds like you were an archeologist and this book an artifact you are still studying to unravel its true origins...

I remember how I took forever to complete Eragon. It was thoroughly enjoyable nevertheless!

Anonymous said...

you're probably already turned onto this (because you're always ahead of me), but you might get something similar and more quickly digested out of Richard Brautigan. I banged through The Tokyo-Montana Express in a few days last year and that thing has managed to suprise me. didn't get much into it at the time, but it's really carried through. but I know your time for reading is short - you might want a little more instant gratification, all things considered. as soon as I find it, I'll point you in the direction.