Friday, 11 November 2011

Expanding Your Scope: The Rings of Saturn

A few thoughts on The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Vintage Classics Edition
Reading The Rings of Saturn brought to mind the same scope and enjoyment of reading Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Both books begin with a lone figure strolling across an English landscape from which they are magnificently launched into an odyssey that examines universal frailties. Whereas Stapledon’s protagonist jumps across imagined cosmic planes, Sebald jumps across terrestrial historical occurrences - the book is a wonderful collage of travel, memoir, biography and historical writing.

Sebald begins the book by talking about his excursion walking through East Anglia, but very quickly he jumps from this into all manner of historical subjects and occurrences. Throughout all his excursions - whether Sebald is discussing the Norwich silk-weavers, Emperor Hsien-feng, the natural history of the herring, George Wyndham Le Strange or the panorama of Waterloo, etc - from what he tells of others you get a sense of Sebald’s own melancholy. In my mind, this is the book’s greatest strength: Sebald uses the experiences of others to illustrate what he cannot directly define about himself. You might argue that this is a cheap trick but I would argue that by connecting his own demons to big and small figures from history and from differing cultures Sebald is making his book accessible universally.

I read this book from a suggestion that I should read more widely and I don’t think I could have picked a better book to encourage me in this fashion! Certainly, it does expand your scope on how you can present a memoir or biography and how flexible travel writing can be. Travel writing is something that I have only recently been exposed to and tied my hand at writing. But after reading this really I do want to explore it more; especially now that I see how intricately and beautifully it can link to life writing.

Will I ever want to read the book again? Hell, yes! From this first time reading it, I feel as though I have cheated the book somewhat and I know there is stuff which I’ve completely over looked (probably because I read the majority of it on a number of very cramped and noisy bus journeys). The Rings of Saturn really is one of those books that you have to devote your intellect entirely to in order to fully articulate its contents. But this quality also ensures that it is one of those books that you can keep coming back to. Like Star Maker, The Rings of Saturn is one of those very rare books with such incredible scope and breadth of subject matter that it is astonishing and inspiring to think that it was written by a single author!
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