The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

The Rings of Saturn

The subject of the essays and novels by Sebald (Vertigo, 1990; The Emigrants, 1996; The Rings of Saturn, 1995; Austerlitz, 2001) is a long-standing and recent history of Germany and Europe from the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London in the XVII century until the Holocaust in the XX century. The author makes conscious attempts to detect the unmistakable traces of disasters, to understand their complexity and to commemorate them with a power of the word. Sebald’s hero is a lone traveler making his journey through countries and times, inheriting the literary pilgrimages of Rousseau, Gottfried Keller, Adalbert Stifter, and Robert Walser. Sebald repeatedly wrote about them as a historian of literature. History has also come to Sebald’s prose in the form of real documents: receipts, memos, letters, photographs, and many others, illustrating the multiple layers of novelistic space and time. The author himself has a quite unique biography, his prose reflects unusual literary context, and, finally, the style of the works is of a great interest to the literary critics and devotees of intellectual prose.

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Winfried Georg Sebald, the son of a soldier of the Wehrmacht, was born in the small town of Wertach, Bavaria, on May 18, 1944. He wrote his name with the initials V.G., while his friends and householders called him Max. The name under which he was published, as well as the language in which he wrote, were part of a complex and, of course, painful debt system for him. Sebald came to the decision to leave the country after seeing the photos of the Nazi concentration camps. His life can be described in a few paragraphs recounting the fate of an exile that he personally chose; the years of teaching experience while publishing several books in German; the growing fame treated with courtesy; and accurate, brief, and very balanced interviews, which neither showed his participation nor rejection. Then a sudden death in a car crash on the verge of worldwide fame in the early winter, on December, 14, 2001. At the time of his death, many critics named Sebald as a potential future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novel The Rings of Saturn, written in 1995 and edited in English in 1998, went a long way toward ensuring Sebald’s reputation as a writer developing a new kind of literature. The book is an example of his strange and unique style: the mix of genres, the obscuring of fact and fiction, the unclear black and white pictures, and his reflections on the destructive nature of the history, impact on human lives, and strengthening power of the visual arts.

The Rings of Saturn has minimal relevance to Sebaldʼs well-established reputation as a thematic author writing about the Holocaust. It is rather a sort of a travel diary, in some sense memoir, contemplation in the form of an essay, and even imaginative literature to some extent. The study of the influence of history, time, and identity, as the author is going on a pilgrimage along the coastline of Suffolk, United Kingdom. As the narrator travels, he encounters places and symbols of interest from the present and the past in his quest to understand himself and his entourage in their proper place within time, and how they all relate to death. Since the novel was first published in Germany twenty-six years ago, it was washed with a wave of critical and creative responses discussing the prose itself and Sebaldʼs style of writing.

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Sebald called his book documentary fiction, a strange genre hybrid hovering in the border zone between reality and fiction, creating uncertainty, because of which the reader who is aware himself is especially vulnerable. Most of the controversy about his book takes place in this zone. Unclear and changing status of Sebaldʼs narrative provokes the reader to get a proper focus, clarify events, and bring the difficult-to-face part. The main issue is always sewn deep into the text. Its true nature always remains vague about its essence and what is exposed to reading: a fictional story provided with real facts and details or the reader perhaps watches as the paper comes to life, the past becomes the present, which the author paints as a black and white photo, an effort of the imagination. Reality and fiction constantly topple over their own edges. TThe alarming focus of Sebaldʼs prose is its double exposure: a deep credibility or conviction inherent to exact knowledge, and at the same time, a strange unreality with the details of each episode dissolving into thin air at the touch. This “aura shines and trembles, making them an indistinguishable outline,” as Sebald borrows some phrases from Robert Walser, surrounds the body of his own texts like a cloud (A Poem 79).

Writing of Thomas Browne’s style, a famous XVII century scholar, Sebald uses his own extraordinary manner of XIX century German prose. The sophisticated syntax and expansiveness of Sebald’s sentences, combined with an old-fashioned style, saturate the writing, creating a variety of perspectives dropping at a great speed or launching skyward (Sebald 19). His peculiar prose writing manner seems to not belong to his epoch. Indeed, modern authors refused hypothetical forms of syntax in the sentences; in the texts, they look very bulky and inconvenient. Thus, they ceased to be the accustomed means for writers. In case one immerses in any form of the past centuries, reasoning prose of British writers, for example, these forms belonging to the previous century of literature just fall into disrepair (Silverblat 83).

Sebald writes of dilapidation, corrosion, and destruction in the Rings of Saturn in syntactic forms, which in themselves are the remains, the shadows of the past time. He begins the novel with the words:

And since the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature, Browne scrutinizes that which escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for transmigration he has so often observed in caterpillars and moths. That purple piece of silk he refers to, then, in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean? (Sebald 26)

In the novel, Sebald investigates many debris or degrading areas tracking rebirth, but it is also a story of participation in violence and destruction. The most appropriate comparison to this would be a silk thread that the narrator uses to return after being engulfed in the centuries, akin to Theseus coming back after the confrontation from the Labyrinth where the Minotaur dwelt.

The idea of “using the thread”, as a metaphor, is stylistically augmented in the annals. The hypothetical approach, registered by the frequent connection between words, sentences, and paragraphs, constructs a range of consistent and associative relations. This stylistic device creates a certain impulse from one point to another together with suspension pulsing through the connection and modification. Suspension, as the closing point of the utterance, is crucial for finishing its meaning. As a result, following it, the readers are able to discern the thread, but the place of destination reveals itself only after they arrive. Only with this ultimate point of view, the readers come to understand the genuine essence of the traveling.

In fact, talking about the syntax of The Rings of Saturn that is known only by its English translations there is something deeply amusing and characteristic of Sebald. His prose, like a dimensionless sponge, absorbs all that is sunken and restless as it is written in the language. No wonder, all depicted in this novel, as the author himself might have said, has a tendency to dissolve into thin air. His style allows the readers to understand that the world is created and managed by the narrator.

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