The Rings of Saturn
So this one feels to me less of a novel than Austerlitz did, which already stretches my sense of what is a novel. We begin with Sebald (and normally I am not one to presume an unnamed narrator is the author, especially in novels, and in the case of Sophie’s Choice even when the narrator IS the novelist, by name, but here we even get a picture of Sebald in the text!), walking through the county of Suffolk, and his first stop along the journey takes him to thinking about and discussing Thomas Browne. Thomas Browne was born in the early 1600s and became a kind of thinker on all subjects kind of writer. He’s not someone that I, like many Americans, is particularly familiar with, but for Sebald, he uses Browne as a launching pad for much of what the novel does. One of the main thrusts of the novel is that we are with Sebald in 1992, embodied in his 50 year old body, with his specific German heritage, living in England, and making sense of the sheer volume of history, event, time, and place that is situated in the space of the county. He takes us through a light history of the place, and especially with the figures associated with it. In one section, he traces Joseph Conrad’s history in the region, linking his place as a German writer trying to make sense of what is England to that of Conrad, English writer of Polish origin (and not descent) who also had to make sense of England. In a way, this is almost a 300 page version of the opening pages of Heart of Darkness. As someone with a passing, but somewhat informed knowledge of English history, this novel gets into some impressively granular elements I was wholly unaware of.
A Place in the Country
If I know only a little of English history, I know almost nothing of German-speaking history, geography, literature, or art. Well that’s not entirely true: I know the same stuff most people know about German history (ie that it basically begins and ends with 1910-1945); I know something of German literature (or German language history) through my reading of Kafka, Mann, Mann, Grass, Hesse, Kleist, Roth, Zweig, and a few others; I know of German geography through literature and film; and I know nothing of German art except Anselm Kiefer. So to look at a few of figures of art and literature through the much more intense history of Sebald’s own biographical remembrance, interaction, and study of these figures opens the door significantly (in proportion to what I already know). He ties the writers and artists in this small essay collection to the land itself. In one section he shows a few pieces of landscape art and drawings, while reflecting on the spaces that they inhabit in the world. He discusses the shrouded life of the writer Robert Walser among other subjects. In his Sebald way, Sebald infuses each essays with a ton of background information, detail, sharp analysis, and humanity.
This book came out in 1992 or so and is more interesting to me than The Rings of Saturn, and on par with Austerlitz in that realm. Rather than looking deeply into the history of a place, we follow our narrator as he traces the personal history of a series of figures from his life from a man he meets late in life on a tour to a former school teacher to figures from around town. In each narrative, we receive a personal history of the figure, their tie to the geographical space of their surroundings, and some sense of the connection to the narrator. More than the other book, this one feels deeply personal in a way that seems lost in a lot of modern writing. It’s a bit of cliche to talk about the ways in which digital culture has alienated a lot of personal interaction, but one other thing I think has happened is the ways in which the reclamation of the personal in writing has added a falsely dramatic scope to interactions. There’s a kind of overcorrection to the almost Romantic (or maybe the Sentimental is a better way to frame it) sense of human interaction that I don’t quite represents our fundamental reality. This book provides the actual work necessary into investigating those ties. And what I mean here is the scope feels balanced, along with the amount of research and investigation necessary to have the insights that too much of today’s writing seems to present without context or without acknowledgement of the depth required for the writing.