The Merry-Go-Round of Sebald’s Rings

Boy, it’s been a while. What could have inspired me to post here after three years? Coronavirus? The presidential election? Nope, it’s W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.

Listen, I don’t begrudge this book the esteem it’s held in. I’ve been anticipating reading it for years, based on what I’ve heard about it, and about Sebald himself. And it ties in a lot with my own interests: German people, East Anglia, hard-to-categorize books. He even digs into a few of my own smaller personal fascinations, like Joseph Conrad’s odd and lonely childhood and the intellectual wild rat chases of Sir Thomas Browne.

But the experience of reading it (at least until the halfway point, when I gave up) was a disappointment. It basically felt like a cycle of “Here is a natural or manmade feature in East Anglia which I will describe–now let me read you the Wikipedia article about a famous massacre or genocide.” All told without spark or humor, or insightful observations, or surprising and illuminating turns of phrase.

I totally accept this might be one of those instances where I’m just not seeing what other people are seeing. I know there are books I love that I feel other people disparage simply due to a quirk of disposition or mood. And I didn’t finish the book! Very possibly there’s a point where the lighthouse-then-massacre merry-go-round begins to feel thrilling rather than tedious. But there are so many books to read out there, and I’m taking a chance that I’ve clocked Sebald’s game and don’t need to spend further time with him.

I’d contrast this book with a work like Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence. It’s a similar book in that it follows a man as he wanders around and falls into digressions, but it has two main things going for it that Rings doesn’t: a thematic thread, and a sense of humor. Dyer’s wry humor and eye for absurdity (especially his own) make “his Lawrence book” a delight, while also really digging into what makes D.H. Lawrence such a complicatedly compelling man and writer.

Dyer also takes time to introduce the strange or interesting people he meets along the way. Sebald gives us a bit of this early on, introducing us to a recently deceased Flaubert scholar, Janine Dakyns. His portrait of her is tender and rich–but this and his exploration of Joseph Conrad’s youth are rare bits of color in an otherwise dreary landscape.

Stray observations:

  • The cover of the above edition of Out of Sheer Rage is also the source for the orange picture of D.H. Lawrence that features as my avatar on WordPress.
  • Once I abandoned Sebald I re-read a couple of M.R. James short stories as palate-cleansers: “The Tractate Middoth” and “A Vignette.” Perfect stories for Halloween, though I know in the UK James is more associated with Christmas.