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.

Quote #24

“Let black, then, rather stand for hideous memory: white for blessed blank oblivion, happiest gift of the gods! For who, indeed, can say that the record of his life is not crowded with failure and mistake, stained with its petty cruelties of youth, its meannesses and follies of later years, all which storm and clamour incessantly at the gates of memory, refusing to be shut out? Leave us alone, O gods, to remember our felicities, our successes: only aid us, ye who recall no gifts, aptly and discreetly to forget.”

— Kenneth Grahame, “The White Poppy

April Books

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I made a couple of bookstore visits this week, both of them regular stops on my book-buying rounds. First up was my buddy Nissley’s bookstore in Greenwood, where I came upon all unexpected-like the cosmic nexus of my Penguin and SF loves: a box set of 100 Penguin science fiction postcards. For a look at what it contains, check out the indispensible Art of Penguin Science Fiction site. I tend to a more restrained aesthetic with these, and would have liked to see more covers from the 50s and 60s, and fewer of David Pelham’s and Adrian Chesterman’s garish 70s pop-art monstrosities. But there’s still plenty here to love, and the cardstock feels nice and sturdy. Some of the Wyndhams and Stapledons will end up framed on the wall.

Next up was a visit to Magus Books in the U District, my favorite used bookstore anywhere. I’ve been collecting the Penguin Critical Anthologies series, though only for writers and poets I’m actively interested in reading criticism about. So far I have Spenser and Dickens; and just last week I was reading Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and thinking I’d like to get my hands on the Marvell edition of the series. (Make mine Marvell! as Stan Lee or someone used to say…) This one’s in great shape — it feels like the spine has barely been cracked — and edited by John Carey, a really sharp critic of 17th-century poets especially.

Another find at Magus was Fancy and Imagination, which caught my eye because the terms represent an essential dichotomy in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic theory that I don’t feel confident I totally understand, even after reading Volume 2 of Holmes’s fantastic Coleridge biography last month. Speaking of Coleridge, I’m also (finally!) finishing John Livingston Lowes’s charming and comprehensive Coleridge study The Road to Xanadu, almost certainly one of my ten favorite books although I haven’t finished it yet — I read the first three parts about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a few years back, but never got to Part Four, which deals with “Kubla Khan.” Lowes’s investigation into the sources of Coleridge’s poetry, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes utterly obscure, is an amazing piece of literary detective work.

Did I get off topic? I got off topic. The last book I picked up at Magus was a beautiful 1963 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lord of the Flies, which I haven’t read since high school but have been eager to look into again after reading The Inheritors, Golding’s haunting portrayal of Neanderthal man at his apocalypse, a few years back. This one came with an unexpected bonus: inside the back cover there’s a smart little caricature, obviously drawn from life during a rail journey, of napping passengers.

lord-flies-sketch

The notation reads Julian Hall / 5 Bateman St. / Cambridgepretty swank digs judging from the internet.

Quote #23

peng_eliz_verseTHOMAS BASTARD (1566-1618)

“A country clergyman who made pitiably small headway in life, Bastard published his book, Chrestoleros, in 1598. It was much ridiculed, but [Sir John] Harington defended it. Bastard died, touched in his wits, in a debtors’ prison in Dorchester.”

— the biographical sketch for Thomas Bastard‘s poems in The Penguin Book of Elizabethan Verse (1965). Can’t help but suspect his surname didn’t ease his way in the world.

Quote #22

“I learned later that Rhody always automatically remembered her place in a book. She was not good with phone numbers, and even her Social Security number gave her trouble occasionally, but the page number of her current book would just come to her without effort as soon as she held it and saw the cover. the-fermataSometimes, she told me, the number would even occur to her at odd times during the day, and she would think, Two hundred fifty-four, what a mysterious and suggestive number! It would take her a second to realize that the number seemed unusually fine simply because it was where she was going to resume her reading. Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to her. It wasn’t a question of her liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphry Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical co-enzyme, she said, that allowed her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.” – Nicholson Baker, The Fermata

E is for English eeriness, WTF is for Hawk

For me there’s probably no more alluring title for a longform article than “The Eeriness of the English Countryside.” Robert Macfarlane’s on a tear recently, between this and his other recent Guardian article about older landscape terminology in Britain. That one was right up my alley — it’s probably obvious that I dig esoteric landscape wordlore, given the name of this blog (“the Brake,” as described on that “About” page, is a major feature of the novel I plan to revise soon). Meanwhile I’d like to read/listen to/watch pretty much everything he name-checks in that article about English eeriness — including his own books, which I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Also this weekend, in the New York Times, Helen Macdonald has a lovely meditation on Wicken Fen, the Cambridgeshire nature reserve. Though I have to confess I got a little peeved with Macdonald when I read the opening of her recent bestseller H Is for Hawk — namely this passage:

I’ve had people rush up to me in the supermarket, or in the library, and say, eyes huge, I saw a hawk catch a bird in my back garden this morning! And I’m just about to open my mouth and say, Sparrowhawk! and they say, ‘I looked in the bird book. It was a goshawk.’ But it never is; the books don’t work.

Ugh, man. Second paragraph of the book and Macdonald gives my own back garden goshawk sighting the smackdown — the bird’s too small, and goshawks don’t visit back gardens in the middle of Munich. (I still think the bushy thigh-feathers look more goshawksome, but probably that’s just the bird hunching down in the cold.)

On the other hand, it was still an amazing and moving birder experience, and a sparrowhawk is a gnarly beast in its own right, and I’m always happy to soak up some more bridlore. So I’ll be reading H Is for Hawk at some point, but not yet — the pain of losing the goshawk is still a bit too raw.

Not a goshawk, apparently

Not a goshawk, apparently, but still awesome

Quote #21

terminal-beach“Having surrendered his initiative to the dynamics of the city he was reluctant to try to win it back merely for a better cup of coffee.” – J. G. Ballard, “Billennium” — Currently I’m really digging Ballard’s collection The Terminal Beach in the ’66 Penguin edition. (Cover image here courtesy of one of my favorite websites ever, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction).

Penguin Tracks

Some day everything will be redesigned as a Penguin cover and I won’t mind a bit. Today’s entry: track listings from classic albums.

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