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.

2013 Reading Review — debacles and farragos and cock-ups

I read fewer books this year than usual; we had a logistically complicated move back to the States after two years in Munich, followed by the need to refurnish our home in Seattle from scratch. Nevertheless, I got some good reading in because otherwise I’d have to jump off a bridge.

I’ve written about some of my favorite novels from this year already (links are to my reviews for these):

Light – M. John Harrison
Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks
The Goshawk – T.H. White
Blindsight – Peter Watts
Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

And here are a few other (non-SF) novels I especially liked:

Unconditional Surrender, by Evelyn Waugh — this is the last book in Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy (I read the first two books at the end of 2012). I’d tried Waugh before, but couldn’t finish Brideshead Revisited; it was just too obnoxious. But his World War II trilogy is richly satisfying, without the painfully arch tone of Brideshead — or of Decline and Fall, which I read later in the year. Waugh follows the passive, depressive Guy Crouchback through debacles and farragos and cock-ups, then expands his view to take in a whole assortment of deftly drawn characters going about their bizarre wartime business. Great stuff.

mystery-edwin-drood-charles-dickens-paperback-cover-artThe Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens — I’m not as big of a Dickens fan as some folks, e.g. my mom, who has read all of his books several times over. But both of these were great and I think this Dickens kid may have a bright future if he keeps it up. Pickwick has a great larkish feel to it, while Drood has a wonderfully obsessive atmosphere. Edwin Drood’s uncle John Jasper is a superb portrait of darkly obsessive, inappropriate, unrequited love; and I would’ve happily read a much longer novel just about the young retired sailor Mr. Tartar with his pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings. Really the phrase “pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings” perfectly describes the sort of rocket-fueled, tension-sprung engine that could drive any novel.

Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett — speaking of tension, this 1902 novel was one of my most suspenseful reads of the year. Good old Victorian craftsmanship at its most heartbreaking, it tells the story of Anna Tellwright’s navigation amid the demands of her station in life and her miserly father. Definitely a read that snuck up on me — I really wasn’t expecting the narrative power Bennett brings to bear on what feels like it would have been a common scenario in industrially expanding Victorian England.

Also, my favorite non-fiction reads of the year:

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer — this was a re-read of one of my all-time favorites. Dyer procrastinates and prevaricates as his intention to write a scholarly study of D.H. Lawrence is undermined by his own fecklessness and endlessly charming self-loathing. The opening lines dive right in:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself. If, I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober — I can remember saying that word ‘sober’ to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented ring — if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together.

9780312429461Dyer spends more time on his own travels and neuroses than he does on Lawrence, yet somehow manages to illuminate something essential in Lawrence’s difficult, mercurial identity as well.

Fun coincidence here: While we were living in Munich I read a New York Times article by Dyer that mentioned in passing an Atkinson Grimshaw exhibition at London’s Guildhall Museum; it was mentioned in the context of the use of Grimshaw’s paintings on Penguin Classics covers, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood (“To reread any of them with different cover art is inconceivable: ‘Edwin Drood’ is Grimshaw’s painting.” — see above for the image). I had always loved Penguin covers using Grimshaw’s art, and I never pass up an excuse to go to London, so my son and I made a quick jaunt over to visit my dad (who was living out near Greenwich at the time for a consulting job). The exhibition was well worth the trip — thanks Dyer and Grimshaw!

A Reader’s Book of Days, by Tom Nissley — I wrote about this earlier, it’s crammed with good stuff. Reading it through, rather than just browsing by day, it starts to feel like a bizarrely skewed yet consummate history of world literature.

allroadsNow All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis — Thomas has always been one of my favorite poets. I think like a lot of his fans, I felt like he was a secret discovery back when I first came upon “Adlestrop” and “Rain” (in my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, back in college). He was actually more well-known and influential than I realized at the time, though; and in the twenty years since then his renown has only grown. Hollis does an excellent job of exploring his influence on other writers, in addition to his life and untimely death in World War I. I also ordered a Penguin selection of his poems and prose — I already had his collected poems in a Faber edition but it was great to dig into some of the fine journalism and travel writing he resented as so much hackwork.

Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger — Thesiger was one of the last Westerners to explore the Arabian peninsula’s murkier reaches before oil money poured in to develop, and corrupt, the region. His exploits are harrowing but he always presents them in an off-hand, understated style. This reminded me quite a bit of Fitzroy Maclean’s equally excellent memoir Eastern Approaches — British explorers and soldiers in the post-Burton mold, making their last crazy-brave forays into the world’s darkest, most dangerous corners as their empire collapses around them.

All in all a good reading year — looking forward to 2014.