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.

What I’m Reading – Sept 9


Here’s what I’m reading this month:

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard — or as my wife calls it, My Snuggle. I finished this last night and found the exploration of one man’s life, in all its excruciating minutiae, utterly gripping. Knausgaard goes against a whole slew of writing conventions, describing in paragraphs what most writers would gloss over in a clause and shooting off on tangents that go on for pages. It’s a studied artlessness, with often-mundane writing about mundane experiences that nevertheless illuminates a life from the inside. Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker, puts it well:

I don’t think Knausgaard is working up to some big philosophy of life, at least not consciously. Instead, he’s amplifying his life, playing it as loud as he can, trying to get inside it — and letting its vibrations get inside of him. The struggle doesn’t “mean” anything, but it is something: not a tune, but a frequency, uniquely his. Perhaps we each have our own.

Book 1 (there are six volumes, though so far only the first three have been translated into English) focuses mostly on his adolescence for the first half, and the death of his father for the second half. Knausgaard, born in 1968, is only two years older than me, so a lot of our cultural touchstones are the same despite the fact that he grew up in Norway and I grew up in Northern California. Very interesting stuff — I’m sure I’ll get to the second book in the next year.

Post Office is my first Bukowski. I’m not really a nostalgie de la boue sort, but I got it into my head to read him for some reason. I’m about halfway through — it’s pretty funny in spots, but there’s nothing transformative here for me and I probably won’t seek out his other work.

I’m hoping to get more out of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This will be my first Sebald, despite several friends’ encouragement over the years. I have a soft spot for books about eastern England (I’d still like to give Graham Swift’s Waterland a re-read some day) and a soft spot for books named after astronomical phenomena, so…what could go wrong?

I’m pretty excited to read Authority, the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Annihilation, the first book, was unsettling in all the right ways. The intriguing premise felt grounded in the real world, despite the overwhelming, otherworldly horror, by the portrayal of the damaged protagonist and the close attention to the details of the Florida setting. Really just a masterfully controlled novel.

The Damned United will be my second attempt at a David Peace novel. I tried Nineteen Seventy-Four a few years ago but found it just too bleak and nihilistic despite Peace’s evident literary ability. Although crime novels aren’t usually something I seek out, I was attracted by the grubbiness of northern England in the ’70s — all that rain and tacky outerwear! But ultimately the disregard for human dignity, the casual brutality the author displayed for the characters and the characters displayed for each other, defeated me. I’m hoping the soccer football angle of this one will make it funnier, though still in a grim way. If I dig it I’ll definitely put his book about the 80s miner strike, GB84, on my list as well.