Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Walking Tour of Suffolk--But That's Not All!

I read W.G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn because Sandra wrote so passionately about it some time ago and with good reason. This is a wonderful book. What's so wonderful about it? Where to start? The narrator, if we ever find out his name I missed it, gives us a recounting of his 1992 walking tour of Suffolk. The story is written in a delightfully ambulatory way as only someone walking and thinking could do. Cars create a much more direct narrative and miss details because of the speed of travel, but walking allows one to stop and start to wander. He would begin a chapter talking about, for instance, the battle of Sole Bay in Southwold. The sea battle took place in 1672 between the English and the Dutch. By the end of the chapter we are reading about the German Reich and Croatia. Or in another chapter, because the narrator saw a BBC documentary about Roger Casement one evening we find ourselves suddenly deep in the history of Joseph Conrad only to the end chapter back with Casement. The story is all connected and all makes sense. Part of the pleasure of the book is the skill with which Sebald is able to change the focus, often with just one sentence. The book is not just about a walking tour, it is about so much more. Here's a quote that sort of conveys the sense and purpose of the rambling:

Unfortunately I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never got used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.
I think one of my favorite parts of the book is when the narrator visits a man who is building a scale model of the Temple in Jerusalem. He is making is continually researching in an effort to make his model as accurate as possible. When he discovers a new fact that changes something that he has already built, he will tear out that part and rebuild it. It is an interesting study in passion and persistence and how we get ourselves into things we didn't plan on. The model builder at one point tells the narrator:
In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch. I would more than likely never have started building the Temple if I had had any notion of how my work would get out of hand, and of the demands it would make on me as it became ever more complex.
I could go on and on about this book and give you quote after quote but then you'd get tired of it and I'd be a bore. So I will stop here and just leave you a couple of links in case you want to read more about the author.
  • Sebald died in a car accident on December 17, 2001. Here is an obituary and here is an interview he did with the Guardian published after his death.
  • A 2002 Symposium on Sebald from the Threepenny Review
  • A review from 1998 of Rings of Saturn at the the New York Review of Books. The reviewer sometimes makes it sound like a terrible book, but pay no attention to those parts of the article.