Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

Oddly enough, I don't remember where I got this book. It was a file on my computer, that I had downloaded from someplace (legally or no, I'm not sure, either). I suppose I had come across it while looking up Post-Modern literature after reading Robert Bolaño's 2666 which a co-worker had recommended to me. Or it could have been a related title that popped up on Goodreads or Librarything or Amazon or any of the online book servers. It also could have been talked about by Kay's blog Georgia Girl with An English Heart, for which this book would be a perfect read. Anyway, so I put this book on my Kobo and took it to Emory hospital for my mom's cardiologist appointments that would take hours. Honestly, there is something very soothing in reading books in hospital waiting rooms, like a touch of the outside world in a microcosm of sterilized air and beeping machines. It so very possible to be immersed in the hospital world, where, if done properly, becomes a home all in itself. There are no worries there outside the health of the loved one, the world takes a back seat. The walks from the parking garage at Emory, over Clifton Street and into the waiting rooms, which, at Christmas time, were decorate with gigantic trees and presents and all types of greenery. The pictures of bridges on the bridge were amazing (although they left out the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy, and probably for good reason), and the images of the seasons next to the gift shop, immutable in frames as the world went on around them, fitting for the hospital I was about to enter. What of Spring or Summer to the people who spend their time in beds, suffering from any type of disease, and cared for by nurses of the highest caliber. There is no better place to be than Emory Hospital, and whenever I have my heart attack, I want to go there for whatever surgery might have to be done.

I've found myself reading German authors, much like W.G. Sebald, who have spent much of their careers using words to free themselves from the atrocities of the 20th century. Most of Modern (WWI) and Post-Modern (WWII) literature, I think, comes from the need to move away from the thinking that got them all into those messes. And while Modernism tried to break completely away (Pound: "Make it New."), Postmodern thought seems to gravitate towards contemplating each road that we have traveled, examining each artifact along the way, until some solution can be found, some escape, away from that time, that reality. This is precisely what Sebald has done in The Rings of Saturn, which is the perfect book to start anyone in the genre of Postmodern Literature. It is short, only 167 pages, by Kobo measuring, and filled with images, photographs, paintings. It reminded me quite a bit of Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. However, if I knew then what I know now, I would have started with Sebald before reading Eco or Bolaño.

The book surrounds the author, whom we can assume is Sebald himself, walking through his home county of Suffolk, Great Britain (Sebald left Germany in the 1960's for a professor-ship in the UK), from Suffolk to Ditchingham. Along the way, he visits friends, stops at decaying mansions, and recalls subjects and locations far and wide. There is no plot (other than, at the time of the telling of the story, he has finished his walk and placed himself in some sort of rehab or mental institution), however, like some of the best books I've read, no plot is needed. In fact, the walk is a frame for the people that you meet within the narrator's mind. Joseph Conrad, the "aunt" of the Last Emperor of China, Edward Fitzgerald (the translator for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám), and others. Of course, the main characters are the nations themselves. The barren lands of Great Britain, stripped of all its trees; The Congo, stripped of human beings, made slaves in the dark jungles; China, invaded by the West for profit at whatever cost. Flowing from one person, time, event, to another, much like the waves of the ocean that the narrator stares out upon, there is no feeling of being lost, of waiting for anyone named Godot. It is pure lyricism blended in with history, biography, and memoir.

In the end, I was reminded of the ending of Voltaire's Candide, where we find the meaning of true happiness is, after all the depressing and tragic things in life that happen, one must return home (whatever home that may be) and cultivate the garden (metaphoric, of course, but in some cases, it actually is a garden). In the end, after the mark is made on the world, after the power and the glory, we languish, and we find solace in the daily lives of silkworms, in the motion of the waves, in the growing of our gardens.

I highly recommend reading this novel, and then do what I did. Hop on Google Earth and find the places he talks about in Suffolk. Use Street View and walk down the same streets as he did. Then go here and download the public domain documents that make up the writings of the characters in the book. The book would be great to base an entire college (high school?) course around, complete with the Intertextuality that most Post-Modern works use. There's nothing better than taking all the thoughts of mankind and weaving them together into a giant web, where art, music, literature, history, science....etc... merge and coexist. I only hope, that, as I walk the paths of my own county, that I can pull together the threads I have collected into some tapestry, which, if I am fortunate, will appear here in words, just as Sebald did in his books. It's all I can hope for.

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