The Rings of Saturn opens on to a dizzy range of allusions and illusions

WG Sebald’s beguiling narrative takes in an enormous collection of different topics at the same time as playing seductive games with fact and fiction

Here’s a rough list of the different topics WG Sebald touches on during the first 10 pages of The Rings of Saturn:

  • A walk in Suffolk, undertaken by Sebald himself.

  • Post-work “emptiness”.

  • A superstition about ailments that assail you “under the sign of the Dog Star”.

  • Sebald’s hospitalisation in Norwich.

  • The view from Sebald’s hospital bed.

  • The nature of reality.

  • Gregor Samsa.

  • Norwich rooftops at twilight.

  • Michael Parkinson, a UEA academic who studied Charles Ramuz.

  • Parkinson’s walking holidays, and his death.

  • The death of Romance languages lecturer, Janine Dakyns, and her interest in 19th-century French novels.

  • Gustave Flaubert.

  • Stupidity. Everywhere.

  • Sand.

  • Africa, the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula, the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen, the Sahara.

  • Dust.

  • Glaciers.

  • The angel in Dürer’s Melencolia I.

  • Surgeon and medical historian Anthony Batty Shaw.

  • Thomas Browne – particularly his skull.

  • Hydrocephalic foetuses.

  • The church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.

  • The exhumation of Browne and the afterlife of his mortal remains.

  • Urn Burial.

There are a few things to note. First, this is just a rough list; providing the full tally of allusions and references would take up as much space as the chapter itself, and it’s far better just to enjoy Michael Hulse’s wonderfully smooth translation. Second, many of the items in this list are portals to further exploration: more allusions, more stories, more rabbit holes.

Third, when I mention “Sebald” as a person, I may be deceiving you. The narrator of this book appears to be its author – most of the time. But there are enough odd references and fantastical descriptions to make the reader suspect that the person telling these stories may be part-fiction.

Fourth, Sebald has barely got going by this stage. As The Rings of Saturn progresses, he references a staggering number of books, facts and historical events, interrupting his text with pictures we assume he must have taken on his peregrinations. And some he can’t possibly have taken. There are also historical photographs, reproductions of art works, documents, maps and illustrations. Some are explained by the text around them. Some aren’t. He quotes numerous authors, but never includes quote marks. He rewrites texts in his own words. And just makes things up. He includes deliberate errors, drifts into flights of fantasy, and makes us wonder about the truth of everything. Did he really, as he writes, climb over a wire to run his hand across the “dusty back” of a pig? “I stroked its snout and face, and chucked it in the hollow behind one ear, till at length it sighed like one enduring endless suffering.” What?

Sebald detaches us from reality, even as he feeds increasing amounts of earthy and apparently true material into the book. He makes us feel like there is far more in the Suffolk landscape than we could ever have imagined – and also that he’s imagining plenty of it. Or rather, the imaginary version of him is imagining it.

And if that sounds labyrinthine, that’s the point. Sebald tells us as much, though little in The Rings of Saturn is explicit. Rather, he tells us allusively, by referencing the master of misdirection – and author of Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges. Floating into the narrator’s head comes the story of Simplicius Simplicissimus via Borges’s. One of these imaginary beasts is the Baldanders, who appears first as a stone sculpture before turning into a scribe who writes out lines in an incomprehensible language (to this reader, anyway), and then turning into “an oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a field of clover, a white flower, a mulberry tree and a silk carpet”. A few pages later, the narrator thinks again of the “Argentine” writer and his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which items from a fictional world enter our own and begin to take over.

There seem to be lessons in these passages about misdirection, mutability, shifting perceptions, fiction and reality. They strike me as a useful guide to reading The Rings of Saturn. But I’m wary of pushing things too far – I expect that as we fall deeper into the book, plenty of other ways of reading and seeing the book will suggest themselves.

Likewise, I don’t want to overcomplicate things. Looking back over this, I see a mighty battalion of references and theories. But The Rings of Saturn never feels that daunting when you’re reading it. The narrative has a slow, meandering, very human feel, with thoughts coming in and out of focus, just as they do in my own mind when I’m out walking. Sometimes you can try to grab on to one and try to make something of it, but it doesn’t really matter if it flitters by unremarked because there’s always something ahead to charm and distract us. Sure, you could spend a lifetime unpicking and categorising and wrestling with this book (and plenty of people have). But you can also enjoy it in a few gentle, dreamy hours of reading. It’s a world in itself.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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