Thursday, June 30, 2011

100 Books 33 - W.G. Sebald's THE RINGS OF SATURN

This book is categorized and shelved as fiction, but I cannot help wondering how different my experience of reading it might have been were it not. This is a weird thing to say, I know, but The Rings of Saturn is a weird book.

Ostensibly, The Rings of Saturn -- so named, supposedly, to denote its fragmentary nature, as the planet Saturn's rings are composed of innumberable fragments -- concerns German author W.G. Sebald's walking tour of the southeastern coast of England. We do get the odd description of his physical travels here and there, with some lovely scenery porn and enough detail to convince the reader that he did indeed make the journey, visit those places, even without the odd, strangely melancholy accompanying photographs strewn throughout.

But the physical journey isn't really the thing, here. What is the thing is a somewhat inner, somewhat imaginary, dreamlike wandering through the past lives of the places the narrator encounters, the buildings, the landscapes and the stories of the people who lived there or in other ways made them somewhat famous. It's all very convincing and the line between fact and fiction is -- is there a word out there that goes beyond what we mean when we say "blurred"? Because it's way more than blurred. Like an international border in the middle of a lonely, unpeopled landscape, the line, if there even is one, is imaginary and only an extreme and well-enforced collective belief that is there gives it any reality at all.

But there are no authorities here insisting on a division. Once the reader has let herself be immersed in the strangeness (and its so seductive, who can resist the urge to wade in up to the chin, if not all the way in?), though, the question fades away. There are reminders here and there that this is supposed to be fiction -- Sebald is a great admirer of Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, and evokes especially the weird wonders of the master's "Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" a story written in the form of an encyclopedia entry, purporting to tell the reader all she needs to know about a completely made-up country that the entry itself acknowledges was made up -- but these are rare and so subtle that they pass almost unnoticed, the reader just nodding and smiling and tripping gently along.

When the narrator comes to the English village of Lowestoft, where Joseph Conrad lived for many years at the beginning of his new life as an Englishman, this has the potential to become problematic. Conrad fans (and I am one) know a lot of factual material about how he spent his time there, who he met, what he knew... and suddenly our dream has brought us quite convincingly right into what feels very much like a good representation of Conrad's own experience, what he saw, what it looked and felt like, what it made him remember from his own past... On later reflection it becomes obvious that no one could ever know that but Conrad himself, who is of course no longer around to affirm or contradict this account, but at the time, while reading, one is hypnotized into believing and enjoying it all. Is that factual, the last freed part of her mind might ask, feebly trying to send an impulse to go check Joseph Conrad: A Biography

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