Sunday 4 October 2020

Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald

My instinct, when choosing books to take on holiday, is to go for the deepest drift or trawl I can. W.G. Sebald, especially in autumn, has a long melancholic reach and hold. You start on a sentence and soon you are beyond the world yet further in. Everyone Sebald meets in The Rings of Saturn is strangely remote, ready to disappear or already gone. The narrator has an unerring gift for unearthing strangeness, loss and homesickness. In The Emigrants the ground is even more shifting, even more uneasy. The last emigrant whose tale emerges in the book is Max Ferber, a German painter living in Manchester, where Sebald arrived in the sixties. (Sebald, with several forenames to choose from, was generally known as Max). Manchester in the sixties was not yet risen from its post-industrial ashes and provided a densely atmospheric backdrop to the wanderings of the newly-arrived. There is a certain kind of traveller/wanderer/exile for whom urban decay is merciful. (Newly arrived in Paris in the sixties, or a visitor to Dublin, I sought out the least frequented, least refurbished neighbourhoods, found solace in cracks and darkness, where the past was laid bare and I felt safe.)

I started reading The Rings of Saturn before our stay on Coney Island, finished it, there and began The Emigrants, followed by Vertigo after we came home. A conversation the first evening we were there with N, whose house we stayed in, set Sebald into strange perspective. N is a plein-air painter. He can stay outdoors and paint for six hours at a time, taking landscape or seascape into his painting and going home content. I asked in all idleness — we were several hundred miles north of where we live — if they'd had a wet August this year. I don't know, said N, I live in the present. We were two weeks into September.

His reply, and the silence it produced, have stayed with me. I have scrutinised my sense of the present, my sense of the past, the present tense of gardening, the past tense of reading and writing. And there is N, seizing the long moment of the day's painting, in the present.

In one of those paragraphs Sebald is so good at, the first person narrative shifts into the third person and thence into a new first person, Sebald is visiting Max Ferber twenty years after their first acquaintance.

Ferber commented that, purely in terms of time I was now as far removed from Germany as he had been in 1966; but time, he went on, is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither past nor future. At least, not for me. The fragmentary scenes that haunt my memories are obsessive in nature. When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head.

Sebald's gentle tone, his careful detail, his mild disclaimers ('at least that was what the doctor said', 'so it is surely so', ) invite the reader to go along with him. He is irreproachably formal, yet insistent. 

I'm not sure I can bear, right now, to read Austerlitz as well. The last of his books, and the most poignant, the most driven by the mix of torpor and coincidence that make up our sense of where we have come from.

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