The Rings Of Saturn

Published December 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In narratives that blend reportage, memoir, art criticism, social
chronicle, natural history, fiction, literary essay, personal anecdote and
images, W.G. Sebald is literally reinventing the diary as his own genre.
Not since Montaigne has an author bound such a breadth of passion,
knowledge, experience and observation into such a singular vision.

The author's first book, "The Emigrants," fictionally intertwined the lives
of four unrelated Holocaust survivors. Occasioned by a walking tour of East
Anglia, "The Rings of Saturn" is a looser book, the diary of a journey that
records a series of impossible human strivings. The hubris he chronicles
is minute and grand, good and evil, ranging from Roger Casement's futile
efforts to stop Belgian exploitation of the Congo to Frederick the Great's
quixotic attempt to force the German people to cultivate silkworms. When a
church tower jutting up on a beach turns out to be the last vestige of a
medieval port that has washed into the sea, the life Sebald breathes into
that lost city is as passionate a pastiche of research and fantasy as
Heinrich Schliemann might have nurtured during his decades-long search for
the mythical Troy. But to step into Sebald's stream of consciousness at any
point is to enter the same river twice; for the lost hopes, dreams,
ambitions, projects and cities Sebald documents are really excuses to
explore one central subject, which is time itself. Sebald views every
object in its simultaneous then and now: Inevitably, his labyrinthine
excavations -- his dips in reality's river -- are less about the nature of
water than about the inexorability of its flow.

Sebald edits images into the text like filmic jump-cuts, sometimes as
illustrations, more often as flashes from his own or a collective
unconscious. In the middle of a story about a World War II veteran who
participated in the liberation of Bergen Belsen -- a man who later left his
entire estate to the maid who dined with him in silence for decades --
Sebald startles the reader with a two-page uncaptioned photo of corpses
strewn across a forest floor. The reader is left to ponder the image as one
Sebald has never forgotten, as one of the few memories so unbearable that
it might occasion a man not to speak for decades, and the image is all the
more evocative because its relationship to the text is left oblique. The
unarticulated connection between words and image elucidates the ways in
which we know without knowing we know and remember without memory. Even as
he asks us to consider the meaning of minutiae, Sebald forces our
peripheral vision into active cognition of the broader picture.

The diary consists of that which Sebald sees, feels, thinks and encounters.
Yet the self around which Sebald organizes such disparate subject matter is
an empty one. The narrative never sinks into narcissism. Rather, it's as if
Sebald allows the landscape and its inhabitants to use his memory and
senses. He cares for lost worlds, dreaming like a war nurse caring for
casualties she knows will expire. In gathering their personal effects, he
revives, at least for a little while, pasts that cannot, or will not,
speak for themselves.

By Joyce Hackett

Joyce Hackett is an associate professor of creative writing at New York University

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