The mysterious mystery of Sebald’s success

November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Rings of Saturn do get better for me in the second half — first, when they begin to cover subjects I am not familiar with (e.g. Chateaubriand) — which explains perhaps why people love the first three chapters while I did not:  pop non-fiction has its place, but this is largely limited to novelty:  if you’re not learning, you’ll be bored. (This mechanism was at work as I read Herbert‘s travelogues:  I found his Holland mildly interesting, precisely because it is a country I do not know; but his Siena seemed dull because I do know it and the author gave me absolutely nothing I new).  So, OK, Swinburne, Chateaubriand, why not.

Second, The Rings begin to deliver original material — however scant — like the bit on Anglo-Irish landlords gone to ruin and dazed by what had happened to them, which is very touching and well written, even if the bit seems uncomfortably oddly misplaced (it can’t in any way be part of the “digressive geography of SE English coastline”, a la Pausanias, which the book clearly attempts to be).

And, finally, there is one bit of very good prose writing: the section describing the uprooting of ancient trees in a historical park by a freak hurricane; though, again, it isn’t clear who is speaking, and whether… the prose is actually Sebald’s.  (Tricly W. G.!)

In the end, I suppose, the book is like Vermeer’s Hat, certainly not better but not much worse, except for its haphazard structure:  Vermeer’s Hat at least tries to pretend its various anecdotes are somehow connected; and they are no worse than Sebald’s — the story of a fat, gross man, a mean, bossy, corrupt official, a Portuguese shipwreck somewhere on the wild coast of Mozambique ca. 1620, being abandoned by his porters to fend for himself in the bush is a priceless jewel and one a lot more obscure than Sebald’s digressions most of which could be gleaned from Wikipedia.  (The value of facts, like value of earths, is directly proportional to their rarity).

Yet, Timothy Brook isn’t slated to become a literary hero.  Why?  Is it because he didn’t pretend to be writing fiction?

What is the reason for Sebald’s success?  Why Sebald and not — Brook?


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