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?


Poisonous relationships

November 1, 2011 § 14 Comments

A wistful longing for a good book — why not a learned epic? (oh, cry for the lost Thebais of Antimachus!) — led me to The Rings of Saturn, said by reviewers to be learnedly digressive; alas, I came to it with over-expectation.  Sebald’s digressions are almost all on subjects I already know — indeed, know well enough to spot mistakes in (e.g. black dresses in Poland did not become de rigeur until after 1863, etc.); and they add almost nothing to what is already in the public domain, neither reflection nor, for the most part, beauty.

The one exception seems to be the last two pages of Chapter I, written in beautiful baroque style (“the winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash” etc.) — its beauty well attested by its frequent quotation in the blogosphere — but only seems:  it turns out not to be Sebald’s but Thomas Browne’s — the topic of the digression — and is, rather embarrassingly, quoted without credit.

I should have known to continue avoiding the book — for I have avoided it for years on the basis of who had recommended it to me years ago: a mousy under-read girl with a hopeless literary ambition; I had never heard her say anything original, or noble, or interesting: her recommendation had to miss, no matter who favorably reviewed the newly filmed version.  (The Economist, Patience).


Reading The Rings is only somewhat like playing the far more delightful game of “flip the encyclopedia” (so agreeably played in a panoramic window on cold, bright Sundays) in which one entry leads to another; for the game let’s you take any direction you fancy and does not oblige you to read twice anything you already know.  (It’s all the easier done with hyperlinks and Wikipedia does well on many topics: some entries — like Operation Vijay — amounting to veritable academic treatises).

A college acquaintance played this game with The Oxford Dictionary:  a well-read pianist, deep and sensitive, delicate and polite, full of good conversation — his game had made him delightfully eloquent and, to give vent to his eloquence, though we lived but two stone-throws apart, we exchanged frequent handwritten letters.  But, like many pianists, he was a broken soul, partly for his struggle with desperately covered-up homosexuality, but mainly for his insistent deathwish:  at the time when I knew him he imagined — and let it be known — that he was suffering from terminal melanoma which his Christian Science forbade him to seek to remedy.

It drained me emotionally to struggle with his struggles, his frequent depressions, his fear of death; and having been tricked once already into a similar relationship some years earlier, at the tender age of sixteen — a relationship in which the other party — a barely older aunt, as it happened — by feigning disease or tragedy bleeds us of empathy like a spider sucks a fly — I was by then too knowing to let that sort of thing linger; and shook off his friendship without explanation; no doubt confirming in him thereby the tragic misperception that I left him on account of his sexual, not his emotional, deviancy.

How convenient homosexuality can be in helping its owners avoid true self-knowledge!

Years later I heard he had managed to make his death wish at last:  a lover had (apparently intentionally) infected him with the wasting sickness.  The deathwish is the easiest of all to fulfill.

Years later yet another person like this, also an aunt, latched onto me; a person whose entire life was but an uninterrupted series of tragedies and failures, many, one suspects, perhaps (subconsciously?) intentional, for she artfully used them to generate pity.  Such people, like lampreys, suck you but do not kill you; like insinuative poison, they waste you but not unto death.  And, as no amount of tenderness will make them better because being bad is their source of living, the healthy party’s only sensible course of action is — to flee.

Which is what I had done with my eloquent friend.  I have often missed his eloquence:  such like is almost nowhere to be found.


I wonder about Sebald:  is there perhaps not enough epic here?  It isn’t clear what linkages exist between one digression and the next, the plot, such as it is, does not support them;  as a result of which it all seems haphazard — as well as dull.

He’s well liked, for all this.  I wonder why.  Are all his lovers mousy girls with literary ambition and nothing interesting or noble to say?  (Apparently not).


I put the book away and fell asleep with the night-light on.  I must have slept an instant, no more, because the dream, when I woke, seemed but a shapeless fragment and I had to carve it out from that part of memory which borders on imagination.  In it, I had been walking down a narrow corridor on the second floor of an old house somewhere in the northern climes; as I passed, a room opened on my left, sunk in the blue-grey light typical of north-facing rooms in the temperate zone; its shadow framed an open window in which a autumnal ash tree — a mass of trembling, sparkling golden leaves — shone in a bright, cold morning sunlight.

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