Top Herzogian Moments in Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn”

I loved this book! I can’t believe it took me this long to read it. I knew by the very first chapter that it was an absolute classic–the kind of novel Borges would have written if he was old and German and living in Norfolk. Everything is tied together in way that feels so mysterious and obscure and yet makes perfect sense. From the first pages we go from being “cocooned” in a hospital and thinking about poor Gregor Samsa, climbing the armchair with his trembling legs and looking out the window, to epic digressions about the history of silkworms and silk production in China, England and Germany, until we end on the very last page with musings about how once upon a time the only acceptable way for ladies to express grief was through wearing “heavy robes of black silk taffeta.” From herring fishing to the Holocaust, from Kafka to Conrad, from apocalyptic visions of death and decay to mourning the things that we’ve lost–uff, what a journey.

The whole time I was reading I kept thinking how amazing it would be to have an audio version of this book narrated by Werner Herzog. In tribute to the fact that this hasn’t happened yet, here is my list of top Herzogian moments in The Rings of Saturn:

– In Chapter II,  the narrator is visiting a decaying English manor, where “I was saddened to see, in one of the otherwise deserted aviaries, a solitary Chinese quail, evidently in a state of dementia, running to and fro along the edge of the cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it could not comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix.” (pg. 36) It’s “a state of dementia” that really gets me here–could there BE a better metaphor for humanity? Sebald in general is fascinated by the act of humans looking at animals throughout this book. I can’t help but be reminded of  Bad Lieutenant’s camera fixing upon the iguana and alligator’s unblinking stares.

– Eating lunch in a seaside town: “The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of a plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat… My plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.” (pg. 43) O, the Humanity!!

– Eating fast food: “No longer able to decide on a place to eat, I bought a carton of chips at McDonalds, where I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter.” (81)

– English motorways, where cars glide “like beads on an abacus designed to calculate infinity.” (90)

– The fate of Jewish, Serbian and Bosnian child prisoners in Croatia, following the camps’ liberation: “Many of those who were still alive were so hungry that they had eaten the cardboard identity tags they wore about their necks and thus in their extreme desperation had eradicated their own names.” (98)

– The Chinese Empress’ view of her silkworms: “These pale, almost transparent creatures, which would presently give their lives for the fine thread they were spinning, she saw as her true loyal followers. To her they seemed the ideal subjects, diligent in service, ready to die, capable of multiplying vastly within a short span of time, and fixed on their one sole preordained aim, wholly unlike human beings, on whom there was basically no relying.” (151)

– On writing: “If asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane.” (181-182)

– Sugar trade and the arts in England: “The capital amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries through various forms of slave economy is still in circulation… One of the most tried and tested ways of legitimizing this kind of money has always been patronage of the arts, the purchase and exhibiting of paintings and sculptures… At times it seems to me… as if all works of art were coated with a sugar glaze or indeed made completely of sugar.” (194) Reminds me of Barry Unsworth’s Sugar and Rum, another book I would really like to reread soon. Bolaño would have LOVED this passage. Art as complicit in the suffering of others? Oh yeah. This section also made me think of those Mexican & Colombian narcos who are obsessed with collecting expensive artworks.

– Impressions of the family that own another epic, decaying manor where the narrator is staying: “It struck me that all the members of the family were continually wandering hither and thither along the corridors and up and down the stairs. One rarely saw them sitting calm and collected, singly or together. Even their meals they usually ate standing. What work they did always had about it something aimless and meaningless and seemed not so much part of a daily routine as an expression of deeply engrained distress.” (211) “Deeply engrained distress”—bwa ha ha ha! Maybe I’m just a really dark and sick person, but this passage reminds me of my family over the Xmas holidays, on the days when no one bothers to prepare lunch or dinner.

– Norwich wool weavers and their tendency to “suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” (283) Hmm, perhaps a commentary on Sebald’s  process of writing the book we’re now reading?

This last quote especially reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about recently: in really great works of art, most of them seem to possess a degree of awareness of the medium that they’re working with. In mainstream movies, for example, you have the standard Hollywood romantic comedy view of the world, in which  the camera holds very still, shots are a standard length, and you follow a cast of smiling gleaming characters throughout. In movies that are ART, though, you have a view of the world in which the camera possesses a degree of awareness about how it is a camera. Think of the blood splattering on the lens during the uprising scene in Children of Men (starting around 1:15), drawing your attention to it. Or that famous shot in Goodfellas that just goes on and on forever, where the camera follows Ray Liotta and his new girlfriend down the stairs, through the kitchen, and into this amazing nightclub world of gangsters and decadence where waiters bring you your own table and set it down in the best place in the house. Or that part in Mean Streets (recently watched over Xmas break) where Harvey Keitel is drunk and the camera seems to be literally inside his head, making the viewer (or at least me) epically nauseous. (A more contemporary example of this technique also happens several times in the film 12 Years a Slave, which I just saw last night and is actually what kicked this whole thought process into action.)

Now, I’m not a film critic or even a media studies person, so I can’t like talk on and on about the meaning of shots and the way that cameras are set up and what that’s supposed to imply for the position of the viewer or whatever. But the other thing I noticed is that for both the Children of Men and Goodfellas clips, they are considerably long unbroken  shots (at least 3-4 minutes). I’d love to figure out a way to compare this technique to the methods that Sebald uses in Saturn, where paragraphs go on for pages, dialogue is unattributed and (perhaps most famously) text is broken up by black and white photographs, inserted with no explanation. I guess on a very basic level, this technique reminds me of what I was saying earlier–in the same way that Children of Men and Goodfellas seem to possess a degree of awareness about how they are movies, literally moving through space as they attempt to look at these characters that they’re following, Rings of Saturn also possesses a degree of awareness about how it is a book that’s being written. I personally find this technique a lot more honest and interesting than a book, film or painting that is just pretending to be, like, this unfiltered accurate depiction of reality. Maybe that’s why so many of my personal favorite books play with this idea–in A Naked Singularity you have that self-commentary on the nature of ambition and failure, you have Hamlet and his at times painful awareness that he’s playing a role, the wronged hero who’s unable to act, and basically all of Borges. Reality and history has never been straightforward and simple, so great works of art shouldn’t try to pretend that it is, you know? That would just be a lie–a fictional delusion.

Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson,” just one of the many works of art that Sebald (oops, I mean the narrator) is obsessed with throughout Saturn. Sebald notes how the victim’s hand is anatomically incorrect, thus turning “this otherwise true-to-life painting into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt [the dead body, a thief hanged for his crimes an hour before]. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that the painter identifies. (16-17)

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