The Rings Of Saturn

8 Nov. 2011

WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn has a distinct whiff of the Emperors New Clothes. The eminent and seemingly irreproachable laureate at the height of his powers? This curious (curiously boring) travelogue, part Cobett’s Cottage Economy, part Bill Bryson’s Small Island (stripped of the humour) and part appalling self-indulgence just doesn’t convince. The ‘economical’ prose for which he receives so much praise, is simply lightweight prose. If you’re looking for truly impressive economy of style see almost anything by Orwell and, especially in this context ‘Wigan Pier’.

The trouble is, it seems to me, that Sebald embarked on this work not really convinced of what he was trying to achieve. That it is a self-indulgent piece is beyond dispute and not necessarily wrong for being so. The trouble is that what he indulges in sparks little interest and this where I fear that the Emperor’s New Clothes rises to meet us most forcefully. His cast of characters (Flaubert, Conrad and Swinburne inter alia) immediately gives the content an air of erudition. Sprinkle liberally with obscure references to long dead English eccentrics, recluse academics and disposed aristocracy and the formula is complete. The sages nod knowingly hardly daring to gainsay the great writer and thinker – those characters in the book we know are unquestionably noble; thus, by their juxtaposition, the ones we don’t must be. Really? One is left with the strong impression that here was an author under pressure to produce 60,000 words for his publisher and has served up what looks like a fine meal but is completely bereft of seasoning and thus flavour.

Perhaps some of the blame may be laid at the door of the translator – there certainly are some apparently odd words but I’m inclined to think that the translation is accurate and that the original choice of words are indeed just odd. As I don’t speak german I shall never know but is the arcane phraseology and use of language (omnibus for bus for instance) an attempt by the author to create a ‘timeless’ landscape or just bad translation? I fear the former and it just doesn’t work. I hear Sebald trying to say to me: ‘Are we in 1995 or 1895 or 1795? Confusing nein?’. Confusing I should coco.

Ultimately this is just one those books with a promising and potentially original premise that simply falls short. An attempt at poetry which is, at best, just verse, an attempt at wisdom that is just a succession of facts (and not all that interesting ones), an attempt at recreating a dream from which it would have been better that Herr Sebald had never awoken.

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Martin Roberts

Martin Roberts is the founder of TTSLP.

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