Robert Macfarlane recently hosted a online reading group of W.G. Sebald’s classic “The Rings Of Saturn.” While I missed out on a simultaneous reading with the group, I still had the pleasure of reading it more or less in one sitting on a plane.
Reading this book is a surreal experience. What starts off as a wander around East England becomes a wander through history, imagination and the soul. Sebald’s thoughts on human nature are all at once both enlightening and frightening.
Robert Macfarlanes hosting of the group definitely added to the experience of reading this book, as did the many contributors from those who took part. If you missed out on the reading group, here is the complete list of questions that Robert Macfarlane posed to prompt thought and discussion. I strongly recommend that you check out #TheReadingOfSaturn thread on twitter whether or not you have a copy of the book.
Day 1: Beginnings & Openings
To those who have read The Rings of Saturn before – what do you recall of the experience, where were you in place & life, what effect did it have on you? To those reading it for the first time – what are your opening impressions? #TRoS
How is your approach to The Rings of Saturn shaped by its “paratexts”: that is, its epigraphs, curious contents page, endpapers, font…? And what of the rhythm & patterns of those extraordinary opening sentences & paragraphs? #TRoS
Day 2 Ways of Seeing
The ‘found’ photographs & images are among The Rings of Saturn’s most distinctive features. Captionless, embedded, radiant: how are they placed, patterned & textured? What do we make of them & them of us?
Day 3 Landscapes
The book occurs on the friable, eroding, chronically militarised coast of Suffolk. How do topography, prose, psyche & memory interact & interfere? Does “place” survive as stable category or surface here? How does its landscape affect you?
Day 4 Echoes & Shadows
The Rings of Saturn is restlessly rife with comparisons, cross-references & ‘elective affinities’. What other works, artists, writers, musicians, styles, forms does the book evoke for you? Where do you hear or see Sebald’s influence?
Day 5 Prose style
How does Sebald’s style cast its strange spell? How does it work (on you)? What are its charismatic habits & features, tics & tropes? “I cannot now remember…”. “In my memory of…”. Which sentences possess most power for you?
Day 6 Guilt
“There is no such thing as an innocent landscape” (Anselm Kiefer). Where, in this book so drawn to human darkness, does guilt seem to reside? Where is the blame for cruelty located? In individuals? Systems? Ideologies? Places?
Day 7 Perspectives and Points of View
The “vanishing point” & “the view from above” are the two commonest perspectives in #TRoS. What are their implications for reader & narrator? How do we “see” in this book?
Day 8 Walking
The German subtitle of The Rings of Saturn, left out of the English translation, is ‘Ein Englische Wallfahrt’; ‘An English Pilgrimage’. What does walking lead to here? What is its ‘work’, what are its natures? What kind of pilgrimage is this?
Day 9: Silk
Thomas Browne is “the son of a silk merchant”, the endpapers show silk scraps, Swinburne is like a “silkworm, Bombyx mori”: silk & sericulture thread through The Rings of Saturn; text & textile interweave. “That…silk…what does it mean?”
Day 10: Gender
The Rings of Saturn is an overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, male book in terms of narrator, characters & cross-references (Gentle Janine & the fearsome Dowager Empress are counter-cases). What, for you, are the consequences of this skew?
Day 11: Roger Casement & Joseph Conrad
To what ends the long excursus into their lives in Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn? Why the many mediations (we enter their stories through a ‘BBC documentary’)? And why close the chapter with Casement’s signature?
Day 12: Sound and Music
What are the functions of listening and hearing in #TRoS, which is in many ways such a heavily visual book? And (light relief?) if you had to choose a soundtrack for the book, what music/musicians would be involved?
Day 13: Comedy
James Wood, in the essay below, argues for Sebald as a surprisingly funny writer, with “an eccentric sense of playfulness”. Do you agree? How far & where do “gravity” & “levity” coexist in #TRoS?
Day 14: Orford Ness
Chapter VIII ends on Orford Ness, a shingile spit formerly used for military testing. How do you read what happens in these extraordinary pages?
Day 15: Endings & Aftermaths
What are the implications of the closing pages (and sentences) of The Rings of Saturn, if you have reached them? What aftermaths will this book leave for you (in you) — and what afterlives has it led in culture?
If you like books about walking, check out one of my recent posts here.