The Rings of Saturn is Sebald's Song of the Earth, his elegy for the Earth, a vast, Mahlerian symphony on themes of decay, destruction and death. Even the book's otherwise enigmatic title is drawn, as an epigraph shows, from the hypothesis that Saturn's rings are composed of fragments of a former moon that was destroyed by the planet's gravitational pull. (The title has many other connotations, two of which come immediately to mind: the saturnine circles through which Sebald's narrative digressively proceeds; Wagner's impossibly long operatic cycle that culminates in Gotterdammerung.) On the most superficial level, this is a travel book, an account of a solitary walking tour along the English coast south of Norwich (a tiny digression licensed by all of Sebald's: my direct ancestor Christopher Barrett served as Mayor of Norwich from 1634-1648), but this book is as far from Paul Theroux as Theroux's books are from a Frommer's guide. Sebald uses the travel form the way Joyce uses Homer, as a structural skeleton and gravitational center for an otherwise centrifugal text. The travel genre provides the familiar melody from which Sebald departs into the jazziest of improvisations. And while Sebald's digressions are overwhelmingly melancholy (this is a major composition in a minor key), they are rarely predictable, and his narrative is punctuated by a series of sharp, jolting shocks. The first of these is the horrible death of Frederick Farrar, a very minor character who is accidentally burned alive in his garden (Sebald's coldly aestheticized description of the death scene increases the shock). Even more effective is the way a description of a German educational film on herring fishing slides effortlessly into 20th century Europe's ultimate horror:
"...Then (so says the booklet accompanying the 1936 film), the railway goods wagons take in this restless wanderer of the seas and transport it to those places where its fate on this earth will at last be fulfilled"(54)
A date in the Nazi era...a railway..."wanderers"..."transport"...and a final circumlocution concealing the site of butchery. There is no need to be more explicit. This passage and the allied description of a Nazi-era film on silkworm farming near the end of the book show the extent to which every aspect of German society was infected by the rhetoric of Nazism. But these two episodes, as well as the novel's leveling of natural and unnatural disasters (hurricanes and genocide) into a single discourse of catastrophe, also accomplish something much more questionable. Implicitly equating the Nazi genocide to the wholesale slaughter of animals or any number of natural catastrophes serves to normalize the horror of genocide. And any view of genocide that sees it as a natural phenomenon, just another of history's horrors, tends to be exculpatory in that it de-emphasizes the element of human agency. The Nazi murder of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, leftists, and other official enemies was neither a sacrifice nor a whirlwind (the literal meanings of "Holocaust" and "Shoah"). It was a system of organized murder made functional by the freely chosen actions of thousands, perhaps millions, of individual human beings, from the bureaucrats who oversaw the deportations to the railroad workers who drove the death trains, from the German burghers who whistled the "Horst Wessel Song" and asked no questions when their neighbors disappeared to the Nazi doctors who committed the most unspeakable atrocities. This was a very human crime. And that is the most horrifying fact of all.
Sebald knows this, of course, and he shows it at the chilling conclusion of chapter four, when a section on Balkan atrocities culminates with the image of the recorded voice of war criminal Kurt Waldheim traveling into outer space aboard Voyager II as an example of the best of humanity. This horribly ironic moment typifies the greatness of Sebald's book. It is a work of bleak, tragic power that reflects darkly back upon us all. My Sebaldian image for The Rings of Saturn is the obsidian mirror of Queen Elizabeth I's court necromancer, Dr. John Dee, an object currently displayed on a low shelf in an overcrowded decorative arts gallery at the British Museum. When I bend down to the mirror, I see my own reflection staring curiously back at me out of a flat, polished surface of the purest black. Sebald's book is an obsidian mirror for the human race.
The Rings of Saturn is also the Encyclopedia Sebaldiana. It seems to contain his entire tragic weltanschauung between two covers (and also, in the lovely New Directions paperback edition, between two appropriately black endpapers). It traverses continents and centuries, even travelling at one point, as I've noted, into the depths of interstellar space. But Sebald never loses sight of our own desert places. Of all his novels, Saturn projects the largest fictional world, and we should consider the extent to which this world is a projection, an externalization, in dreamily distorted form, of psychological realities the narrator fears to acknowledge. To what extent is the substance of this world a reflection of the narrator's and/or author's subjectivity? An answer may lie on the margins of Sebald's novels, among the minor characters--hotel clerks, waiters, tourists, townspeople--who appear as little more than a parade of interchangeable grotesques: dwarfs, hunchbacks, obsessives, eccentrics. They populate Sebald's novels like the monsters in the margins of medieval manuscripts, and they appear equally artificial. Readers must ask themselves to what extent Sebald's neurotic narrator is projecting upon the world a grotesqueness he fears to face within himself. We might then complete this circle of thought by asking to what extent a mad world constructs a mad mind.
For Sebald's narrator does repeatedly flee from an unnamed darkness within himself, some source of fear or guilt or shame that he does not allow himself to understand. Three examples should suffice to prove this statement, and not coincidentally the examples will be drawn from three of the novel's strangest moments. Late in chapter three the narrator vertiginously peeps over a cliff's edge at a lovemaking couple on the beach below. The description of their coupling is disturbingly defamiliarized (even moreso than the fucking of the hunter and the barmaid in the last section of Vertigo); it's akin to an entomological description of insect mating. Trembling at this sight and "[f]illed with consternation" (reactions the narrator does not, or more likely cannot, sufficiently explain), he quickly rises and leaves the place that, he writes, "seemed fearsome to me now." This is followed immediately by a move familiar to all attentive readers of Sebald's Vertigo, a retreat into representation. In this case, the narrator flees into Borges's great story "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius". The strategy, however, like the similar flights in the latter part of Vertigo, is less than entirely successful. In light of Borges's tale, the narrator appears as a kind of Tlonist, fleeing unpleasant reality for an intoxicatingly imaginary textual world. My second example is perhaps the book's weirdest moment: the bizarre, uncanny sense of deja vu the narrator experiences when he visits the home of Michael Hamburger.(It should be noted that however fictional the setting might be, Hamburger was a real man, an important German-British poet and translator whose versions of Celan, Holderlin, and Sebald's brilliant After Nature I value highly.) Walking around the house, the narrator has the feeling that not only has he seen this place before but that it is his place, a house he lived in years earlier. The line of thought breaks off here, but it seems obvious that the narrator feels an uncomfortable dissolution of self in the presence of Hamburger, a feeling that he is encountering his Nabokovian double. Again, rather than exploring this emotion, the narrator flees into an insufficiently removed text, Hamburger's memoir, the narrator's coincidental connection to which only succeeds in making his doppelganger fear seem even more hysterical. Third and last is the strangely beautiful ending of chapter eight. Alone in the Ballardian landscape of the abandoned military installation at Orfordness, a top secret Cold War site of R&D in Ultimate Destruction, the narrator is granted (or more likely, flees into) a curiously pastoral vision. Looking into the setting sun, he imagines he sees the omnipresent windmills of pre-industrial Suffolk rising above an agrarian plain. Here, at the place he is not yet prepared to understand as the ultimate goal of his pilgrimage, the site of a genuinely apocalyptic endeavor, the narrator retreats into a previous century. And the opening of the next chapter finds him speeding inland on a bus, his back turned to Orfordness, his feet not fast enough anymore. As I stated just a sentence ago, I interpret Orfordness as the true destination of Sebald's englische Wallfahrt ('An English Pilgrimage' is the original German subtitle of this book). Where else, after all, can a journey through destruction end but in a landscape consecrated to nuclear annihilation? But the narrator reaches Orfordness unaware that he has arrived at his destination--and unwilling, perhaps, to admit into consciousness the maddeningly nihilistic impulses that have brought him here. He rides and walks on, but the rest of his journey seems like an epilogue.