Another Trip Around the Rings of Saturn

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald

I have this ritual. Every summer, usually in the first few weeks of the season, I re-read W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. I can’t recall the exact year I started this practice but I do remember that the first time I read the book I was in my senior year of college, back in 2006.

In that class, I was introduced to two pieces of art that I’ve been obsessed with ever since. Rings of Saturn and Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which I’m sure I’ll write about sometime as well. Sebald immediately became one of my favorite authors, and over the next few years I sought out and read more of his books: The Emigrants, Vertigo, Austerlitz. But it wasn’t until a gap of a few years that I realized that I needed to return to Rings of Saturn. I thought about the book constantly, and I periodically opened it to find and re-read a specific section.

My memory might be incorrect about this, but I believe that an initiating event might have been the publication of Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, which uses a thread from Sebald’s book as a leaping off point to further explore the causes and effects of erasure. I believe in 2011, Reddy came to UNLV while I was a student, and spent a couple of days giving a craft talk and reading. I was lucky to be something of his local host as we had a small existing relationship from when I published a collaborative chapbook he wrote with Dan Beachy-Quick. We ended up talking about Sebald more and more. And I knew I needed to know and wanted to know that book more intimately.

If this history is correct, then that means I’ve read Rings of Saturn nine times. However, I’m almost certain this history isn’t correct. I remember having a realization a few years ago that that summer was the tenth time I’d read the book, but I can’t recall the exact year of that realization or what I was basing that count on. So it’s likely that I began this ritual much earlier, perhaps the year I started my MFA program back in 2009 or maybe even the year before then, in 2008 when I lived in Cambridge. This history makes sense because I would have certainly gone back to the book as I began working on my own first book, which similarly uses walking, photographs, texts, and history to create itself.

So I’m unsure of the exact number of times I’ve returned to the book. The historical origin of the ritual, as of all good rituals, has faded from my recoverable memory, and has become something that I know is true but cannot prove.

I can’t recall all my original thoughts the first time I read Sebald’s book, but I do remember one aspect that fascinated me initially. I became obsessed with the photographs and their relationship to the text. I remember this because I still have the essay I wrote for that class, where I evaluated and categorized all the images, arguing that the images served varying functions and thus couldn’t be seen or understood as a singular element. Here’s a bit of what I wrote back in December of 2005 (some light editing to remove typos):

The photographs cannot be considered within one single explanation of function. An initial overview of the photographs shows that there are at least two different types or categories. First are the pictures included that, at least under the premise of the story, are taken by the narrator. The first picture in the text falls into this category, introduced by the author describing his time spent in a mental rest hospital: “Indeed, all that could be seen of the world from my bed was the colourless patch of sky framed in the window” (4). The photograph then is printed immediately below. Along with this caption-like introduction, the photograph is understood to be a picture taken that recreates the narrator’s field of vision while sitting on the bed. The second category is photographs or reprints of pre-existing images. The first instance of this type of photograph occurs just a few pages later (11) where the recognizable photograph of Thomas Browne’s skull resting on three books is reprinted. It is unclear whether this is a reprinting of the photograph or a photograph of the photograph, but for the purposes of this specific categorization that is not of supreme importance to answer.

This is one of two ways that I categorized the photographs, thinking about the photographs physical “origin”. The other way was by examining the relationship with the text:

The first category contains photographs that have a caption, but are not given any further explicit importance in the text. The second category contains images that are directly discussed and framed by the text, being editorialized to such an extent that the picture within the text becomes uniquely different from the picture seen in isolation.

Continuing to think about the meanings that these photographs create continues to intrigue me in each re-reading of Rings of Saturn. But what brings me back is this strange combination of nostalgia and discovery. Each time I reread the book, I look forward to experiencing again the various threads, revelations, and moments that the book reveals. I sit in anticipation of returning with Sebald to the uncanny residence of the Ashbury home, and more so the ghostly possible re-emergence of the daughter years later in a strange theater in Berlin.

And each rereading brings me a new revelation where I notice one of the books threads popping up in a way I didn’t expect before. It might be another moment where silk threads its way into the story. Or, on last year’s read, the realization of the history of sugar quietly insinuating itself again when the startled shopkeep gives the narrator a Cherry Coke rather than the mineral water he requested, shortly before he walks the final stretch to Michael Hamburger’s home.

I’m not sure what I’ll find on this journey through the book. I’m not sure if I’ll end up branching off into another book, as in some previous years where I’ve looked up to find myself in Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial. Perhaps this is the summer I’ll finally pick up Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb or return, for the first time in what might be a decade, to the strange labyrinths and worlds of Borges.