Mapping Sebald: Themes in The Rings of Saturn

Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald

Every summer, I have a ritual: I read W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Sebald and his work has captivated me for years. So far, this has been a personal and highly individualized ritual. But not this year! This year, my ritual becomes more purposeful and more public facing. To do this, I’m pairing my reading with an experiment in literary “mapping” by cataloging each emergence of various themes or “threads” in the book.

At this point, I’m not necessarily analyzing any of these. However, I do anticipate that I’ll periodically add some selective commentary when I get particularly excited about one of the thread emergences. Instead, the goal right now at least is simply to map and catalog. As I wrote last week:

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 want to get a bird’s eye view of the landscape that Sebald creates in this book. Rings of Saturn is a journey in so many ways. It’s a walk through the countryside of England, a walk through the convergences of history and the space Sebald occupies, and a walk through Sebald’s own self that he brings to that space. Sebald creates a world of information in this book. My hope is that I can create a map that helps us see and understand that world.

What themes does Sebald thread?

Sebald threads countless themes through Rings of Saturn. Because of this, choosing among them (and deciding whether to split up related themes) is a challenge. Threads might be added (or possibly removed) as I go through the reading. But here is a tentative list of the threads that have captivated my previous readings:

  • water
  • sugar
  • plants
  • silk

During my reading, I’m going to categorize each emergence of the above threads.

Following the map on Twitter

In order to provide live updates on each thread, I’m posting on Twitter using hashtags. Here are the hashtags to follow to track each mapping update:

What do I expect to learn by mapping?

This is an open question. I really have no specific expectations. However, I do have a hypothesis. My hypothesis is that this information mapping will produce a birds-eye view of the space of the book.

One assumption I’m basing this project on is the idea that a book is a physical space similar to a city or a country. In some sense, this isn’t radical: a book is an object that takes up space. Reading a book (traversing that space) occurs over a span of time, in the same way that walking across a city occurs over a span of time. The challenge is figuring out how to create the map, and this project is a first foray into exploring how to do that.

Thus, I believe that this map will be entirely incomplete and nowhere near comprehensive. My expectation is that this first project will necessitate more projects, both to add to the mapping and to refine the mapping approach.

At the moment, I’m not entirely aware of an exactly parallel approach to this “information mapping” I’m attempting. But I do want to call out two resources that inspire and guide this initial approach:

In the coming weeks as I work through this project, I’ll write more about these books (and other books I encounter along the way) and go further into the ideas and theories guiding my approach to mapping Sebald.

Now, let’s go off to walk with Sebald through The Rings of Saturn and see if we can produce a first draft of a map…

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