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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sebald, Montaigne, Browne

I'm re-reading W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn at the moment. What a great book. As are his other quasi-novels that I've read: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, Vertigo. Or maybe I haven't read Vertigo, I can't recall. Come to think of it, I don't think I have, and will now have to order it. That's one of the interesting things about Sebald: all his books tend to run together, and even though I read Rings of Saturn only a year or two ago, in re-reading it I feel like I've never read it before. Normally, that would seem like not the most ringing endorsement for a novel (i.e., forgettability), but in Sebald's work, it is somehow appealing. I think, for me, both the cause and the appeal of this element of his novels is just how very early modern they are. They read like the novels that Montaigne, Thomas Browne (one of Sebald's favorite authors), or, dare I say it, Owen Feltham (not the best link, but all I could do without hitting a subscription wall) never got around to writing. Sebald writes essayistic, Montaignean prose, following his thoughts wherever they lead him, in a way that seems almost random but that, as you realize as you are flipping back pages to understand how exactly he did it, is in fact incredibly carefully planned. The clear influences are Browne's Urn Burial and Garden of Cyrus, but while reading Sebald, I always think of Montaigne's "Of the Force of the Imagination," which begins with a discussion of hypochondria, somehow segues without you noticing it into transgender issues, and ends by discussing in great detail the (apparently pandemic among Montaigne's acquaintances) problem of male impotence. Suddenly you are reading an essay about impotence and you have no idea how you got there, but you have a sense that the thread of argument has led inevitably to this place. That's what Sebald is like: digressive, dilatory, following the chance associations of thought, and yet somehow always held together by a nearly (but not entirely) imperceptible train of thought. It's a kind of writing that is almost wholly lost to us, which is why Sebald came as such a bolt out of the blue, I think: impossible to categorize as fiction or nonfiction, his novels are essentially a book of related essays in the Renaissance sense of the word. In Rings of Saturn, the binding associations seem to be entropy, decay, degeneration, and decline: of the British and Belgian empires, the aristocracy as a class, landed estates and houses, the land itself submerged by the encroaching sea, the self debilitated by illness and mortality. If you haven't read Sebald's books, and if you are a Renaissance lit scholar (and if you're reading this blog, I imagine you might be), I think you'll love them.

  • At 7/19/2006 08:31:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Hey, I loved Austerlitz too, even with the forty-page paragraphs (one reason I think it may be hard to figure out how you get from Point A to Point G in the book). So now I have to read the others. It's moments like this that I wish I could read as fast as the Little Professor and some of the cool kids at Unfogged.


  • At 7/19/2006 09:13:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Yeah, you'll dig Rings of Saturn--all the references to Thomas Browne are enjoyable for Renaissance geeks. And The Emigrants, the first one I read, is amazing, strange, haunting.


  • At 7/28/2006 12:18:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I've read Austerlitz and Vertigo, and loved both of them. I don't know the others, but it sounds as though I should.


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