Quirky Treasure-House of Sebald’s Mind

Leafing through an anthology of articles and essays called The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald, it strikes me how little of his work I’ve spent any time with. My love of his books is based solely on Rings of Saturn, his digressive narrative of a 30-mile walk. That book lit a fire under my reading and I spent months reading it repeatedly, following the questions it raises.

I went straight from Rings of Saturn to Austerlitz, started reading but half way through my initial enthusiasm for the book dissolved into disappointment. I resolved to tackle Sebald again another time, which may as well be now, starting with Vertigo.

The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with WG Sebald includes a piece by Arthur Lubow called Crossing Boundaries. It offers up the following passage which draws me back to Sebald:

…the joy of reading Sebald is the pleasure of stepping into the quirky treasure-house of his mind. “I don’t consider myself a writer,” he said. “It’s like someone who builds a model of the Eiffel Tower out of matchsticks. It’s a devotional work. Obsessive.” His books are like some eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, filled with marvelous specimens, organized eccentrically.

In truth, I am drawn back to Rings of Saturn, but if I reread it now, I suspect I’ll never deepen my exploration of Sebald’s other works. I’ll drop off a favourite passage as a substitution:

I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?

8 thoughts on “Quirky Treasure-House of Sebald’s Mind

  1. Vertigo was my first Sebald and after that I turned to Rings of Saturn because so many praised it as his masterpiece. I suspect that it is rooted in place in a way that it not entirely accessible with the same magic for every reader who accompanies him (which is of course how you read Sebald – you share the journey as a fellow traveler). Having spent New Years Eve with The Emigrants, perhaps his most accessible but also, for me, his most deeply moving and multi-layered work, I suspect that will be my Sebald touchstone. It explores the lonely experience of being caught between places, between past and present. I will be interested to see how you respond when reach that book.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I am looking forward to The Emigrants, but my carrot is rereading Rings of Saturn once I’ve fully explored the others. I’m also keen to sample some of the poetry.

  2. You will not be disappointed by Vertigo. The Emigrants is also astounding. Austerlitz is, IMHO, the weakest of his novels.

    • I’m enchanted by the first chapter of Vertigo. I will reread Austerltiz, which I think simply could not compete with the sheer brilliance of Rings of Saturn.

  3. Sebald has been, for years, on my list of authors to read – and for some reason I’ve never picked him up. Your post and these comments makes me want to try The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn right away. I will have to find the time.

  4. My favorite among the prose fiction is The Emigrants. Perhaps because it’s the first by him I read and I can’t explain its strong cumulative effect on me. I was devastated by it.

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