As I read this book, Rings of Saturn, I find myself not knowing quite what it is, or how to look at it.
I suppose it is fiction. It says fiction on the back cover, so it must be. But I can’t decide whether the narrator is following a path that the author himself followed, or simply an imagined one.
I don’t know enough of the coast he describes to know if it is real, and I don’t know enough of history and the histories of other countries and individual people to know if the narrator’s many tangents of history and bits of things that he’s reminded of in his wanderings are factual or real, or almost real or near factual.
It must be fiction of sorts, fiction can draw on much reality, and fiction is capable very easily of capturing a truer reality than the world itself can be. So I guess the discussions of history is true enough, even if it is fictional truth.
When I decided that it didn’t exactly matter whether it was real facts or whether it was finely woven fiction, I settled in to explore the structure of this novel. I don’t think I’ve encountered a structure like the one of this novel before. It feels very unfamiliar, and odd, but I find it interesting to read. Because it’s not so much like a normal story, it’s more like a collection of snapshots, of the narrator’s life and the lives and histories of the people and places he’s traveling through. There’s a lot of subtle connections, threads, and themes running through the book. But it doesn’t feel like it’s building to a conclusion exactly, at least not at this point.
The narrator is taking an exploration into self or into his ideas, or simply into different places. He doesn’t know what the conclusion of his exploration will be, and doesn’t seem to be particularly looking for one. And the reader is invited along in this exploration, and it is being shared with us. It’s not demanding that we share in it, nor is it telling us outright what we should be finding from the exploration. Rather it is simply letting us take what we will from the exploration and it’s not a bad thing if we don’t get the same thing from the snapshots and wanderings as the narrator or the author or the person next to us reading the same novel.
The narrator’s moments of pondering and searching for answers are brought up and left behind quickly and subtly. They are important, but they are not the priority at the time they’re mentioned. They’re part of the story, and they’re perhaps necessary. But they’re not exactly the direct focus of the narrator’s thoughts and recollections and studies.
This is the feeling that I am getting from this wandering story and unpressured story. This is what allowed my mind to wander and pick up the smaller bits of story and writing that made me the most interested or made me notice them as something to come back in the story.
I find myself wanting to come back and read this novel again, when I have time to investigate the things he is talking about in history. I’m fascinated by the bits we learn about Roger Casement. From this work, I think perhaps he’s the kind that I would like to learn more about. It reminds me there are many books, especially older books considered classics, that I would appreciate and enjoy more if I had more information about the context they were written in. But not enough time for now.
There were a couple of things that stood out to me, while I was reading. Things that made me pause to note the page number so I could go back to them. So that I could think about them more, even though I wasn’t really sure what I would be thinking about them.
On page ninety and ninety-one, the Narrator describes what he sees as he rides in a small airplane. On page ninety one, the imagery and description Sebald uses make it a wonderful and interesting exercise in scaling; “it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. One sees the places where they live and the roads that link them, one sees the smoke rising from their houses and factories, one sees the vehicles in which they sit, but one does not see the people themselves. And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine,”
On page eighty I was caught by the simple line: “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” The Narrator is discussing dreams, and what makes them. He mentions a hyper reality that comes from memories, but also something else that cannot be described or explained that makes dreams what they are.
Before our discussion in seminar, the reasons these things had caught in my mind were pretty simple. I love theater, I’ve been a theater tech for a student production at 5th Avenue Theatre for the past three years, and my mind had a lovely image in mind trying to picture or imagine what a place it would be, or whether it would be a theater, or if it would be something else entirely.
I liked the way that Sebald had described the view from the plane, a way that made me imagine the Narrator’s mind’s picture being sort of like a Powers of Ten video, first seeing the individuals on a street, then up further to the roads, then only what you could see from the clouds. So much is affected by people, but from a distance you cannot really see the people, the things that have changed existence on this planet so much.
After our seminar discussion I was informed of a new way of interpreting and connecting the bits of text I had wanted to share. Our conversations about dreams and what makes them special, and about the way there always seems to be a little something else in things like dreams, or plays, or even movies, that makes them a little bit more than all the things that go together to make them.
This discussion made me keep thinking about this weird, tenuous but interesting all the same connection between my chosen text. It finally gave me a kind of a point to use in this essay, where I hadn’t entirely found one. Because while this interpretation, this connection, certainly isn’t the only one, and can’t be said to be the correct one by any stretch of the imagination, it is interesting. And in my mind, interesting is quite valuable.
The dream, as the narrator was musing, is a theater where you are both creating and witnessing. And all that goes into dreams, your memories, your mind, your emotions and attitudes, and all of you and your ability to create that goes into dreams, doesn’t always account for what you understand and feel when you witness that dream as it is created.
An individual human being has a great deal of power over their immediate surroundings, but no where near the power that our creation of cities and systems and complexity would suggest. Then at a large scale, we are quite insignificant and powerless. But still from a distance you can see our influence everywhere.
In these two minor musings on the narrator’s part, and my further musings about them, there seems to be a pattern indicated; the sum is greater than the parts. I think a lot of people feel that there is something else added to the finished product of many things. It’s discussed in different ways, it’s intuition for some, it’s magic, it’s spirituality, something science explain eventually, maybe it’s just an illusion altogether. But it is interesting, how many things people perceive to be greater than the sum of their parts.