Sebaldian Narrative


“As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark. The huntsmen are up in America, writes Thomas Browne in The Garden of Cyrus, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn—an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness, I gazed farther and farther out to sea, to where the darkness was thickest and where there extended a cloudbank of the most curious shape, which I could barely make out any longer, the rearward view, I presume, of the storm that had broken over Southwold in the late afternoon. For a while, the topmost summit regions of this massif, dark as ink, glistened like the icefields of the Caucasus, and as I watched the glare fade I remembered that years before, in a dream, I had once walked the entire length of a mountain range just as remote and just as unfamiliar. It must have been a distance of a thousand miles or more, through ravines, gorges and valleys, across ridges, slopes and drifts, along the edges of great forests, over wastes of rock, shale and snow. And I recalled that in my dream, once I had reached the end of my journey, I looked back, and that it was six o’clock in the evening. The jagged peaks of the mountains I had left behind rose in almost fearful silhouette against a turquoise sky in which two or three pink clouds drifted. It was a scene that felt familiar in an inexplicable way, and for weeks it was on my mind until at length I realized that, down to the last detail, it matched the Vallüla massif, which I had seen from the bus, through the eyes drooping with tiredness, a day or so before I started school, as we returned home from an outing to the Montafron. I suppose it is submerged memories 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 theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter, and audience?”

The Rings of Saturn, III, pg. 78-80


In The Rings of Saturn W. G. Sebald takes his readers through a dizzying narrative centered on a walking trip on the eastern coast of England and in doing so manages to transcend space, time, and consciousness. The novel is broken into ten chapters of about thirty pages each, with a gossamer in the wind like narrative floating through the pages of time, space, and the minds of Sebald’s friends, acquaintances, and various persons of interest. A concise example of this metaphysical tromp can be found in the above section from chapter three. The quote begins with Sebald in Southwold, England; sitting on the shore and staring northeasterly into the German Sea. The eclectic journey Sebald takes the reader on in three measly pages appears as so: from England to Germany, into Sebald’s consciousness, to America, into Thomas Browne’s consciousness, back to England, into the sky, all the way to the Caucasus, a memory of a dream, the peaks of an imaginary mountain range, a memory from childhood of actual mountains in Austria, and then finally back to Sebald’s present consciousness—presumably on the shore of the Southwold beach.

Though the narrative only makes mention of Germany and America by name and no action actually takes place in either place, they are invoked in the reader’s mind. Famous sites from these countries, their position on a globe, as well as the North Sea (German Sea), and the United States on the opposite side of the globe, drift as a montage through the cinema of the readers mind. When Thomas Browne is made mentioned the reader is reminded of the fifteenth century in which he lived, and just as soon as the reader’s made it four hundred years in the past, we’re staring back at the globe where Persia is occupied.

In quoting Browne, Sebald brings us back to the shore he sits on in Southwold. It’s evening and the blank, bleak image of the ocean is what invokes the words of Browne out of him. The void that is the black water of night reminds him of the inevitability of death and how every night it appears as though one half of the earth has laid down and died. The origin of the novel’s title can also be speculated on in this moment. The rings of Saturn are a scythe cutting down, annihilating, every individual nightly. Without the use of quotes or even breaking up these thoughts into multiple sentences, Sebald begins ruminating on the storm clouds on their way out, thus moving back to the present and the spatial, having blended history, geography, and memory with philosophy; all in one sentence.

Sebald describes the outgoing storm clouds—by making use of the word massif—as mountainous. The massif clouds remind him of a dream he had years ago where he romped through a remote and unfamiliar mountain range, covering thousands of miles in footsteps. He realizes that the dream felt so vivid to him because its imagery matched a boyhood memory of his in the mountains of Austria. Lastly Sebald ponders the makings of dreams and memories and their intersection, leaving the reader comparing dreams and ourselves as the architects of our dreams, to that of live theatre, asking how this production by one individual is even possible.

Though this is only a small slice of the greater text that is The Rings of Saturn, it is an apt glimpse at what a “Sabaldian Narrative” does. Sebald’s narrative mode is a form of stream-of-consciousness writing and what makes it unique is its ability to seamlessly fuse so many variables into one text. When Sebald sat on the shore of Southwold (if he actually did) it’s easy to imagine his writings from this evening as a journal entry. His mind and his pen start by staring at the sea and by the end of the entry he’s wondering how dreaming is even possible. His mind snowballed from the black sea, to Browne, to a dream, and then into an old memory; the seemingly unrelated people, places, and things that roll over the pages of his journal are now connected by a narrative. The text creates a moment of fusion, a network of infinite connections and possibilities. Reading Sebald is like spending an hour on Wikipedia. For example, lets say you pull up the website because you’re curious about the former films awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards, you start opening new tabs about all the old movies you’ve always meant to watch, you start researching who the actors and directors of these movies are, you read up on their personal lives, the causes they’ve supported, and now you’re researching the history of the AIDS epidemic, to which you start opening tabs about African countries you’ve never heard of before and start brushing up on some history, and before you know it you’re reading about French colonialism. And it’s Wikipedia so you can’t even really be sure if any of the content you’ve been reading is entirely accurate. But what does that have to do with the Oscars? Nothing? Maybe everything. Sebald’s novel creates a vast network of connections with endless possibilities, reminding us that everything in this world is connected whether we’re conscious of it or not. His trek along the English coast is only a vessel for containing the infinite nature of a mind in motion. This is how minds move, like the links on Wikipedia, like the narrative of a W. G. Sebald novel.