WG Sebald's bleak vision is not without consolation


The Rings of Saturn finds an unhappy man walking desolate country and recalling awful history. But the lucid beauty of the writing is cathartic

At the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, the narrator announces that he is setting off “to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”.

It’s hard not to think that he might have been better off going to a Greek island. Especially at the start, heading to the coastal town of Lowestoft on “one of the old diesel trains, grimed with oil and soot up to the windows” on a “grey, overcast day”. It gets worse when he finally arrives and finds it “run down” and deserted. “I was unprepared for the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of me,” he says. When he strolls out of town, walking through “blue petrol fumes” and past “decommissioned and unemployed trawlers”, there is still more desolation in store. The sparse moorlands and dark pebble beaches of Suffolk are hardly a tonic against emptiness – in fact, they often seem to embody the feeling that Sebald’s narrator is seeking to escape.

Related: WG Sebald: Reveries of a solitary walker

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

A foundational work to start with. Aeschylus’ Oresteia has awed paulburns:

I’m a bit overwhelmed by its brilliance, even though I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read it. Translated by Robert Fagles, one marvels at its poetic grandeur and religious ritual, especially in Agamemnon, the first play of the cycle, Though that reaches a dramatic height with Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra. The second play, The Libation Bearers, where Orestes decides to murder his mother in revenge for her murder of Agamemnon, moves more quickly, and, to my mind, reads better. The final play, The Eumenides, is the most frightening. Legend has it that the dance and chant where the Furies called down revenge on Orestes had women fainting in the audience. (I’d bet the men were shivering in their boots as well.) There was nothing to match it in world literature until Shakespeare wrote the witches’ scenes in Macbeth.

Wow, I’m still a little discombobulated with that one, which is rarely a bad sign. The book didn’t really go at all how I expected it to. The direction of the narrative set in the first 50 or so pages preordained a certain finish, but the end was not what I had foreseen. Those closing pages really just knocked me on my ass ever so slightly.

It is apparently one of the longest novels ever written, which explains the tissue thin papers and small text. My god, is it good. Part anthropological dig into the residents of “The Boroughs” of Northampton, part historical fiction, part fantasy, and a deep delve into life, death and the afterlife that serves as the veins of the story. Jerusalem blends real life and fiction perfectly, it truly is Moore’s magnum opus. Out of all of the fascinating, mad, dark tales the author has given us, truly this is a story to rival Chaucer’s Tales. It feels like the type of story that should be broken up into parts and retold as folk tales for centuries to come. Highly recommended.

This morning I dug out Hill’s excellent book on the radical ideas of groups such as Levellers, Seekers, Ranters, Diggers and Fifth Modernists, sects like Quakers, Baptists and Muggletonians … But here’s the strangest thing. Something I had not noticed before. This paperback was published by Penguin in 1991. I must have picked it up in some secondhand bookshop one day and I wanted to look up a reference to Sir Isaac Newton and his belief in alchemy, page 290, when I noticed that page 288 had a different typeface. Checking further, all the pages from 240 were in the same different typeface, in fact, after 240 the page number was 129. How odd. Investigating further, I discovered that a section from a different book was included (129-160); this is from Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Pages 240-288 of Hill’s book missing. I have never come across such a thing before and wonder if every 1991 edition has the same error?

It is exactly the book I was looking for. What a treat to find there are two more in the trilogy! Feeling positively energised and happy with my reading habit.

My, what a strange, surreal little book it is! As I read, I couldn’t help envisioning it as a black-and-white New Wave film, filled with shadowy lighting, rapid scene changes and long tracking shots… I am enjoying my initial forays into the world of Maigret very much. Given how many of them there are, of course, I shall have to pick up the pace if I intend to get through all of them: there are 73 novels left (not to mention the short stories) which, at my current rate of three a year, will take me another 24 years to get through … and I rather think I’ll be lucky to live that long.

This week every year I take Ulysses down from the shelf and read three or four pages from each of the 18 chapters. It’s a ritual I enjoy more with each passing year and my admiration for Joyce’s masterpiece grows accordingly. Such a wonderful affirmation of words, of language, and ultimately, of our humanity. It is a novel that has never been bettered and I will be forever grateful to Joyce for completing it and to Sylvia Beach for publishing it.

“I’m the same old wreck I’ve always been.” Rejoice! The poet, lyricist and extreme talent David Berman is back.

Salman Rushdie on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

The mysterious 11-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926.

“If he had a third eye, it was staring at me, too.” Not strictly books, but Brian Cullman writes so beautifully about the late, great Dr John in the Paris Review that you won’t regret the reading.

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Poem of the week: The Bluff by Jamie McKendrick


A sharply observed portrait of a comically foreign creature is shadowed by unease about its future

The Bluff

The newt that plays so delicately dead
must be on the qui vive unless terror
just flicks the switch. Its limbs go limp,
Its upturned orange underbelly over-ripe:
a toxic flag unfurled from the beyond.
– Clubbed fingers, clammy green and spectral,
appear to have slipped off the frets
of a miniature guitar.

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'Ghosts shaped my life': out-of-print children's classic to be resurrected


The macabre guide counts Reece Shearsmith and Nick Frost among its diehard fans. What’s so creepy about a 1970s children’s book?

So, it turns out I wasn’t the only terrified young reader. From the unnerving one-eyed ghost dog, Black Shuck, to the many gibbets pictured in its pages, Usborne’s World of the Unknown: Ghosts, out of print for more than 20 years, has inspired people from Reece Shearsmith to Nick Frost. Now a petition with more than 1,200 signatures, and a social media campaign backed by both the League of Gentlemen creator and the Hot Fuzz actor, have persuaded the eponymous children’s publisher to reissue the 1977 cult favourite just in time for this year’s Halloween.

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The Rings of Saturn opens on to a dizzy range of allusions and illusions


WG Sebald’s beguiling narrative takes in an enormous collection of different topics at the same time as playing seductive games with fact and fiction

Here’s a rough list of the different topics WG Sebald touches on during the first 10 pages of The Rings of Saturn:

A walk in Suffolk, undertaken by Sebald himself.

Post-work “emptiness”.

A superstition about ailments that assail you “under the sign of the Dog Star”.

Sebald’s hospitalisation in Norwich.

The view from Sebald’s hospital bed.

The nature of reality.

Gregor Samsa.

Norwich rooftops at twilight.

Michael Parkinson, a UEA academic who studied Charles Ramuz.

Parkinson’s walking holidays, and his death.

The death of Romance languages lecturer, Janine Dakyns, and her interest in 19th-century French novels.

Gustave Flaubert.

Stupidity. Everywhere.

Sand.

Africa, the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula, the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen, the Sahara.

Dust.

Glaciers.

The angel in Dürer’s Melencolia I.

Surgeon and medical historian Anthony Batty Shaw.

Thomas Browne – particularly his skull.

Hydrocephalic foetuses.

The church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.

The exhumation of Browne and the afterlife of his mortal remains.

Urn Burial.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Good news from JayZed, who has been rereading Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss:

I thought I should check and see whether it really is as brilliant as I thought it was on first reading. Reader, it is. As is so often the way with rereading, I found it even more impactful second time around, and felt really quite shaken and upset as the story reached its climax.

Nothing surprising here for those who love Uncle Don’s work, but it’s extraordinary. Every single line of his prose is like a crystal, in terms of its beauty, purity, and design perfection. Reading him almost literally makes you high, his sentences are that brilliant.

A lovely flow of consciousness from the grand old man of American poetry. It takes a little getting used to but once you surrender to it, it sweeps the reader along. Such a nice respite from the current news, that’s for sure!

It’s the eye-popping story of how John DeLorean (acclaimed American car engineer, experienced corporate manager, charismatic showman and hustler-in-waiting) realises his dream of making a stylish, affordable (it was to retail at $12,000) sports car for the American market.

Patterson does a remarkable job of taking the mass of raw material and shaping it into a proper novel. Real life characters mix with invented characters so well that you can’t see the join… There is also no grand tone. It’s not polemical, farcical or, thank the lord, earnestly outraged. Having shaped his narrative, Patterson lets the story speak for itself and it is the reader who will feel outrage, disbelief, hilarity as she works through the novel.

[It] is the sequel to Children of Time, which was (some spoilers) a story about a spider civilisation, accidentally created, and what happens when they come into contact with their inadvertent human creators.

The book (so far) has a similar structure as the earlier one, with separate storylines which will presumably unite at the end. In one thread, human engineers discover that the planet they have been sent to terraform is already teeming with life. In the other, a joint human-spider expedition encounters strange aliens. There’s a lot of good stuff about how the humans and spiders attempt to communicate more effectively with one another, and the difficulties of communicating at all with entirely alien species. Enjoyable “sense of wonder” SF.

I know that the title is enough to put some off, but I’d highly recommend it not just as a microcosm of Soviet society, but as a wise and perceptive encapsulation of the contemporary human condition, warts and all. The protagonist, Kostoglotov, remains a hero of mine. The bravery of standing up for decency when surrounded by chicanery, deceit and toadyism strikes a particular chord in these dystopian times.

It’s an extremely well researched book yet written in an easily understood style. It covers all of the Americas, north, central and south, and paints a startling picture of complex highly populated nations with cities, cultures and histories at least as sophisticated as those in the old world, and their remarkable impact on their environments. Be prepared to have all your assumptions about native Indian life completely turned upside down!

It is a fascinating book. Her writing is witty and honest. There are points where you want to shout “just leave him” but when we’re young we don’t usually have that perspective. When I read On the Road, Cassady struck me as someone who’d annoy the hell out of me. Reading his wife’s account of life with him, I still think so.

Writers are more productive when they cluster.

Erica Eisen on Samizdat: “I imagine the book’s maker sitting bent over their desk, carefully redoing each full stop, comma, accent and háček one by one, for the benefit of future readers they would never meet.”

The Tale of Genji—what is it?

James Ellroy reads “at night. When the world quiets down. When the hell hounds of my imagination stir in my bed beside me and grant me a few hours of repose.”

Sophie’s Choice is the perfect summer read, according to Emma Copley Eisenberg.

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Poem of the week: New Order by Fred Johnston


A cancer scare provides a strange and agonised source of inspiration

New Order

I enter a new order of things
learn the language of blood-tests, platelets,
reticulocytes, an Absolute Neutrophil Count,
lymphocytes
, even the chance, however remote,
of Rocky Mountain spotted fever –
somehow I am in that zone where blood will out
where all things are fatal until proven innocent.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Jack Kerouac’s On The Road changed dylan37. Here’s why:

Recently had one of those brilliant moments that any literature loving parent will treasure. My youngest son, 16, expressed an interest in what’s on my book shelves, and asked for some recommendations. Where to start? Anywhere; excited, energised and thrilled.

I read On The Road straight through one hot summer night when I was 16. I finished the last few pages as the early blue morning arrived gently. And I was changed. The book had an amazing effect on me, and I dedicated the next few years of my life to travelling, experiencing, writing, being, and living what I thought life was all about to the absolute maximum.

Never thought I’d say this, but every page is as good as every scene in the movie. Powerfully gripping, one of those rare books that become welded to your finger tips.

It’s a highly coloured story of voluptuousness rampant, hurricanes of extravagance, and unhesitating deception all round, with not one honest character, except at moments Nana herself – superbe fille, superbly realized – who is at least forthright about her desires. The writing seems to be freer than in earlier volumes, less drawn from notes, as if it came more easily to him to imagine conversations in the louche world of theatre types and demi-mondaines. This being Zola, there are some very dark passages too, including the final great tableau which neatly ties up a number of story lines amid the noise and alarums of approaching war.

I was in turns worried, educated, and fascinated by it. Saini takes you step by step through the history of eugenics and phrenology. She shows the worrisome return of certain theories from the late 19th century that seem to be revivified by a cross current of factors. It’s a real thought provoker and I would like to recommend everyone read it, if only to see if you agree with me that it is clearly a timely and possibly timeless book.

The author is often paired with Wilkie Collins, but in style and content this novel is a match with The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens. I think the text is often noted for its plot, but what is probably under-acknowledged is that the prose is gorgeous. I don’t want to say too much, because it is a mystery after all, but this is the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Mann’s attention to detail is microscopic, not only does he take you on a voyage into the human history of history a family’s life, but the circumstances in which it lives – right down to the design of the upholstery of the furniture. You may think this rather dense stuff, but once you get all these details, you get drawn into the fabulous world which Mann depicts.

This book is very similar to Pride And Prejudice, if Jane Austen had written Pride And Prejudice for an Eastenders storyline, with all the characters belonging to high society, fretting about Brexit, and if all of Europe and its neighbours were trying to settle Brexit by battles between their armies and coalitions of armies.

The novel is divided into five books, each book divided into three or four parts, each part divided into chapters of two or three pages. My copy is 1212 pages long, not including the epilogues.

“I’m a grammar-school boy, I do my homework.” Geoff Dyer on the art of non-fiction.

The world according to John Waters, as interpreted by Alan Cumming.

James Meek on translations of Pushkin.

Get a plane to New York because on 8 June the Walt Whitman Beard & Moustache competition is happening.

Walt Whitman manuscripts in the Library Of Congress.

The malign influence of Ayn Rand.

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Poem of the week: Vocation by Carol Ann Duffy


Subtly shifting imagery describes an elusive role, which may or may not be the poet’s own

Vocation

More my shadow than my shadow,
it is mute, as it must be.
I walk it along the world’s wide road,
chanting its reticence; what I think it might say
if it could, or wished to.

Related: Carol Ann Duffy: ‘With the evil twins of Trump and Brexit … There was no way of not writing about that, it is just in the air’

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Reading group: which European novel should we read in June?


Restricting the choice to books published since the Treaty of Rome still leaves a dizzying array of possibilities. Please cast your votes in a fun Euro election!

This month on the Reading group, for reasons that are obvious and clearly partisan, I want to celebrate Europe. I want you to nominate your favourite book published on the continent since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – and let’s make it fun.

By this stage in the UK’s national nervous breakdown, plenty of us are painfully aware of what we stand to lose in cutting ourselves off from our friends in Europe – but that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate them. Especially since there’s so much good stuff to talk about. In literary terms, there are 62 of the most productive years in world literary history to choose from. Our only stipulation is that your chosen book was originally written in a European language other than English, somewhere on the continent and that English translations are widely available.

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