A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (translator: Michael Hulse)

There are many kinds of books you can encounter in a lifetime. There are books which are soulful and full of grace. Books that are like a slap in the face. Books that nurture and console you. Books that make you laugh. Books that are like a lifelong journey. Books that are like a puzzle you don’t have the brainpower to solve. Books that never seem to end.

Then there are books that are like walking along the riverside in the company of an erudite and well informed man, someone with whom you have only a tenuous relationship, perhaps through work or a shared acquaintance, but whose company is always interesting. You are walking along the riverside on a pleasant summer day, heading towards a pub you visited together a number of years ago. The sun is blinking through the trees, there is a gentle breeze and soft summer clouds floating fatly in the blue air. Your companion is telling you a story about a man he once encountered as a child, a lord of something or other who had a peculiar penchant swans – your friend mentions this pointing towards a pair of swans paddling along the river. The lord had such a love of swans that he had created a sanctuary somewhere hereabouts. The swan sanctuary turned out to be short lived and the ruin of the man.

As your companion talks you see the pub come into view. It is on the top of a small hill to your left, its grounds rolling down towards the riverbank clustered with picnic benches and you remember when you came here the last time. Then you were much younger, you were newly arrived in the area and this man, through your shared acquaintance or work, had offered to show you around. The day, one similar to today, was bright and warm, there were bees buzzing in the grass and ducks on the water and your anxiety about having moved from your home to a new, strange place had been assuaged for the duration of the afternoon. Something about your companion and his excellent conversation.

When you arrive at the pub the man goes off to the bar to buy beer, and you sit down at one of the tables close to the waterside. It is then that you discover that things are not exactly the way you remember them. The pub, its grounds so well situated on such a lovely day, is largely deserted. The wood of the picnic table splinters under your nails, there are cracks in its surface and great gouges torn out of the wood. The swans are gone from the river and the ducks from your memory are absent. Your friend returns and sits down, passing you your beer glass from which you take a great gulp. The beer doesn’t taste as good as you remember. ’It was here,’ your friend explains. ‘This was the place of lord such-and-such’s swan sanctuary.’ The Swan, is the name of the pub. As the bitter taste of beer melts from your tongue, you realise with surprise that you are now the same age as your companion was the last time that you were here together.

The air turns chill, a dark cloud rumbles overhead blocking out the sun. A melancholy mist rises from the river, drawing with it the brackish tang of decay. It reminds you, somehow, of a dream you had recently in which you had been walking along the self-same riverbank heading towards the pub at which you were now drinking. In the dream it had been a day much the same as today, but you had walked alone. The air seemed thick and dense, and as you walked a great, ancient forest appeared. With each step more trees grew, until the forest grew so thick you became lost within it. The familiar houses and landmarks had decayed to tumbledown ruins, and if there were any other people in the forest there was no sign of them. You walked until you were ready to lie down with exhaustion, and only then did the forest open into a clearing and the way out became obvious. You turned to find that the light was failing, that the path you had walked along had disappeared. It was a peculiarly vivid dream, and though you had felt lost you woke from it feeling only that you had experienced something like truth.

That is The Rings of Saturn.