April 25, 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Heart of darkness



I am interested in the way Sebald appropriated certain non-fictional devices, such as memoir, travel writing, essay, and biography (of Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad, in chapter V alone) into a work of fiction. This blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction is a constant in Sebald’s writings and even the photographs he included seem to validate or "authenticate" his text. I recently came across an interview with Eliot Weinberger, who translated works by Borges, among others. In the interview he said something about "authenticity" as an academic invention.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:


"… it’s hard to draw the line these days between the academy and actual artists. In the academy, identity politics has replaced any kind of politics known to the rest of the world. So they’ve invented this idea of authenticity: that one can only talk about where one is personally coming from, and only the people coming from a culture are able to talk with any authority about that culture at all. This strikes me as totally deadening in terms of imaginative literature, and also utterly unrealistic …"

"There had been that big anthology of witness poetry, and the idea that you had to actually have been in World War II to write about World War II. This whole question of authenticity, which is a denial of the imagination. I mean, Dante didn’t go to Hell."

"… all memoir writing is ultimately fictional anyway. So then it becomes a question of: Are you creating an entirely fictional persona, who you claim to be yourself? And … are you marketing yourself as such?"


I think the effectiveness of Sebald’s fiction is due in part to his authentic engagement to the subjects he explores. This may have something autobiographical about it. Although The Rings of Saturn appears deeply personal in a lot of places, Sebald chose to label it as fiction and used certain elements of his research in a fictional (imaginative) way. Even if he talks about past events (the anatomy lesson, air wars, naval wars, ethnic cleansing in WWII, slavery and imperialism in the Congo in the 19th century), it is as if he was an actual witness or observer to said events. I find Sebald’s sensitivity to these 'forgotten' topics to be a very humane and sympathetic one. His excavation of memories seems to me like an inquiry on and a critique of human nature, particularly the human capacity for destruction. The Rings may be 'fiction' in terms of the literary devices he put into it but it doesn’t ring false to me.

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