For the past few weeks, I have been reading–by which, in this case, I mean something more akin to swimming in—W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This is, as Jonathan Raban writes in the TLS, “the finest book of long-distance mental travel that I’ve ever read,” and so is something which, like any long-distance journey, requires periods of rest to succesfully get through. The closer I get to the end the more I feel myself to be in some strange shadowland, an overlap between Sebald’s mind and my own, with the unfamiliar geography of East Anglia as backdrop and the eerily blurred black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the pages of the book, always fuzzy at the edges, always just vague enough to imply that they might be anything and anywhere, should we want them to be, as ghost-like guides.
This feeling came to a head last night when I had a haunted sleep, in which, first, I was running down a series of narrow and gritty alleyways, pursued by the unknown and ominous chaser from one edge of a city built, it seemed, entirely out of channels between buildings (no doorways, wide boulevards, sudden squares or tree-lined parks). Then onto a series of trains, which rushed along in an open-topped tunnel. When I disembarked there was a field, and a rally, and beyond the crowd, the silhouette of a forest. I knew myself to be on an island, in an archipelago; and as I raced towards the forest, I unfolded a map, which in old-fashioned style told me nothing of importance but gave me the shape of the islands: long and thin all, craggy like the outline of coastal Greece.
Exactly why I woke and felt immediately that this was a dream I would not have had if I wasn’t, in the moments before falling into slumber, reading Sebald, I do not know. But at some hour shortly before dawn, I stirred in my wooded hiding spot and then woke, and felt convinced beyond measure that this was a dream akin in feeling to what Sebald describes during a harried crossing of a scrubland near Dunwich: “If one obeyed one’s instincts, the path would sooner or later diverge further and further from the goal one was aiming to reach…Several times I was forced to retrace long stretches in that bewildering terrain…I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out. But I do remember that suddenly I stood on a country lane, beneath a mighty oak, and the horizon was spinning all around as if I had jumped off a merry-go-round.”
When I had rolled over, felt the Man snoring lightly beside me, drifted back into a half-worried sleep, I dreamt more overtly of the book. I was discussing it with someone and, in that way of a dream where the familiar is all wrapped up in the foreign, the discussion was taking place via the interent, at a pub, and as I played with a sticky beermat a message appeared on the screen of my computer. Specifics in dreams are never so spectacular when translated into waking life, but it had to do with hope in the book. The first line (read the message), implies the tone that is followed throughout: one of desperation, obession with human frailty and transience. But I disagreed; yes, I wanted to write back, it does–but it also powerfully evokes a sense of hope, with a single word. What this word was I can’t remember; but now, in looking at the un-spectacular actual first line of the book, I see that Sebald writes both of “emptiness” and “hope”.
In the thick, knotted pages (each one nearly black with tightly-knit words, no paragraphs, no natural space to pause or breath) there are constant reminders of things coming to an end–it is hard to read something like that quickly and harder still to escape the way the mood (heavy, grey) crawls into your head at night. But there are evocations in the strange and haunting light of springtime, too (I start to go a little wild, to feel recklessness, which I thought to be dead, stirring in my toes)–what I’m saying I guess is this is not a book I’d like to read in winter.
But then, seasons cannot explain everything, can they? Today as I was running along the edge of Christ Church meadow, and the bells of Magdalen College were crying out for Sunday joy, I paused for breath at an artifical spot, a spot of my own choosing, half in the shade of a low-branched tree, so that I could perceive the new green that has flushed the area. And I thought: this is a sign of summer, this new green, these fragile shoots and delicate blossoms, but for seventeen years of my life the signfier of summer was the drying out of grassy hills; green bled from the earth, not springing from it. In a short period indeed I’ve managed to revise my internal understanding of the world, so that the growth that for so long meant the heavy rains of winter now means sunshine and rare warmth.
(I’ve been interrupted now too often; if there’s a flow between thoughts here, I hardly see it–but then, maybe that’s long-distance mental travel.)