Thursday, May 3, 2012

A volume of fish twenty times the size of the earth - Sebald's fictional facts

Boy did I not plan to spend so much time with Sebald.  Some of what I have been writing is as closely related to other books I have been reading as to Sebald.  José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda (1982), for instance, which in its own way depends as heavily on knowledge as Sebald does.  Both authors follow a common postmodern path, fiction buttressed by massive quantities of facts, or fiction as an interrogation of fact.

The third chapter of The Rings of Saturn is mostly about herring (the part not about herring is mostly about Borges):

I have read elsewhere, in a volume on the natural history of the North Sea published in Vienna in 1857, that untold millions of herring rise from the lightless depths in the spring and summer months, to spawn in coastal waters and shallows, where they lie one on top of another in layers.  And a statement ending with an exclamation mark informs us that each female herring lays seventy thousand eggs, which, according to Buffon’s calculation, would shortly produce a volume of fish twenty times the size of the earth, if they were all to develop unhindered. (55)

So much in this seemingly prosaic passage.  The exclamation mark, noted, but of course not employed by Sebald, even in quotation.  This is what I was getting at yesterday – everything is paraphrased, even down to the punctuation.  The antique Viennese natural history is the best joke, though.  Why on earth was Sebald reading that?  To help write an eight page history of herring, presumably.  What the nets are made of, how long the herring lives without water, or without its fins – “This process, inspired by our thirst for knowledge, might be described as the most extreme sufferings undergone by a species always threatened by disaster” (57).

Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah and other documentary films, mostly about the Holocaust, asks:

What is knowledge?  What can information about a horror, a literally unheard-of one, mean to the human brain, which is unprepared to receive it because it concerns a crime that is without precedent in the history of humanity?*

The Emigrants is a kind of Holocaust novel, but The Rings of Saturn broadens the range of horrors.  The natural history of the destruction of the herring is also without precedent:  “It was not without reason that the herring was always a popular didactic model in primary school, the principal emblem, as it were, of the indestructibility of Nature” (53).  The Holocaust may well be uniquely unimaginable, so Lanzmann responds with an attempt to eliminate fiction.  Sebald suggests that human fallibility is deeper, though, more pervasive.  The novel’s title is a reference to the destruction of a planet.  Sebald responds with fiction.

The East Anglian train that was once destined for service in China that I mentioned yesterday is likely a fiction – Rise pointed me to a Guardian article that says so.  I will not guess which of the “facts” about herring are from Sebald’s imagination.  Says the Guardian writer “perhaps it doesn't matter that he made the train thing up.”  Perhaps it matters a lot – perhaps that is exactly what matters.

*  Claude Lanzmann interviewed in Kultura (tr. Richard Brody), quoted by Adam Thirlwell in a review of Lanzmann’s memoir The Patagonian Hare: “Genocide and the Fine Arts,” The New Republic, May 10, 2012, pp. 28-9.


  1. As an East Anglian (not that I would otherwise describe myself in that way!) I found Rings of Saturn fascinating in capturing a macabre side to the region that local literature often neglects. However, I was disappointed to find that sometimes he gets his facts wrong, especially in that wonderful bit about Eccles Church Tower (which somehow did not collapse but remained on the beach). Sure, it’s only the location he gets wrong, but, from someone who researches so meticulously, such a tiny detail as that is a letdown. More on that on this site here (not mine, btw):

  2. And re: the train, I don’t get the feeling from Sebald that he is that cavalier with his facts: my instinct tells me he must have some source, even (maybe, for him, even preferably) if this is an anecdotal one.

  3. So you, Tardy, are taking the books as non-fiction. Thus factual mistakes are simply errors, not artistic decisions.

    Since I treat The Rings of Saturn as fiction I am not only not disappointed by the "errors," but deeply interested in them. What is the artistic decision that Sebald is making? "Cavalier" is thus the entirely wrong word - I am assuming that he is extremely careful with his fiction.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. This time you've spent with Sebald (an author I have never read) has been very interesting to me. Approaching someone's barely-heard-of work from "how does he do that" (what?) is revealing. I think I shall have to try The Emigrants.

  5. Good, Jenny, thanks. I am in all likelihood approaching him in an all too oblique manner, but it fits the subject.

    To be as head-on as possible: I think Sebald is the most important fiction writer of the last 20 or 30 years. The household gods of his first three novels are, in order, Kafka, Nabokov, and Borges. I think he belongs in that company.

    The Emigrants is a wonderful place to start. Even a reader with no interest at all in what I have been working on will find a great story about a teacher, a great story about a painter, and a great story about a homosexual couple.

  6. The herring, the swines, and silkworms. The fauna motif is one of the unifying ideas in this book. This series of posts was a great companion to Sebald's books.

  7. Now I'll have to read Sebald. This has been a terrific set of posts, nicely building on one another. I'm particularly taken with this one, which has my brain humming (a rare thing, this early on a Saturday morning...).

  8. Thanks for the nice words. For whatever it is worth, I have given a lot of thought to Sebald's books. For some reason this seemed like a good time to write out some of them. I am very glad people could follow along.