Book of a lifetime: The Rings of Saturn, By W G Sebald


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The Independent Culture

In the spring of 2001, I received a postcard in the mail. On the front was Poussin's L'Orage ("The Storm"). On the back, written in an elegant script, was a note of appreciation for a book I'd just published, called Spike Island. It was signed "W.G. (Max) Sebald".

Two or three years before, I was struggling with the book - the story of a sprawling military hospital near Southampton. I was trying to find a way to express all the ideas I wanted it to incorporate in its equally sprawling narrative. Then a friend, the director, Adam Low, gave me a copy of The Rings of Saturn.

Suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place. Everything was allowable. I'd been feeling increasingly confined by the notion of non-fiction; still more so by the genre of biography with which I'd begun my writing career. But here was a book which didn't seem to care where it went in pursuit of its narrative - whatever that narrative was. The Rings of Saturn meanders, like its author, through an English landscape, specifically, the flat lands and eroding coast of East Anglia.

It is ostensibly the account of that walk, and the people and places the writer encounters. Sebald himself described the process as like a dog (he kept one himself), following its nose as it wanders round a field. But slowly the reader realises that the book is much more than that. That dawning realisation is its great and subtle power, like a looming thundercloud moving in from far away.

I guess it's the sense of an aesthetic whole to Sebald's work that appeals to me. The integral illustrations he uses (which may or may not be taken at face value) contribute to the mysterious air of allusions and half-heard stories, flowing one into the other, tidally, serendipitously. It is a watery world imbued with melancholy, but also an exquisite, inquisitive suspension. Truth or fiction, it certainly changed my life.

A few months later, after a fitful correspondence between us, I finally met my hero, in the company of this newspaper's literary editor, at a reading that Sebald gave on the South Bank. His eyes twinkled - he was, in person, a wry and funny man - and he said again how much he'd liked my book, and did I mind if he stole bits from it?

I'll never know the nature of his theft. At the end of that year, the news came through of his shocking death, in a car accident, outside Norwich. The sense of loss to literature was palpable. My personal sense of loss - of a mentor - was absolute.

Philip Hoare's new book, 'The Sea Inside', is published by Fourth Estate