I recently completed my annual re-reading of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. I make a point of re-reading all of his, for want of a better word, novels every year or so. This despite the fact that I read almost no fiction.
But that’s the whole point, really. While Sebald’s final work, Austerlitz, is clearly a novel, I categorically refuse to think of his three other masterpieces, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, as works of fiction. To do so, it seems to me, is to fail to enter into the spirit of his books. Sebald blends memoir, travel, biography, photography, and a whole range of other non-fiction genres, adding occasional tweaks and not-entirely-trustworthy embellishments. The overall effect, to this reader at least, is to render his tales more life-like than strictly factual accounts.
Sebald was quite open about what he was up to. He clearly thought it was interesting—and, therefore, entirely acceptable—to bring together details which didn’t strictly belong together, and he was more than happy to enrich his tales with compelling, albeit factually spurious, adornments. When you enter into Sebald’s universe, it seems to me, you have to play along: his writing is 100% factual; anything that seems just too good to be true can’t be; and any apparent contradictions are, at worst, honest mistakes.
In Chapter V of The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes falling asleep in front of the television in a Southwold hotel bedroom. He has been watching a late-night documentary about the humanitarian and Irish nationalist Roger Casement. The content of the documentary works its way into Sebald’s subsequent dreams.
A few months ago, the BBC launched a new website named Genome, which allows people to search for historical TV listings taken from the Radio Times. As The Rings of Saturn is set in August 1992, I thought it would be fun to look for the listing of a late-night documentary about Roger Casement airing that month. At first, I was disappointed to find no such record. But a bit more trawling eventually established that a documentary about Casement was indeed scheduled to air at around that time—albeit a few weeks later, on 28th October, 1992. The Genome listing reports the Radio Times entry as follows:
BBC Two England, 28 October 1992 | 20:10
Roger Casement - Heart of Darkness
A personal account by actor Kenneth Griffith of the rise and fall of Irish nationalist hero Roger Casement. Knighted by the British for his humanitarian work in Africa and South America, in 1913 Casement switched his efforts to the cause of Irish Home Rule. During the First World War he went to Germany, seeking help from the Kaiser. On the eve of the Easter Rising in 1916, as he returned to Ireland with a shipment of German arms, he was arrested, tried and hanged for treason. A New Era production for BBCtv
So, not a late-night showing in August, but a 20:10 showing in late October—by which time, Sebald had, by his own account, long since left Southwold.
How to explain this discrepancy? I can see two possible explanations:
- The Genome listing is incorrect. Beneath the listing, the BBC asks, “Do you know whether this programme was actually broadcast as scheduled? If not, tell us what was.” This clearly indicates to me that the BBC does not have complete faith in the reliability of its data.
- Sebald was mistaken about when he saw the documentary, somehow conflating it in his mind with his stay in Southwold.
(I obviously discount the possibility that Sebald deliberately merged two entirely separate events, as that would be to fail to enter into the spirit of his indescribably wonderful book.)