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Customer Review

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The master of segue, the butterfly effect, and so much else..., 16 Mar. 2011
This review is from: The Rings Of Saturn (Paperback)
W.G. Sebald was a unique, astonishing erudite writer, and a master of segue, who was taken from us far too early (he died in a car accident, in 2001, at the age of 57). He left his native Germany after he had become an adult, and settled in East Anglia, in England. This book assumes the format of a ramble around the decaying villages and fields of Suffolk, interspersed with diverse discourses on a broad-range of historical events that span the globe, all accomplished in a matter-of-fact, yet sublime prose style. I was reminded of the "butterfly effect" from chaos theory; how the proverbial flap of a butterfly's wings in China could contribute to a tornado in Kansas. Likewise, Sebald makes these tenuous connections, often to Suffolk, to commence a digression thousands of miles removed. For example, another writer who immigrated to England was Joseph Conrad, who spent three months sailing on ships out of the Suffolk port of Lowestoft, in 1878, and from this slender thread Sebald launches into the brutal Belgian subjugation of the Congo, which was the setting of Conrad's most famous book, Heart of Darkness (Penguin Classics) and the author goes on to chronicle the conscious of Roger Casement, who had written acerbic critiques of Belgian activities in the Congo. Casement was to be hanged by the British, as a traitor, in 1916, for allegedly supporting the Irish rebellion. Typical of Sebald's insights, he says: "We may draw from this the conclusion that it was precisely Casement's homosexuality that sensitized him to the continuing oppression, exploitation, enslavement and destruction, across the borders of social class and race, of those who were furthest from the centres of power."

I felt an affinity for Sebald's curiosity and inquisitiveness which were directed towards the long faded seaside resort towns of East Anglia, whose heyday was around the turn of the century... that is, around 1900, long before the cheap charter flights that whisk British "holiday makers" to Ibetha. At one point he is the sole user of the "Sailors' Reading Room" in Southwold, and from there one is quickly segued to atrocities in the Balkans during the Second World War, and without naming him, other than by title, links Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the UN, to these atrocities, and concludes that section with Waldheim's voice being used on the space probe Voyager II, to greet any other possible intelligent beings in the universe. It reminded me of the skein of connections that the British historian Alistair Horne highlighted concerning another space craft: Horne underscored the importance of historical events on today's actions with the fact that one of the three objects the first space traveler, Yuri Gagarin, carried with him was one of the battle ribbons from a unit of the defeated French Commune, in its uprising of 1870-71.

The following are a couple passages that indicate the incisive nature of Sebald's observations, as well as the eternal aspect of portions of the human condition: (speaking of the Opium Wars the British waged against China in the 1840's) "In the name of Christian evangelism and free trade, which was held to be the precondition of all civilized progress, the superiority of western artillery was demonstrated, a number of cities were stormed..." (And, on the connections between writers and weavers) "That weavers in particular, together with scholars and writers with whom they had much in common, tended to suffer from melancholy and all the evils associated with it, is understandable given the nature of their work, which forced them to sit bent over, day after day, straining to keep their eye on the complex patterns they created."

There is so much else in this short novel of under 300 pages. It also includes portraits of Chateaubriand, and his brief ties with Suffolk when he fled the French Revolution in 1795; the poet Swinburne; the 1987 hurricane that ravaged the forests of eastern England; and the silkworm industry which spread from China to Europe, and with which his ancestor had a connection.

Sebald attracts a certain class of reader, and there are some excellent reviews already posted on this book. Others have compared him to James Joyce or T.S. Eliot, certainly valid comparisons; but I would most likely compare him with Thomas Pynchon, for the reoccurrence of varying themes, and his erudition concerning obscure historical events. I'm pleased that my review will be posted immediately before the review of the person who recommended Sebald to me-- yes, reviews that matter, and impact one's reading (and in Amazon's favor, purchasing!)

If Amazon established a system whereby it allocated reviewers one 6-star rating per every 100 reviews, this book would deserve that rather unique distinction.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on April 14, 2010)
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Location: Albuquerque, NM, USA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 237