Customer Review

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful - companionship and enrichment for life's solitary journeys, 12 Jun 2009
This review is from: The Rings Of Saturn (Paperback)
The back cover of this book captures beautifully for me the strange, melancholy and yet uplifting nature of this original and delicate text:

`A walking tour through the haunted landscape of the past, in the company of the exiled and departed'

` .... a book unlike any other in contemporary literature, an intricately patterned and endlessly thought-provoking meditation on the transience of all things human'.

WG Sebald does indeed describe a walk that he undertook along the coast of Suffolk over a number of days in 1992 but from the very first page it becomes clear that this will be no ordinary travelogue. The book opens with the author describing how, a year after his walk, he was `taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility'. Being able to see only a small rectangle of sky from the window of his eight floor room, he becomes `overwhelmed by the feeling that the Suffolk expanses I had walked the previous summer had now shrunk once and for all to a single, blind, insensate spot'.

And so begins a rich and meandering set of accounts of all manner of topics, some provoked by what he has seen and others by associations with places that he is aware of by virtue of his immensely broad and scholarly reading. One passage even consists of a memory of an eccentric household with whom he took lodgings in Ireland years before and is inspired by a dream he has one night during his walk. Sebald wears his learning lightly and his tales and accounts of topics completely alien to me, such as the history of silkworm farming from the ancient Chinese to the twentieth century Nazis, and the life and lost love of the French writer Chateaubriand, are told so engagingly and seemingly from such a fresh perspective, that I was drawn fully into them. There is so much to learn from this book without ever once the reader, or at least this reader, feeling lumbered with a textbook.

But there is potentially more to this enchanting book. As in Austerlitz, the only other book by Sebald that I have so far read, there are a number of grainy black and white photographs, maps and snippets of archival documents. In Austerlitz these were used to support a work of fiction, to confuse and stimulate the curiosity of the reader. Was the author being serious, playful or somehow both at the same time? So too, in this book, there are hints that all may not be what it seems, that there may be invention, embroidery and tall tale telling but corralled, as in Austerlitz, into serving a deeply humanitarian endeavour.

As a completely original and unconventional text, full of rumination on the human condition, sweeping across centuries and continents whilst also rooted in a landscape often painted as featureless and bleak, this is a wonderful book and one to return to for companionship and enrichment during life's solitary journeys.
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