In this astonishing meditation on mortality, transience and the absurdities of civilisation, Sebald performs a circumnavigation of both the forlorn landscape of East Anglia and his own mind. Sebald is endlessly fascinated about everything, and in reading his erudite digressions, the reader feels as though they are accompanying a wise and entertaining travelling companion on a series of eccentric perambulations, in which spontaneous 'strayings from the path' become a lunatic's itinerary. Yet even if one might feel Panchez-like to these Quixotic tilting at windmills, we are never short-changed. Sebald, for all his vast knowledge, is a habitual storyteller, a master anecdotalist. His melancholic ramblings are often leavened by moments of wry humour - comic observations of the crapness of modern life: the entropic edifices of a geriatric empire gazing sadly out to sea. 'Forlorness' is a word he uses to capture this Ozymandian-ambience. And yet, the sheer act of composing this hallucinatory travelogue - beautifully-crafted sentences contained within vast paragraphs which can last several pages - is an act of artistic defiance in the face of inevitable oblivion. One cannot help but feel enriched from reading this masterpiece of psychogeography - in its singular prose style eschewing the chummy reportage of some modern travel books. It makes you want to pull on those walking boots, grab a notebook and head for the empty spaces.
This book is unique. It's like a breath of fresh air blowing through your mind. It's like rich piece of chocolate cake. Take it in small delicious bites because it won't last long.
Rings of Saturn reads like an extended essay structured around a walk taken by Sebald along the Suffolk coast. His thoughts wander over an eclectic range of fascinating subjects. Sebald's style is simple and full of beautiful images. Quite often with books I just want to finish them and read something else. Rings of Saturn was different, I never wanted it to end.
The only writer I have come across with a similar style is de Botton. Though Sebald is far superior. I'm definitely going to be reading the rest of Sebald's books.
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.
Sebald’s account of his East Anglian walking tour, which took place in August 1992, ‘when the dog days were drawing to a close,’ is also a memoir of his reading in history and literature. From his hospital bed in Norwich, Sebald takes his reader on a meditation on the life and work of Thomas Browne, via the French Revolution, Dutch painting, through the history of the herring fleets to the silk industry from its initiation in China to its final abandonment in Norwich. The book is illustrated by grainy photographs of such horrors as torched manor houses in Ulster and Croatian ethnic cleansing operations in which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians were ‘hanged in rows like crows or magpies.’ In Jasenovac alone ‘seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed ... in ways that made even the hair of the Reich’s experts stand on end.’
The tone of the reportage is throughout bald and factual. This is the way human beings have treated and still treat each other. Man is as ingenious in creation as in destruction. Sebald seeks out the marvellous and the curious, an innocent beholder of wondrous follies, such as farmer Thomas Adams’ model of the Temple of Jerusalem, a lifelong project under perpetual revision. Sebald is fascinated by incompletion, decay and reconstruction, in art, science and philosophy. He delves into the biographies of such as Conrad, Roger Casement, Chateaubriand, Edward Fitzgerald and Thomas Browne, often moving into their lives as friend and listener.
Fragmentary as it often seems, it is not a book for mere dipping or casual reading. The literally outlandish title perfectly puts man in his place as a spiritual nomad in a world he did not make and can never understand. It is literally a book of wonders, but rooted in English soil. I recommend a slow reading, assisted by a good encyclopedia and an Ordinance Survey map of East Anglia. One could take quotes from every single page, for as Roberta Silman of the NYTBR says, this work is ‘stunning and strange ... like a dream you want to last forever.’
Sebald (1944-2001) was a German philosopher and novelist living in the UK and clearly haunted by the past. (He calls history “but a long account of calamities”). His travels around the empty and isolated marshes and coastline of East Anglia in the 1990s, as well as towns in decline such as Lowestoft, seem factual enough, but often verge on the surreal. His description of a black hearse decked out with wreaths passing Lowestoft station, for instance, appears to be symbolic rather than factual, but on the next page there’s a grainy black and white photograph showing the exact scene, with hearse. But despite the photographic evidence dispersed throughout, those that have tried to follow the geographic details of the walk have found that the physical landscape doesn’t always tally with the text.
Each place visited leads to far-flung associations and long historical digressions, on subjects ranging from the skull of Thomas Browne to the natural history of the herring, ancient sea battles, concentration camps, Conrad and the Heart of Darkness, China, the lost port of Dunwich, silkworms, and a very moving description of the tree damage caused by Dutch elm disease and the UK hurricane of 16 October 1987. Themes echo each other and return unexpectedly. The book is structured as intricately as a piece of music. One common technique Sebald uses is to quote his sources in the first person, so that it’s sometimes hard to work out if it is the author himself or one of his sources engaged in the narration.
Chapter 8 considers the patronage of the arts and of lavish country estates in East Anglia by the sugar trade, bolstered by the practices of slavery. This is illustrated by the life of the poet, who grew up in a “heavily-carpeted family home stuffed with gilded furniture, works of art, and trophies of travel” that he later rejected and refused to set foot in again. Sebald traces his gradual withdrawal from society and lonely death. Then there’s a of scene to Ireland, vividly describing the horrific decline and eventual poverty of large country estates, many of them raised to the ground by rebel Republican arsonists. Back on his walk, Sebald finds similar fading palaces on the North Sea coast, evidence of an old prosperity that attracted holidaying Germans in the Victorian age. These were often re-purposed for military ends during the First World War – radar was invented in one of them. The chapter ends on a visit to the mysterious costal area of Orfordness, only recently vacated by the MOD and full of relics and ruins signifying secret activities that can no longer be fathomed. Many of these themes recur in different guises throughout the rest of the book.
There’s a key passage towards the end that I’d like to quote in full, coming after a description of silk weavers in East Anglia, who “spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights, and reminiscent of instruments of torture or cages.” The author clearly empathises with this, and continues: “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. It is difficult to imagine the depths of despair into which those can be driven who, even after the end of the working day, are engrossed in their intricate designs and who are pursued, into their dreams, by the feeling that they have got hold of the wrong thread.” This is surely a self-description of the author.
If this all makes The Rings of Saturn sound gloomy and depressing, then I’ve given the wrong impression. It’s immensely unsettling, but the constant curiosity and joy in life’s details provides a strong counterbalance. This book is highly recommended.
'Rings of Saturn' is Sebald's greatest work. It has a finesse of description, and an ethereal prose style, that would be hampered by a strong narrative. In fact, Sebald is not terribly good at plot, as I believe 'Austerlitz' demonstrates. In 'Rings' the lives of the lonely and vanishing characters seem to drift in and out of vision, like figures in a misty landscape, without the artist trying to grasp them. Something like attending a seance to which only the ghosts of obscure historical personages are summoned, 'Rings' is a beautifully melancholy read.
I'm writing this half-way through reading The Rings of Saturn, having looked at other readers' reviews in order to reassure myself that 'it isn't just me' who finds this a strange, but wonderful book.
I came on it after a chance purchase of 'Bicycle Diaries' by David Byrne (yes, he of Talking Heads et al), which I also greatly enjoyed. Byrne references and acknowledges The Rings of Saturn in the forword to his work, which it resembles to no small extent, particularly the travel-related format and the liberal inclusion of sometimes ambiguous, sometimes obscure, black and white photographs. In both books, one suspects the author exploits the limts of the printing process to make the reader work that bit harder to interpret what he or she sees.
I agree with those reviewers who compare this book to Proust and de Botton, but I'm surprised that (unless I've skimmed over it), no-one has mentioned the occasional flash of gentle humour that shines through. OK, it's not so laugh-out-loud funny as Bill Bryson or Michael Palin, but now and then I reckon Sebald throws in the occasional spoof 'fact' with his tongue in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye, just to test the limits of our credence and to make sure we're paying attention. Spotting these is one of the pleasures of reading the book. A map would have been nice, though.