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The Rings Of Saturn
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on 1 September 2017
Masterpiece of Sebald! Worth reading. After reading a first pages you won't want to leave it till you finish
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on 28 May 2013
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.
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on 27 August 2015
WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

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.’
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on 26 January 2017
Yet read.
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on 30 September 2014
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.
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on 20 April 2017
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on 15 October 2003
'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.
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on 22 April 2011
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.
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on 28 May 2008
I was given this book in German by a friend who I think had over-estimated my proficiency in that language. I made several failed attempts to penetrate the first chapter before I gave up and ordered "the Rings of Saturn" in English from amazon. I'm glad I did.

I still found the first chapter difficult but after a while, I switched into Sebald's train of thought and was spellbound for the rest of the book. Wandering around the largely desolate, decaying and deserted Suffolk coastline becomes a metaphor for a stream of consciousness, a meandering through the mind. Sights and places spark off connections to stories about a number of historical persons and events, which all become inter-connected in the literary web that is "The Rings of Saturn".

There are recurring themes here of the nature of time, transience and permanence, death and birth. In spite of the philosophical and learned nature of the writing, this book is never dry or dull. In reading it, I learned a lot, I thought a lot and I felt a lot. I can recommend this to anyone who yearns for writing and thought of quality away from the mainstream.
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on 10 June 2009
Without question this is a strange and fascinating book. The physical journey taken by the author meanders through the landscape of coastal East Anglia, and the journey the text takes meanders through a wide range of topics - art, literature, history. I think that the book is clear reflection of the landscape of the region. While East Anglia may not have the high mountains and dramatic valleys that define other regions, its beauty is without question. The text of the book takes on a similar form. Small details become important, otherwise overlooked aspects become the focus and the journey is enriched through this.
There is no sweeping grandeur here - the place and text come together to examine the small, the valuable and the distant, and yet the book manages to be both compelling and thought provoking. Do not look for the huge, the famous or the dramatic in this book - its charm lies in other areas. Highly recommended.
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