The Rings of Saturn
by W.G. Sebald (Die Ringe des Satrun, Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995)
translated from the German by Michael Hulse (1998)
New Directions (1999)
296 pp

The first W.G. Sebald book I heard of was The Rings of Saturn. Something in the tone of the recommendation and the title of the book made me start to imagine how the book would feel and how I would feel about it — you’ve been there too. I tried to avoid such imaginings, but with all of its positive criticism it was hard to hold back my expectations. About a year ago I began my Sebald project (to read all four of Sebald’s books of “fiction” in the order in which he wrote them), and Vertigo and, particularly, The Emigrants just made my anticipation for this book all the more acute.

When I began reading The Rings of Saturn I knew next to nothing about the book. Sure, I knew that it was structured as as walking tour around Norfolk, in eastern England. I knew from the other two books I’d read that this walking tour would be replete with ruminations on the past, complete with documentary photos. But the main theme? I didn’t know what this one would be about.

The title, with no context, did little to help. What do the rings of Saturn have to do with East Anglia or even with modern history in general? I see it now: a lot, in a very beautiful metaphorical sense. This is a book about the ravages of time, about destruction, particularly the destruction (self- or otherwise) of human endeavor. East Anglia was once the scene of thriving communities living off of some of the most important ports in Europe. Today, little of that remains. The fishermen Sebald encounters facing the east, sitting on the beach “just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.” That line alone, and the orientation of the fishermen, nicely sums up the book. The rings of Saturn were once large moons in orbit, but through time and great destruction they’ve been reduced to an ephemeral dust — something tragic, something whose trace haunts the present with its reminder of the past — yet it’s beautiful.

And that’s one of the best ways I can think of to describe this book — tragic, yet beautiful. Sebald begins the book in his unassuming manner; he’s just finished a project that entailed a lot of work (I see many think he’s referring to his book The Emigrants), and he wants to relax and settle down again by taking a walking tour around Suffolk:

At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

What follows would be very difficult for me to summarize in any decent way in the space I’m giving myself here. It’s a walking tour, so Sebald encounters many people, many sights, and many artifacts. During such encounters, he lets his mind roam through his own personal past as well as into the history of the region — and of the world (I particularly liked the segment on the silk worm’s migration).

One of the first things he encounters is the skull of Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century physician (whose father was a silk merchant). As a doctor, Browne was very interested in the human body, but his other interests also brought in the natural world. Sebald briefly discusses Browne’s book Urn Burial. In this book, Browne describes an ancient Roman burial site found in Norfolk. Urn Burial becomes very melancholy when Browne discusses mortality and destruction. Browne’s view (which reminded me of Yeats’ view) is that “On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.”

Over this burial ground, over the centuries, battles were fought and forgotten — or remembered with a slant, as this one Sebald describes from a painting:

This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. I requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?

As with the other two Sebalds I’ve read, The Rings of Saturn has no strong narrative. Sebald goes from topic to topic at will. Yet the book is held together wonderfully by melancholy and that central theme of destruction. It’s got a beautiful, respectful tone. And it is full of wonderfully rendered scenes, my favorite being that of a massively destructive storm that Sebald witnessed first-hand — fantastic writing (and translation).

I think this may change at times through my life, but right now my favorite Sebald book is still The Emigrants, but I can see how The Rings of Saturn could swap positions — they are both marvelous works, full of insight and beauty as they force us into astonishment as we gaze at a great void.

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