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The Rings of Saturn Hardcover – June 17, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

In August 1992, W.G. Sebald set off on a walking tour of Suffolk, one of England's least populated and most striking counties. A long project--presumably The Emigrants, his great anatomy of exile, loss, and identity--had left him spent. Initially his tour was a carefree one. Soon, however, Sebald was to happen upon "traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past," in a series of encounters so intense that a year later he found himself in a state of collapse in a Norwich hospital.

The Rings of Saturn is his record of these travels, a phantasmagoria of fragments and memories, fraught with dizzying knowledge and desperation and shadowed by mortality. As in The Emigrants, past and present intermingle: the living come to seem like supernatural apparitions while the dead are vividly present. Exemplary sufferers such as Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement people the author's solitude along with various eccentrics and even an occasional friend. Indeed, one of the most moving chapters concerns his fellow German exile--the writer Michael Hamburger.

"How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one's own precursor?" Sebald asks. "The fact that I first passed through British customs thirty-three years after Michael, that I am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did, that I am bent over my writing in Norfolk and he in Suffolk, that we both are distrustful of our work and both suffer from an allergy to alcohol--none of these things are particularly strange. But why it was that on my first visit to Michael's house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain. All I know is that I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in midsummer..."

Sebald seems most struck by those who lived or live quietly in adversity, "the shadow of annihilation" always hanging over them. The appropriately surnamed George Wyndham Le Strange, for example, remained on his vast property in increasing isolation, his life turning into a series of colorful anecdotes. He was "reputed to have been surrounded, in later years, by all manner of feathered creatures: by guinea fowl, pheasants, pigeons and quail, and various kinds of garden and song birds, strutting about him on the floor or flying around in the air. Some said that one summer Le Strange dug a cave in his garden and sat in it day and night like St. Jerome in the desert."

In Sebald's eyes, even the everyday comes to seem extraterrestrial--a vision intensified in Michael Hulse's beautiful rendition. His complex, allusive sentences are encased in several-pages-long paragraphs--style and subject making for painful, exquisite reading. Though most often hypersensitive to human (and animal) suffering and making few concessions to obligatory cheeriness, Sebald is not without humor. At one point, paralyzed by the presence of the past, he admits: "I bought a carton of chips at McDonald's, where I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter, and ate them as I walked back to my hotel." The Rings of Saturn is a challenging nocturne, and the second of Sebald's four books to appear in English. The excellent news is that his novel Vertigo is already slated for translation. --Kerry Fried

From Publishers Weekly

As he did so brilliantly in The Emigrants, German author Sebald once again blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction in this meditative work. Sebald's unnamed, traveling narrator is making his way through the county of Suffolk, England, and from there back in time. We learn that he has recently been hospitalized, an event that "marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life." Sunk in his own thoughts, he becomes obsessed with the ubiquitous evidence of disintegration he views in the landscape and history of the small coastal towns, from the moribund herring industry to the lost art of silk production. He spirals deeper into his own considerably learned historical memory to explore, for example, slavery, the Chinese opium wars, Joseph Conrad's life on the high seas and Chateaubriand's memories of estranged love. It comes as no surprise that the "parlous loftiness" of the 17th-century metaphysician Thomas Browne holds particular fascination for our narrator who, like Browne, writes "out of the fullness of his erudition," pursuing his train of thought in sentences "that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness." Numerous photographs that illustrate the people, places and objects discussed in the text add to the curious beauty of this brooding, elegiac novel.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions; First Edition edition (June 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811213781
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811213783
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #59,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

90 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Larry Dilg on July 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Sebald's book is full of destruction and loss, yet hope radiates from the objects that remain. The author is deeply curious and impressively educated, which allows him to see cycles of life and death in cities, buildings, artifacts, and engravings. A marvelous storyteller, he weaves fantastic yarns so full of digressions that the reader seems to be dreaming. "I'll just push to the end of the chapter," I would think, but when I reached it, the pattern of each story was so plain, the sense of distance so sharp that my head was clear, my mind refreshed. I'd be left with a few strands of meaning that would serve as the warp for the woof of the next chapter. I was never sure where Sebald was going on his ramble through Suffolk - it was almost like accompanying a somnambulist - but in the end I had entered his dream and luminous ghosts paraded before me, full of light and forgiveness. Leaving the spell of his book, I looked at the old, familiar world with new horror and wonder, a stranger on a new planet with my first inkling of the real story.
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful By James Ferguson VINE VOICE on December 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
Rings of Saturn was my introduction to Sebald, a marvelously evocative writer. His penetrating prose reveals so many layers of the English countryside. Sebald looks through the tarnished lens of history to a past most people would prefer not to see. In this case, a slowly decaying England whose imperial past has come back to haunt it. He tells each tale like an individual case study, loosely built around Thomas Browne's "Journal of Medical Biography."
Sebald makes many salient observations. I particularly liked his study of Roger Casement, his contact with Joseph Conrad, his various peregrinations and ultimate trial for sedition, as a result of his support of the Irish freedom movement. Within this chapter, Sebald condenses Casement's tortuous history to its essential elements. Sebald noted with irony that Casement's hidden homosexuality may have been what sensitized him to the continuing oppression and exploitation that cuts across social and racial boundaries of those who lie the furthest away from the centres of power.
This is a thought-provoking journey, reminiscent of other solitary travellers such as Rousseau and Proust, looking into the darker reaches of mankind. There is an essential humanity to all his stories. Each meticulously researched, distilled, and presented in this evocative collection of personal observations.
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63 of 68 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 17, 2002
Format: Paperback
The 17th century philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne, spoke of an "Eternal Present," in which one could move through space and time and interconnect all things with...all things. In this brilliant book, the late W.G. Sebald has accomplished what Browne could only write about. He has obliterated time and distance and caused "memory" to live in the present, rather than the past, tense, and he has done so in a spectacularly successful manner.
Outwardly, Sebald takes us on a walking tour of East Anglia (County Suffolk), but in reality he is leading us on a journey through time and memory in which one thing inexorably leads to another and yet another and yet another. For example, a simple ride on a miniture railway train built for the Emperor of China leads Sebald to think about dragons, which leads him to think about the Taiping mass suicide of 1864. That, in turn, leads the author to thoughts of the cruel and evil dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, an empress who poisoned her nephew, Kuang Hsu, in a slow and terrible manner.

A not-so-lovely Rembrandt painting, "Anatomy Lesson," causes Sebald to think about 17th century Dutch customs; the mass executions in the Balkans lead to thoughts of Kurt Waldheim. There are many, many more fascinating juxtapositions and comparisons.
Sebald begins each chapter with a personal memoir, then begins to expand and connect, erasing the barriers of time and distance and causing us to question what is fact and what is fiction. After all, we would not put it past the inventive Sebald to create much of what he is relating himself. However, it really doesn't matter what is historically true and what is not. In this book, the question is not, "What?" but "Why?" Why did Edward FitzGerald translate nothing but "The Rubiyat?
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on April 27, 2008
Format: Paperback
Sebald takes a walk in Suffolk. He sees places and things, and remembers people and books, and thinks of history. This triggers reflections on natural, social and cultural decay, on human greed and callousness, on inhuman monstrosities.
It goes like this: he is in Lowestoft, the easternmost city of England, in an area that is depressed and that had a somewhat more glorious past. Fisheries, shipping, shipbuilding have all declined dramatically, actually all but disappeared. Joseph Conrad had lived there for a while. Off we go into a part biography of Konrad Korzeniowski, up until he experiences the heart of darkness and walks out of his job in the Congo. We learn about colonialism's darkest sides, then the narration shifts, like a relay baton, to Roger Casement, who had been British Consul in the Congo and who blew the whistle on the practices, of course to no avail. But the man proceeded to do the same in his next post in the Amazon area and ended up siding with the white Indians of Ireland, which earned him a death sentence and a hanging for treason.
Sebald walked South and at the river Blyth he saw the narrow gauge railway track, of the train that had been made for an emperor of China, but had not been delivered, so it runs in Southwold now ('now' being early 1990s). So off we go: into the last decades of the doomed and inefficient and callous Qing dynasty, with the picture book Empress Dowager, back to the British infamy of the Opium Wars, the tremendous upheaval of the Taiping Rebellion, the massacres and famines.
There is more of course. There is the walking itself, the country and sea, the people met. And more stories, my two examples are just the ones that interested me most (a. Conrad, b.China).
The headline quote is from Thomas Browne, of the 17th century.
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