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The Rings of Saturn Paperback – April 1, 1999
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
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“The book is like a dream you want to last translation from the German seems little short of miraculous. The book is so natural and accessible, and yet so odd, that one is left enchanted and also curious about the author, who presents such a prodigious mass of material in such a modest and engaging way. As you read along, and as you become an active participant in the unfolding of this book.”
- Roberta Silman, The New York Times Book Review
“This German who has lived in England for over thirty years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers. . . . And here, in The Rings of Saturn, is a book more uncanny than The Emigrants.”
- James Woods, The New Republic
“Sebald has been writing what I give the unpromising name the documentary novel, in which subject matter becomes character. A future critic with considerably more time and space will find Anglia. Seen from above, his footsteps will describe, like the good detective he is, the outline of a body that has many times been ferried away, the body we call civilization. From these fading contours left upon the land, we Lilliputians are left to ponder the shape of what came yesterday, or centuries before. to such puzzling terrain, is indispensable.”
- American Book Review
“Sebald depicts a landscape that is fascinating and disturbing, a world whose minute differences from the actual is a bit of virtuoso reality. If I might be so bold as to sum up his work in one sentence, it is this: Time always wins, but offers as a consolation and booby prize, Memory. Thus the futility of existence is partially erased by both the grandeur and inability of our imaginations. We can dream. And somewhere in those dreams, reality is defeated.”
- The Iconoclast
“He is the most hypnotic and exhilarating author. Lyrical and genius. No one like him.”
- Maira Kalman, Museums New York
“Like his much praised novel The Emigrants, this new work by Sebald is steeped in melancholy.... Erudition of this sort is too rare in American fiction, but the hypnotic appeal here has as much to do with Sebalds deft portrait of the subtle, complex relations between individual experience and the rich human firmament that gives it meaning as it does with his remarkable mastery of history.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“As he did so brilliantly in The Emigrants, German author Sebald once again blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction in traveling narrator is making his way through the county of Suffolk, England, and from there back in time.”
- Publishers Weekly
“[A]lways clear and present―always ringing true, not necessarily comfortable but not easily forgotten.”
- Marilis Hornidge, Courier-Gazette [Maine]
“[A]n extraordinary palimpsest of nature, human, and literary history.”
- Merle Rubin, The Wall Street Journal
“One of 'Five Best [of the year].' Historical fiction of the first rank.”
- Rebecca Stott, The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires
About the Author
W. G. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and died in 2001. He is the author of The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, Austerlitz, After Nature, On the Natural History of Destruction, Unrecounted and Campo Santo.
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On the front cover of the paperback edition, there is a quote from Robert Silman of the New York Times Book Review: "Stunning and strange...like a dream you want to last forever." For once, I can agree with one of these tags appended to a book--in spirit at least. Despite the fact that Sebald's style does not immediately take me in, I can think of few authors whose works linger with me longer than his. And it lingers with me precisely in the same way that a dream will--not a good dream, nor a nightmare, but the vaguely unsettling sort that seem to signify something very important if only I could unravel it, grasp it, shake it, demand that it explain itself. That, at any rate, was how I found THE EMIGRANTS, and also I felt that I sensed it in his incomplete writings about Corsica, in CAMPO SANTO. AUSTERLITZ was a bit more linear, with more of a central thread holding it together--and VERTIGO was too diffuse--to recreate this same dream effect, so when I finally got to THE RINGS OF SATURN, I was hoping for another experience similar to THE EMIGRANTS, which still lingers with me today.
THE RINGS OF SATURN is very good, compelling at times, anecdotally interesting, and completely worthwhile to someone looking for a change from traditional styles or narratives. I do think Sebald requires more patience than most writers--you are not going to get anywhere fast with Sebald, and the question might be if, by book's end, you gotten anywhere at all. But the journey is introspective rather than physical, a journey that looks to tease out unexpected relationships, and, I feel, designed to pull Sebald--and his readers, by proxy--into communion with his fellows. Despite the friendships he describes between himself and others--some of which sound quite enviable--the sense I get from any book by Sebald is a terrible aloneness, of someone swimming in a void who looks to any point of light for relief, but is resigned to his solitude.
By all accounts, Sebald is not cheery, though I wouldn't call him depressing either. Affecting, I think, is the word I would use. And while I would still consider THE EMIGRANTS to be the best of Sebald, I also know that THE RINGS OF SATURN is on my short list of novels that I'll re-read someday, which, given the fact that the time I have left is limited, and that there are so many books to read the FIRST time still out there, puts RINGS into a very exclusive strata.
I felt an affinity for Sebald's curiosity and inquisitiveness which were directed towards the long faded seaside resort towns of East Anglia, whose heyday was around the turn of the century... that is, around 1900, long before the cheap charter flights that whisk British "holiday makers" to Ibetha. At one point he is the sole user of the "Sailors' Reading Room" in Southwold, and from there one is quickly segued to atrocities in the Balkans during the Second World War, and without naming him, other than by title, links Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the UN, to these atrocities, and concludes that section with Waldheim's voice being used on the space probe Voyager II, to greet any other possible intelligent beings in the universe. It reminded me of the skein of connections that the British historian Alistair Horne highlighted concerning another space craft: Horne underscored the importance of historical events on today's actions with the fact that one of the three objects the first space traveler, Yuri Gagarin, carried with him was one of the battle ribbons from a unit of the defeated French Commune, in its uprising of 1870-71.
The following are a couple passages that indicate the incisive nature of Sebald's observations, as well as the eternal aspect of portions of the human condition: (speaking of the Opium Wars the British waged against China in the 1840's) "In the name of Christian evangelism and free trade, which was held to be the precondition of all civilized progress, the superiority of western artillery was demonstrated, a number of cities were stormed..." (And, on the connections between writers and weavers) "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."
There is so much else in this short novel of under 300 pages. It also includes portraits of Chateaubriand, and his brief ties with Suffolk when he fled the French Revolution in 1795; the poet Swinburne; the 1987 hurricane that ravaged the forests of eastern England; and the silkworm industry which spread from China to Europe, and with which his ancestor had a connection.
Sebald attracts a certain class of reader, and there are some excellent reviews already posted on this book. Others have compared him to James Joyce or T.S. Eliot, certainly valid comparisons; but I would most likely compare him with Thomas Pynchon, for the reoccurrence of varying themes, and his erudition concerning obscure historical events. I'm pleased that my review will be posted immediately before the review of the person who recommended Sebald to me-- yes, reviews that matter, and impact one's reading (and in Amazon's favor, purchasing!)
If Amazon established a system whereby it allocated reviewers one 6-star rating per every 100 reviews, this book would deserve that rather unique distinction.