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The Rings of Saturn Paperback – April 1, 1999
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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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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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.
In "The Emigrants" Sebald's concern seemed to be the undoing of our individual sense of roots, of historical identity. In "The Rings of Saturn" it is history itself that gets displaced in the tales of glory and destruction of empires, countries, social classes, towns, houses, cycles of herring, forests and ancient trees that rise and ebb as the narrator orbits along his path on in Suffolk along the eastern coast of England.
The narrator's drawing forth of historical facts about the Congo, Ireland, the Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi, the silk trade in China and Europe, as well as his lyrical passages of the lives of people whose lives have been buried in these facts, creates a psycho-mythic arc for these shards of what it means to be human to orbit in our consciousness.
The literal ruins, the torn trees, the fields gone to pasture, the garden of Yuan Ming Yan ablaze, and the literary ruins, such as the impossible tie between Charlotte Ives and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand or the dream-like lives of the Ashburys in Ireland, all take on a peculiar beauty and vivacity that surpass whatever former and first glory they might have had.
The book starts with an account of the travels of Sir Thomas Browne's skull, the container shard of a mind that searched for "that which escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for transmigration," which Browne, a silk merchant's son, observed in caterpillars and moths. It ends with a return to Thomas Browne's "Musaeum Clausum" or "Bibliotheca Abscondita," a collection of things that, according to Sebald, were "likely the products of his imagination, the inventory of a treasure house that existed purely in his head and to which there is no access except through the letters on his page."
What interests Sebald in Browne's museum of oddities is the bamboo cane in which two friars have smuggled the first silkworm eggs to Europe from China. The thread that ties Sebald's narrator's stories into a pattern emerges in this last chapter on Sir Thomas Browne and on the history of sericulture in Europe, and especially in Germany.
Buried in this last chapter is also a reference from 1822 to an old master dyer named Seybolt, who was employed by the Bavarian Royal Gardens. Perhaps he was one of Sebald's ancestors, thereby tying Sebald's narrator to Sir Thomas Browne in the way in which they both attempt to weave a grand design of humanity from the filament of transmigration.