Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of SaturnThe Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And Sir Thomas Browne, who was the son of a silk merchant and may well have had an eye for these things, remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.

This sentence encapsulates what The Rings of Saturn is “about”. However, what exactly does that word “about” mean? Is it the meaning of meaning? A circumambulation around a subject? Or a loci-less meandering from subject to subject? “About,” in the context of The Rings of Saturn, is a heady admixture of all of these meanings. It’s a slippery thing – once you think you have it nailed down, it moves, like a fading dream. And this book is much like a fading dream. You know you have been impressed deeply, that feelings have been awoken while you slept, but to pinpoint the details? Impossible.

With that in mind, here are my impressions, scattered, yet tethered together, somehow.

This is a far-reaching, rambling, uncategorizable series of essays. Just the sort of thing I love. The first section, featuring a hospital stay, the physician Thomas Browne, nature shows, curiosity cabinets, and mystical creatures, is . . . really, a treatise on existentialism and attempts to avoid said dread. I sense that W. G. Sebald has drunk deeply from the well of the existential philosophers, but this book is more approachable, less theoretical, and more wrought from the authors experience and, most of all, his keen observations. A sense of . . . grey prevails. For example, section two, mostly about the seaside town of Lowestoft and the recollections of some of its residents, reads like a full-prose rendition of Morrisey's "Every Day is Like Sunday".

I will often judge the quality of writing by its turns of phrase or sentences. I rarely take notes directly from another’s work into my own writing notebook, but this time I did. I was struck by the phrase" . . . the terrible sight of Nature suffocating on its own surfeit,” describing a particularly fulsome harvest of herring. So much was gathered that the village and its environs that, much like the Jews gorging themselves on quail while in their desert exile, the presence of so much bounty was viewed as a curse, rather than a blessing. That phrase has got my writerly mind thinking and thinking and thinking. I'll be running with that theme. Thanks, W.G..

I am enamored of authors who can make convincing transitions from one seemingly unrelated subject to another. Sebald’s leap from Christ to Borges through a couple copulating on the beach is . . . well, a feat: tenuous, but it makes sense, in some senses, but not in others. I like the irreal quality of it all, though, as it causes my brain to break in directions it otherwise wouldn't, which is a feature, not a bug!

I also like to discover, in any given book, something unique that only that specific author could have written about, some piece of the puzzle that is uniquely for to that author. The Rings of Saturn does not disappoint. Here, it is Sebald's use and recounting of the life of his namesake, St. Sebolt that makes that connection. It's done with a deft touch, with insights that only Sebald himself would have, because of his "relation" to the saint. You can I couldn’t write this section of the book and, indeed, much of the book connects to and even hinges upon the good Saint.

I'm not big on biography, usually, unless the subject is unusual. But I do like interesting people. And Sebald seems to know more about eccentric people than any other kind of person. The book is simply swimming with them. Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, qualifies!

From Korzeniowski to Casement, the horrors of the Belgian Congo to the tragedy of Casement and his execution, there is a thread of despair throughout, intriguing and disturbing, like Conrad’s own work.

But the story of Vicomte de Chateaubriand shows a side of Sebald, a sensitivity that sometimes overshadows such disturbing accounts. Giving up love for the sake of writing (well, okay, he was already married) is not noble, it's tragic. This story, so full of pathos, is heartbreaking. Sebald is more than just an academic, intellectual writer. He also shows a lot of heart.

Sebald has a gift for reaching out from seemingly banal locations to the exotic in the blink of an eye. Physically, Sebald visits Swinton and Dunwich; spiritually, he visits Peking, relating the saga of the life of Dowager Empress Tz'u-hsi, ruminates on Tlön's various theories of reality, and ends with the dreamlike existence of the Pre-Raphaelite poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Amazingly, it all hangs together, largely because of . . . silkworms. Yes, silkworms tie this whole book together. I’ll leave the discovery of how this is so to you, because if I were to try to explain it, I would have to recount almost the entire book.

Sebald's effortless ability to flow from the present to dream to true recollection and back to phantasy again is part of what makes this book so immersive. That and the near-utter lack of attribution (the man must hate quotation marks): the reader must sometimes go back and reread several times to know who is actually speaking at any given time. In this way, Sebald frays the ends of person, time, and setting until it becomes one long fever dream.

The grasp of the author on the threads of history is commendable. The first-person view of the decay of Ireland during The Troubles is burdensome and slow - not the writing, mind you, but the process itself. One is reminded of Gormenghast . . .

Sebald traces the descent from opulence to near-apocalypse of the eastern regions around Orford, where preparations had been made, literally for centuries, for war, both hot and cold. It's a bleak picture of what many consider a bleak region, where the green and pleasant land ends and the wasteland begins, sloughing off, eventually, into the inevitable sea.

This last section had a lot of personal relevance to me. The great hurricane of '87 happened the month before I left England, and given that I was forced to do so (plea bargain for . . . several charges – it was the war on drugs and drugs were not winning then), it struck me with particular poignance. Just as my life seemed to be falling apart and I was in the throes of one of the worst personal struggles of my life, the air heaved and threw the trees down. I remember. And, so does he.

View all my reviews


  1. Excellent analysis of a book that entranced me on a long train ride several years ago. On departing the train, I had crossed a national border, and somehow the meandering journey of Sebald's prose prepared me for new adventures in a thoroughly energizing way.

    This is definitely a title which now goes onto the re-read pile - thanks for prompting that overdue action!

    1. Thank you, Jeff. I was mightily impressed with the work, especially since I had been to the area where Sebald travelled.