Review: The Rings of Saturn

I received an email notification yesterday that the due date for this book did not automatically renew – I suppose someone else had a hold on it – which bumped it up my reading list, though I still had plenty of time, given how quickly I read and that it’s Summer break right now. Yesterday evening I meant to read for a bit and then watch a movie: instead I finished the book.

The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn) is a recent (1995) masterpiece from German author W. G. Sebald. (The W. G. stands for Winfried Georg – one wonders what his friends call him but authors are entitled to initials in these circumstances.) I am not in a position to comment on the original but Michael Hulse’s translation work – although apparently supervised by Sebald himself – deserves commendation.

The work is framed by a trip – mainly walking – along the Suffolk coast, a year or so prior to the book’s publication. The sights and events of the trip serve as prompts for discursions on all manner of topics from herring fishing to Belgian colonialism. As nearly as I can tell, there are no fictions perpetrated, though the selection of facts is Sebald’s and to actually verify his accounts would require duplicating his research. The tone seems to owe much to Thomas Mann, although something indefineable makes me suspect Sebald was also familiar with Izaak Walton.

Like much of Mann’s writing, this is not a cheerful work. The overall effect is much like listeing to a sad old man yarn in a tavern. Sebald presents an occurrence of illness – apparently mental – as the impetus for beginning the book. With much of the other introductory material it is then dropped and never mentioned again, but melancholy – as his Victorian biographical subjects might have said – pervades the work. Those subjects seem also on reflection – although it does not obtrude often – to have been selected at least in part through some fascination on Sebald’s part with real or suspected homosexuality. As the account wanders on, dreams and dream-imagery, often bordering on nightmares, occur with increasing frequency. Even real happenings – assuming them actual – become odd: it is really quite strange as an American to find ghost towns (or the next thing to them) in Auld England.

But in fact, while evidently written with elaborate care, the end of the book is not quite satisfactory. The trip never quite wraps up; its events become confused in the narrative – as I said, this is clearly deliberate – with those of an earlier visit; the final digression as written evidently relates much more closely – as it touches on Germany itself – to Sebald’s own concerns than it does to the history of the area he has toured through, which is a marked departure from the majority of the book.

The work demands re-reading but not, perhaps, very soon. I find on proof-reading I have not even mentioned the work of Thomas Browne – another framing device which, apart from Browne’s interest in (and creation of) the fabulous I do not profess to understand.

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