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The Rings of Saturn


nonsuch
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WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

 

Sebald’s account of his East Anglian walking tour, which took place in August 1992, ‘when the dog days were drawing to a close,’ is also a memoir of his reading in history and literature. From his hospital bed in Norwich, Sebald takes his reader on a meditation on the life and work of Thomas Browne, via the French Revolution, Dutch painting, through the history of the herring fleets to the silk industry from its initiation in China to its final abandonment in Norwich. The book is illustrated by grainy photographs of such horrors as torched manor houses in Ulster and Croatian ethnic cleansing operations in which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians were ‘hanged in rows like crows or magpies.’ In Jasenovac alone ‘seven hundred thousand men, women and children were killed ... in ways that made even the hair of the Reich’s experts stand on end.’

 

The tone of the reportage is throughout bald and factual. This is simply the way human beings have treated and still treat each other. Man is as ingenious in creation as in destruction. Sebald seeks out the marvellous and the curious, an innocent beholder of wondrous follies, such as farmer Thomas Adams’ model of the Temple of Jerusalem, a lifelong project under perpetual revision. Sebald is fascinated by incompletion, decay and reconstruction, in art, science and philosophy. He delves into the biographies of such as Conrad, Roger Casement, Chateaubriand, Edward Fitzgerald and Thomas Browne, often moving into their lives as friend and listener.

 

Fragmentary as it often seems, it is not a book for mere dipping or casual reading. The literally outlandish title perfectly puts man in his place as a spiritual nomad in a world he did not make and can never understand. It is literally a book of wonders, but rooted in English soil. I recommend a slow reading, assisted by a good encyclopedia and an Ordinance Survey map of East Anglia. One could take quotes from every single page, for as Roberta Silman of the NYTBR says, this work is ‘stunning and strange ... like a dream you want to last forever.’

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  • 8 years later...

On the face of it, the book is a kind of travel book/memoir hybrid about an unknown author's time walking the county of Suffolk. But to me, it qualifies as fiction and quite frankly is exactly what great fictions should actually be. The author tells us about his journey along the coast and the various sights and places in which he stays, but then quickly allows himself to go wandering in his mind on all manner of topics. Just as he's describing the scenery, the flow of nature, the history of a place, he will then take a detour and begin crawling through a variety of subject matter, everything from anatomy, colonialism, the Irish civil war, the doomed love affair of the writer de Chateaubriand, the works of Joseph Conrad, to the practice of sericulture. Each chapter begins in one place but swirls and dances through a myriad of thoughts, histories, and people until you're practically intoxicated. You'll be amazed at how one paragraph can begin on one subject but then finish in an entirely different place.

This is such a wonderful novel and encompasses everything I want from literature, namely a narrator who very evidently breathes and lives and loves. You can sense his fascination with the world, grasp his opinions and concerns, tangibly feel the tremble in his voice as he contemplates the very nature of being alive and part of a race which is so ludicrous yet equally so beautiful and mysterious.

To describe the book as a travel book would be absurd. It is an insight into humanity, a thoughtful exploration of thinking itself, a love letter to the idiotic animal known as the human being. I wish I could find more books like this, specifically in the fiction genre which, again, I adamantly claim this to be. It's quite exquisite.

In an era of ubiquitous robot narrators who tell us nothing, it was a pleasure to be in this author's company (whoever he might be).

 

8/10

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    • By nonsuch
      Austerlitz, Sebald’s obsessively detailed autobiographical novel is no easy read. But like its forerunner The Rings of Saturn the toil yields rewards. In both cases the narrator is easily identified as the author himself, modestly disguised, but in Austerlitz he is little more than an ear.
       
      In case the reader should forget it, the speech direction ‘said Austerlitz’ runs monotonously and irritatingly through every page. We may wonder why the narrator-listener has such heroic patience that he is prepared to listen, day in day out, year in year out, to the story of this ailing old Jew obsessed with finding out the details of his family who perished in the holocaust. The coy but anonymous reporter (let’s call him Sebald) first met the old gentleman many years ago by chance at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Now he has met him again. So we have Austerlitz the station, Austerlitz the man and somewhere in the distance the memory of Austerlitz, the battleground of much bloodletting in the Napoleonic wars.
       
      Thus trains, distances (of time and space) and wars are a continual background to the eccentric narrative poured into the ear of his eager listener. On occasion we are brought back to time present with reminders such as ‘Memories like this came back to me in the Disused Ladies Waiting Room of Liverpool Street Station, memories behind which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie.’ As ever, in Sebald, the past is ever-present, each memory enfolding others, back into history, his own, Europe’s, the world’s. So the memory of a wonderful but ruined church in Salle, Norfolk, activates others. But these memories belong to Austerlitz and are the part of him he needs to share with the self-effacing narrator.
       
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