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The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

The Rings of Saturn (1995)

by W. G. Sebald

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,964493,461 (4.21)105
  1. 10
    Lights out for the territory: 9 excursions in the secret history of London by Iain Sinclair (TMrozewski)
    TMrozewski: Books about walking, history, and reflection. Similar narrative tropes.
  2. 00
    Danube by Claudio Magris (defaults)
  3. 00
    Findings by Kathleen Jamie (chrisharpe)
  4. 00
    Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano (Lori_Eshleman)
  5. 00
    Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (chrisharpe)
  6. 01
    Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson (michaeljohn)
    michaeljohn: Both novels—each nontraditional and singular in form—feature a narrator wandering in a desolate landscape. Both narrators also show a similar propensity for historical digression.
  7. 02
    Death in Holy Orders by P. D. James (thorold)
    thorold: You can't get much more conventional than an English murder mystery, or much more experimental than Sebald's unclassifiable prose works, but these two books do seem to have a bit more in common than their setting on the Suffolk coast. An odd mixture of gloom and playfulness, a refusal quite to reveal what's in the writer's mind...… (more)

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» See also 105 mentions

English (45)  Dutch (3)  German (1)  All languages (49)
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
“Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.”

On one level this book is a kind of travelogue as the author embarks on a walking tour around Suffolk and then into Norfolk as the reader is led from town to town, village to village by a melancholic narrator. However, it is also a journey through time as by a network of apparent random coincidences the reader is led all over the world and into many different times. A ride on a miniature railway at Somerleyton Hall leads to 19th century China; a chance meeting with a gardener to the bombing raids of the Second World War; a T.V. documentary to Joseph Conrad, the Congo and colonial genocide; to name but a few. Despite this seemingly aimless text and connections there are some interwoven recurring motifs , namely silk, obscuring mists and burning which create an intricate pattern.

Many literary figures also make an appearance in the text but the most prominent is Sir Thomas Browne who is described by wikipedia as a polymath as he wrote on many quite diverse topics.

The book has a unique style, blurring of fact and fiction, aided by a series the indistinct black and white photographs but in truth it failed to really grab me. At times the melancholy delivery made me smile and rather reminded me of the comedian Jack Dee who has made a career of telling jokes with a totally dead-pan expression. However, in truth long streams of consciousness that means sentences can last half a page and chapters can range over several pages are not really my thing. An interesting but not totally enthralling read IMHO. What I would describe as a Marmite book you will probably either love or loathe it. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Aug 6, 2016 |
This book is categorized and shelved as fiction, but I cannot help wondering how different my experience of reading it might have been were it not. This is a weird thing to say, I know, but The Rings of Saturn is a weird book.

Ostensibly, The Rings of Saturn -- so named, supposedly, to denote its fragmentary nature, as the planet Saturn's rings are composed of innuberable fragments -- concerns German author W.G. Sebald's walking tour of the southeastern coast of England. We do get the odd description of his physical travels here and there, with some lovely scenery porn and enough detail to convince the reader that he did indeed make the journey, visit those places, even without the odd, strangely melancholy accompanying photographs strewn throughout.

But the physical journey isn't really the thing, here. What is the thing is a somewhat inner, somewhat imaginary, dreamlike wandering through the past lives of the places the narrator encounters, the buildings, the landscapes and the stories of the people who lived there or in other ways made them somewhat famous. It's all very convincing and the line between fact and fiction is -- is there a word out there that goes beyond what we mean when we say "blurred"? Because it's way more than blurred. Like an international border in the middle of a lonely, unpeopled landscape, the line, if there even is one, is imaginary and only an extreme and well-enforced collective belief that is there gives it any reality at all.

But there are no authorities here insisting on a division. Once the reader has let herself be immersed in the irresistibly seductive strangeness, though, the question fades away. There are reminders here and there that this is supposed to be fiction -- Sebald is a great admirer of Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, and evokes especially the weird wonders of the master's "Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" a story written in the form of an encyclopedia entry, purporting to tell the reader all she needs to know about a completely made-up country that the entry itself acknowledges was made up -- but these are rare and so subtle that they pass almost unnoticed, the reader just nodding and smiling and tripping gently along.

When the narrator comes to the English village of Lowestoft, where Joseph Conrad lived for many years at the beginning of his new life as an Englishman, this has the potential to become problematic. Conrad fans (and I am one) know a lot of factual material about how he spent his time there, who he met, what he knew... and suddenly our dream has brought us quite convincingly right into what feels very much like a good representation of Conrad's own experience, what he saw, what it looked and felt like, what it made him remember from his own past... On later reflection it becomes obvious that no one could ever know that but Conrad himself, who is of course no longer around to affirm or contradict this account, but at the time, while reading, one is hypnotized into believing and enjoying it all. Is that factual, the last freed part of her mind might ask, feebly trying to send an impulse to go check Joseph Conrad: A Biography shelved in the third bedroom she has converted into a dedicated library and reading room, but the rest of her mind says no, no need, this is fine, just go with it and enjoy...

The only thing that breaks the trance is Sebald's occasional maddening habit of being just a bit too opaque, too coy, as when the narrator riffs for pages and pages on the life and miraculous works of his namesake saint, without ever once actually naming the saint. Here I did break free, my curiosity piqued to the brink of madness, sure I could follow the clues to find the saint, even though I wasn't sure of the narrator's first name, whether or not it was meant to be understood as the same as the author's, and weirdly unable to discover, for certain, what the author's first name was. I gave up after a while, because I wanted to explore more fragments.

Perhaps, I think as I finish, all of this is true. Perhaps what is fictional about The Rings of Saturn is its perfection, its graceful ordering, its masterfully executed subtlety, its seamless transitions from idea to idea, locale to locale, memory to memory. It has the feel, this book, of a sublime stream of consciousness, but the consciousness is suspiciously artful and not like an ordinary human stream of consciousness at all (for we know that is messy and tenuously associative, idiosyncratic and impenetrable, cf James Joyce and Henry Miller especially, and, of course, the wanderings of your own imagination through an ordinary day).

I haven't finished The Rings of Saturn yet, and I don't want to. Although I have made it last for as long as I possibly could, having rationed myself to just four or five pages a day, I approach the end with profound sadness, even as I glory in the experience. I cling to it as one clings to the last tatters of the first, giddy rush of being in love, when the beloved's flaws and essential humanness are coming more clearly into view but one struggles to ignore them. Oh yes, there is life beyond this haze, and it's usually good to break the spell, but it's so very nice to be under it. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
This is a very peculiar book with grainy black-and-white photos, and precise recollections of memories of uncertain origin, mixed in with extraordinary historical artifacts. It is also self-referential in that it is written in the first-person and reviews itself: "entangled in contradictions in such a way that few readers -- very few readers -- would be able to grasp the hidden, horrific, yet at the same time quite meaningless point of the narrative." [End of section III] Highly recommended, when you are in the mood for beautiful and melancholic passages. ( )
  rsvp | Apr 7, 2016 |
I agree with so many of the reviews here that I won't add another one, but I will suggest that having read it that you watch the film 'Patience (following Sebald), which is a beautiful accompaniment. ( )
  Colin531 | Feb 9, 2016 |
That it was genreless was interesting. I did like the weaving together of histories and peoples, and it was true that everything seemed like a dream. But listening to other people's dreams is dull. Rambling nonsense. I suspect a correlation between people who like this, people who like Moby Dick, and people who are happy to let confused and incoherent babblers waste their time! Your time is precious - how can you stand this! ( )
  jculkin | Feb 1, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
The Rings of Saturn, perplexing, turgid, and unreadable book that it so frequently is, is saddled with a problem it cannot resolve or even address: that of the dislodged identity.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, André Aciman (pay site) (Dec 3, 1998)

» Add other authors (16 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
W. G. Sebaldprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Charvát, RadovanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hulse, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Il faut surtout pardonner a ces ames malheureuses qui ont elu de faire le pelerinage a pied, qui cotoient le rivage et regardent sans comprendre l'horreur de la lutte, la joie de vaincre ni le profond desespoir des vaincus.
Joseph Conrad
The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are the fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect ( -> Roche limit).
Brockhaus Encyclopaedia
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In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0811214133, Paperback)

In August 1992, W.G. Sebald set off on a walking tour of Suffolk, one of England's least populated and most striking counties. A long project--presumably The Emigrants, his great anatomy of exile, loss, and identity--had left him spent. Initially his tour was a carefree one. Soon, however, Sebald was to happen upon "traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past," in a series of encounters so intense that a year later he found himself in a state of collapse in a Norwich hospital.

The Rings of Saturn is his record of these travels, a phantasmagoria of fragments and memories, fraught with dizzying knowledge and desperation and shadowed by mortality. As in The Emigrants, past and present intermingle: the living come to seem like supernatural apparitions while the dead are vividly present. Exemplary sufferers such as Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement people the author's solitude along with various eccentrics and even an occasional friend. Indeed, one of the most moving chapters concerns his fellow German exile--the writer Michael Hamburger.

"How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one's own precursor?" Sebald asks. "The fact that I first passed through British customs thirty-three years after Michael, that I am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did, that I am bent over my writing in Norfolk and he in Suffolk, that we both are distrustful of our work and both suffer from an allergy to alcohol--none of these things are particularly strange. But why it was that on my first visit to Michael's house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain. All I know is that I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in midsummer..."

Sebald seems most struck by those who lived or live quietly in adversity, "the shadow of annihilation" always hanging over them. The appropriately surnamed George Wyndham Le Strange, for example, remained on his vast property in increasing isolation, his life turning into a series of colorful anecdotes. He was "reputed to have been surrounded, in later years, by all manner of feathered creatures: by guinea fowl, pheasants, pigeons and quail, and various kinds of garden and song birds, strutting about him on the floor or flying around in the air. Some said that one summer Le Strange dug a cave in his garden and sat in it day and night like St. Jerome in the desert."

In Sebald's eyes, even the everyday comes to seem extraterrestrial--a vision intensified in Michael Hulse's beautiful rendition. His complex, allusive sentences are encased in several-pages-long paragraphs--style and subject making for painful, exquisite reading. Though most often hypersensitive to human (and animal) suffering and making few concessions to obligatory cheeriness, Sebald is not without humor. At one point, paralyzed by the presence of the past, he admits: "I bought a carton of chips at McDonald's, where I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter, and ate them as I walked back to my hotel." The Rings of Saturn is a challenging nocturne, and the second of Sebald's four books to appear in English. The excellent news is that his novel Vertigo is already slated for translation. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:20 -0400)

A fictional account of a walking tour through England's East Anglia whose sights and sounds conjure up images of Britain's imperial past. They range from the slave trade to the Battle of Britain. By the author of The Emigrants.

Legacy Library: W. G. Sebald

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