Book Review on "The Rings of Saturn" by W.G. Sebald | MyPaperHub

In a tragic accident in 2001, W.G. Sebald met his death at an early age of 57. He was cited by many as a future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature following his writing of the book The Rings of Saturn, formerly written in German in 1995 and then translated into English in 1998. The book went a long way to securing a reputation for Sebald as a pioneer of a new kind of literary fiction. The book is outstanding with his unique style of hybrid genres, blurring of facts and fictions, some interesting and distinct black and white photographs and his characteristic meditation on the destructive nature of history, the lives of people affected and the restorative power contained in Art. He has also written poetry, criticism and other three other novels within a decade for which he has received several prestigious prizes in Germany. The Rings of Saturn book is a first person account by a nameless narrator that typically resembles the Sebaldian fashion on a walking tour in the Suffolk. He describes the places he sees and the people he encounters in the journey including his translator Michael Hamburger and also discusses various episodes of history and literature such as the writings of Thomas Browne that attach in a similar way to the text. There is a film named Patience that us based on the book released in 2012.

The book is referred as a basic account of a journey that the author takes in a walking tour taken years ago in the English Anglia an English County. At the end of the tour, he suffered a nervous collapse as is indicated at the beginning of the book. The book provides a tracking of the schedule of the journey providing photographs giving it a sense of a naïve aspect of a travel album. Moreover, it speaks of people met and gives a clear account of the things seen along the wy including memories and reflections that have suggested themselves in the retrospect. In the whole arrangement, it has a sense of a relentless unity of obsession but seems rather coincidental at the beginning.

On one level, the book is a walking tour of the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, which Sebald name had adopted as home having taught literature in the UAE in since 1970. As a reader is moved with the melancholic narrator from one town to another, from one village to the next but in the process one is led all over the world into differing times and different lives. The narrator can accomplish that through a network of associations, tangents, and some apparent coincidences. For example, a ride on a railway at Somerleyton Hall leads to a 19th century China and Taiping Rebellion, the Congo and the colonial genocide, a TV documentary on Roger Casement to Joseph Conrad and also a meditation on the raids of the Second World War and some tragedies and wartime statistics brought by the two world wars (Sebald and Hulse, 34). In the midst of the meandering connections, there is a form of interlinking to create a patterned whole that is visible as one goes through the book. Just as the title of the book announces, the book is a study of melancholy. It takes its central ideas from "Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial," all of Sir Thomas Browne which is an extraordinarily exaggerated disquisition that the seventeenth-century physician and essayist a native of East Anglia wrote responding to the local discovery of unidentified ancient gravesite. The book provides a meditation to historical losses and the possibility of restoration of the powers of art. To crown it all, it is a rumination on the mysterious community of both the living and the dead.

The book is a rambling affair just as is the case with its origin. Sebald recounts the rise and the fall of great houses and communities. He considers the lives of various literary individuals at one time or another that were residing in East Anglia among them considering Browne, Edward Fitzgerald, Swinburne, Michael Hamburger, Joseph Conrad and Chateaubriand. He also speaks of Chinese historical figures such as Roger Casement and Dowager Empress. The economic changes are also of interest to Sebald as he discourses on the varying fortunes of the herring industry that was once a mainstay of England’s North Sea communities and also turns at the various points in the book of the subject of the international silk industry. On his journey, he pays a visit to a man who had devoted his years to constructing a perfect replication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The episode in the book together with other episodes offers a similarity with The Emigrants book by Selden as well where a painter Max Ferber discusses a meeting during childhood where he met with a Jewish itinerant who moves from one place to the next exhibiting a similar model (67).

The story in the book of the burning of the frozen substance of life is intriguing to the reader. It makes one wonder whether the inner coldness and the desolation may not be the precondition for making the world believe. It raises eyebrows as to whether it is a kind of fraudulent showmanship that one’s wretched heart is still glowing. However, Sinbad displays a frightening almost inhuman certainty. Sir Thomas Browne as noted at the beginning of the book makes remarks on the fabled survival on top of the centuries of a piece of silk in the turn of Patroclus for Browne, which was a symbol of the in-destructive nature of the human soul as is assured by the scripture. Silk together with its manufacture is an ongoing preoccupation throughout the entire book. It echoes Browne symbolizes the curious interrelation of the corrupt and the incorruptible. It is also metaphorical for how the book in itself weaves the separate thread into singular substance. However, towards the end the theme is still funereal.

The Rings of Saturn in comparison with the earlier works by Sebald specifically The Emigrants book, it is in many ways less satisfying to some extent though it is still an amazing piece of literature. The unsatisfactory nature of the book is in the fact that it has a flow of suspense that leaves one not aware on what the author will encounter next, and even the ending is not according to what the reader would hope for and hence leaving one unsatisfied yet mesmerized at the turn of events. On the far side of emotions such as remorse, anger, hope, sorrow, and even sympathy, Selden offers a more radical affiliation. It is against the violent legacies of countries and the unending self-approval of the living, he refers the reader to the silent community, the perfect deprivation of the dead which is a relatively ancient idea that offers intrigue but may be difficult to interpret or decipher its meaning in the contemporary society.

Credit to the scholarly and writing ability of Selden must be accorded due to the triumphatic nature of the tone of the book. It is a synchrony of events, environment, and even memories with the mood of the writer. Despite the voracious curiosity of Sebald, about the world around him, the mood is miserable. Then conviction with which he writes about the flaws of human beings, his acquisitiveness, and self-environment is both chilling and convincing. In his pondering on humanity’s exploitation of the environment, he foresees exactly the issues that are begging to bite the modern society that are the damage of the natural habitat, the decimation of food stocks, and the pollution of water and air.  

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