"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

February 2, 2013

"The Rings of Saturn" ("Die Ringe des Saturn") by W.G. Sebald (Book review)

The Rings of Saturn, An English Pilgrimage (Die Ringe des Saturn, Eine Englische Wallfahrt, 1995; English translation by Michael Hulse 1998) is a great postmodern prose work, at the same time autobiography, historiography, literary criticism, philosophy and travelogue. The book rings with intertextuality. Like Sebald's other work, it is illustrated by gritty black and white pictures, often photos taken by Sebald himself, or images collected by him. On the surface it is the account of a walking tour in Suffolk in East Anglia (a county close to the author's home, as he lived in Norfolk, having made England his home since around 1970), through a landscape that reminded me in its flatness of Holland, but it is decidedly not a travel book: the tour through Suffolk only serves as the stimulus for the narrator's (who might and might not be Sebald) sometimes arcane historical and literary meditations, which usually turn towards war, destruction and decay. The people he describes are often grossly eccentric, creators of alternate universes of the mind, but with the shadow of annihilation hanging over them. Each chapter begins with an observation about the place the narrator is visiting, but then jumps almost without transition to reflections about persons or historical events connected with that place – often things that happened at the other end of the world. The connections are usually so tenuous that I was reminded of the "butterfly effect:" how the flapping of a butterfly's wings in England can create a typhoon in, say, China.

[Rings of Saturn - Wikipedia]

What is the meaning of the title? In the first place, in astrology Saturn is the planet of melancholy and the book is obviously a study of that state (although not without humor). Next, the word “rings” suggests ripples of water, reaching out farther and farther, until everything is connected with everything – a meaning that is finally also supported by the fact that Saturn's rings are the debris of a crashed planet, whose fragments ultimately belong together. And on a technical level, the image of the planet stands for the “saturnine” circles through which Sebald's narrative proceeds, linking one digression to the other.

Recurring images and themes line the length of the book (such as that of sericulture, which I will talk about later) that takes its intertextual keynote from the Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of Sir Thomas Browne, a baroque thesis written by the 17th c. essayist, himself a native of East Anglia, in response to the local discovery of an ancient gravesite. And indeed, as Sebald says: “Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?” There are staggering figures to support this view: just to name a few disasters described by Sebald: 500,000 deaths a year in Belgian Congo between 1890 and 1900, more than 20 million deaths in the in the West largely unknown Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th c, China, and so on. Through its links with these events (see below for a detailed discussion), a single English county turns out to contain an inconceivable world of devastation.

Sebald has written a meditation on historical loss, and the capacity of humans for both cruelty and forgetting that cruelty. But Sebald also stresses the importance of memories and the idea that nothing entirely disappears thanks to the power of art. He writes as if every memory is fleeting and must be noted down urgently before it slips away. The gritty photos are part of the process of remembering. The Rings of Saturn is a carefully composed book, rich in beautiful ideas. It is also decidedly a work of fiction – some of the persons and events in the book are obviously imaginary. It is, although Sebald talks rather about “prose fiction,” a new form of the novel.

Here follows an overview of the ten chapters of The Rings of Saturn listing the main intertextual references.

The narrator finds himzelf hospitalized in a state of physical and emotional paralysis, exactly one year after the walking tour he took through Suffolk in August 1992, which forms the subject of this book. In the description of his state are echoes of Kafka's Metamorphosis. He remembers: “I saw a vapor trail cross the segment framed by my window. At the time I took that white trail for a good omen, but now, as I look back, I fear it marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life. The aircraft at the tip of the trail was as invisible as the passengers inside it. The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery … our world… no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.”

[Thomas Browne - Wikipedia]

The stay in the Norwich hospital leads to an exploration of the 17th c. writer Thomas Browne, whose skull was at one time kept in the hospital's museum. This leads to a discussion of Browne's masterwork Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial, a consideration of burial rites and the various ways of disposal of human remains, ending with a meditation on transcience.

[The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp - Wikipedia]

In the section on Thomas Browne, also Rembrandt's painting "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp" is taken up – interestingly, the narrator takes the side of the corpse of the criminal in this public dissection. He also remarks on the strangeness of the corpse's left hand (which is a second right hand). The narrator muses interestingly on the possibility that Browne was in the audience.

[Somerleyton Hall - Wikipedia]

Start of the narrator's walk down the coast of Suffolk, from north to south to Orford (after which there will be a turn west in chapter IX). The walk starts in the northern tip of the county at what is left of the fairy-tale palace Somerleyton Hall, once a Victorian railway king’s monument to vanity. The owner, nouveau riche Samuel Morton Peto, was the largest employer in the world of his time.
Meeting a gardener at Somerleyton leads to a discussion of the WWII wartime bombings – in this area were several military airfields from which the bombers bound for Germany left (Sebald has written about the devastation these bombings caused and the German forgetfullness about this tragedy in On the Natural History of Destruction).
On the nearby coastline the narrator visits the delapidated town of Lowestoft (where Joseph Conrad first came ashore in England), around 1900 a flourishing seaside resort, where even German royalty came to stay, but now an economic wreck.

Walking south along the coast from Lowestoft, the narrator plunges into the history of the herring industry from ports along this coast, and its demise. He also notes that herrings retain their luminosity after death, which - he claims, probably fictionally – led in the late 19th c. to research into their luminous substance to use it for practical applications.
When the narrator reaches Benacre Broad his mind turns to one George Wyndham Le Strange, who used to live here in the large mansion Henstead Hall, completely isolated from the world. "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." We also learn that Le Strange was part of the tank regiment that liberated the concentration camp of Belsen-Belsen, which may have contributed to his madness. This section includes a grainy black and white photograph of what appear to be piles of bodies in a wood, reminding the reader of the picture of captured herring a few pages earlier. It is probable that the section about Le Strange is fictional – I have not been able to find any other reference to this eccentric.
The chapter concludes with the mention of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Borges, in which the imaginary books from the story are cited as valid scientific works in a discussion of time. "The denial of time, so the tract on Orbius Tertius tells us, is one of the key tenets of the philosophical schools of Tlön. According to this principle, the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, and the past merely as memory."

[Naval Battle of Solebay - Wikipedia]

The narrator has reached Gunhill in Southwold and remembers the English-Dutch naval battle that took place here in 1672, which included a bombardment of the town. This leads to memories about a previous trip the narrator made to Holland, where he visited the Mauritshuis (where the Rembrandt painting mentioned above is on display), the Kurhaus Hotel in Scheveningen, and Amsterdam, returning to Norwich with a small plane from Schiphol Airport.
The next day we find him browsing in the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room where albums with war images direct his mind to the terrible statistics of death in WWI, as well as the mass executions in the Balkans during WWII. One person linked to these atrocities is Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary General of the UN (although unnamed by Sebald), and the narrator ironically mentions the fact that Waldheim's voice was used on space probe Voyager II, to greet other intelligent beings in the universe.

[Roger Casement - Wikipedia]

The recollection of a documentary on the life of Roger Casement, which the narrator saw while half asleep in his hotel room, leads to a detailed exploration of Joseph Conrad's experiences in the Belgian Congo, where Conrad had briefly encountered Casement. This in turn leads to thoughts about the horrors of colonization, as described in Conrad's magnum opus, Heart of Darkness. Conrad was like Sebald another author who immigrated to England, where he first spent three months sailing on ships out of Lowestoft. The author goes on to chronicle the case of Roger Casement, who had written strong critical articles about the Belgian activities in the Congo. In 1916 the Irish Casement was hanged as a traitor, for allegedly supporting the Irish rebellion (Ireland was a colony of England at that time).

[Waterloo - Wikipedia]

The narrator also discusses a visit to Belgium, a country he doesn't like very much, due to the cruelties in Africa. He visits the monument of Waterloo and sees the diorama about the battle, which leads him to the thought that this cannot be a correct representation of history. “It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

[The Empress Dowager Cixi - Wikipedia]

At the Bridge over the River Blyth the narrator muses over the miniature railway train that used to run here in 1875, but that was – supposedly – originally built for the Emperor of China. This leads to thoughts about the Taiping Rebellion which ended in a mass suicide in 1864, the destruction of the Summer Palace near Beijing and the looting of its treasures by the British, and the terrible Empress Dowager Cixi, who slowly poisoned her nephew Guangxu in order to remain in power herself. The Empress had a strange fixation on silkworms, in her lonely palace she sat listening to the greedy noise of the worms feeding on mulberry leaves - at least, so we are told.

[Swinburne - Wikipedia]

Next we get the spectacular demise of the once-mighty port of Dunwich, which over several centuries toppled inexorably into the North Sea - caving in because of the power of the waves. The poet Swinburne lived in Dunwich and the narrator notices that the poet's birth and death dates correspond to those of the Empress Dowager. He had a disproportionally big head with wild red hair on it, and was said to eat his meals greedily and monotonously like silkworms.

The narrator mentions the military radar stations set up in Dunwich. Then, hiking over the heath near Dunwich he loses his way in a sort of labyrinth. When he finally manages to escape and arrives in the town of Middleton, he visits the home of his friend Michael Hamburger, the translator of poetry by Hölderlin, Celan and Sebald himself. His life of exile roughly parallels Sebald's, although Hamburger was 20 years older and being Jewish, had to flee Europe. Walking around the house, the narrator has the deja vu feeling that not only has he seen this place before but that it is his place, a house he lived in years earlier. "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?”

[Edward Fitzgerald - Wikipedia]

The narrator arrives in Boulge and is reminded of Edward Fitzgerald, the 19th c. translator of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. He also addresses the question why Edward FitzGerald never completed anything except this fabulous translation. Woodbridge, his next destination, leads to memories of a previous trip to Ireland, where the narrator stayed with the Ashburys, a mother, a son and two daughters living a dreamy life in a totally delapidated estate, Clarahill. They do not have the money necessary for the upkeep and gradually the spacious house crumbles away. There is a hint that the family wanted him to stay and marry one of the daughters, Catherine.

[Orford Ness - Wikipedia]

The narrator is hit by a disorienting sandstorm before arriving in Orford. This coastal town faces a long sandbank, Orford Ness, that during the Cold War housed a military installation where secret weapon research took place. The narrator visits the now deserted Cold War site.

The narrator starts moving inland, in a western direction, through an almost empty landscape. In this countryside, he visits a farmer, Alec Garrard, who spends his life trying to build a model of the Temple of Jerusalem – an useless endeavor he knows he will never finish, while being ridiculed by family and neigbors.

[Chateaubriand - Wikipedia]

In Ilkethall St Margaret in The Saints the narrator is reminded of the beautiful love story of the French author and diplomat Chateaubriand and Charlotte Ives, the daughter of a countryside pastor.
When he finally visits Ditchingham he sees a strange grave with "air holes" in it, and remembers from a previous visit the large trees that once stood in the park of Ditchingham Hall. This reminds him of the huge storm of October 16, 1987 that uprooted 14 million trees in Suffolk/Norfolk, the most severe storm the country had experienced since 1703.

The walk is over and the narrator directs his thoughts to the beginning, to Thomas Browne, who also wrote a strange book called Museaum Clausum. A passage in this book leads him to thoughts about sericulture and silk worms, and a survey of the history of silk in major European countries. The narrator depicts the plan of the Nazis for the development of the silk industry and although he doesn't mention it, there is a silent analogy between the methods used for killing silkworms and the Holocaust.
Silk is, in fact, one of the themes that bind the book together – the father of Thomas Browne was a silk merchant and silk appears in almost every chapter. In fact, the silkworm, or the act of spinning, is another emblem of the process the author has engaged in, for The Rings of Saturn is a book which is “spun out” much like a silkworm spins her web.
The book then concludes: “[Browne] remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in 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 canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the fields, 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 forever.”


W.G. "Max" Sebald (1944-2001) has been called the most important German author of the postwar era. Since 1970 until his untimely death in a traffic accident in 2001 (caused by heart failure), Sebald lived and worked as a university lecturer in Norwich in the U.K. He taught German Literature at the University of East Anglia, an institution known for its creative writing course that saw several important writers as its graduates, for example Ian McEwan (the university is described in McEwan's Sweet Tooth).

Sebald was an academic who came late to literature. In 1988 he published a long poem, After Nature (Nach der Natur. Ein Elementargedicht). This was followed by four unique prose fictions: Vertigo (Schwindel. Gefühle, 1990), The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten. Vier lange Erzählungen, 1992), The Rings of Saturn (Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995), and Austerlitz (2001). They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, literary criticism, history, and philosophy in a new form of prose fiction, and are all written in a haunting style with sentences that sometimes meander over several pages. In the same style we have the essay On the Natural History of Destruction (Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch) from 1999Sebald's other work consists of three volumes of academic essays about his specialism, Austrian literature, and a book published posthumously, Campo Santo, with prose fragments Sebald was working on at the time of his death and some more essays. The essays, however, are written in a normal academic style and very different from the four "novels," although of course Sebald's opinions about Austrian literature (Schnitzler, Stifter, Kafka, Hofmannsthal, Bernhard, Handke) are very interesting.

In the five years before his death, Sebald had come to be widely recognized for his extraordinary contribution to world literature. His death at age 57 was a great loss - but we can be grateful for what we have. 

I read the German original published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag. The excellent English translation (made under supervision of the author) was published by New Directions
Professor Sebald's homepage at the time of death, University of East Anglia - with picture of W.G.Sebald.

Itinerary of The Rings of Saturn. Fan web page.