Book Review: The Rings Of Saturn

The Rings Of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

Having come to the eighth and final book that my library had from this author, there is a feeling of some melancholy in reading this book.  On the one hand, there are no more books to read from the author, as he died in 2001 and his major books have been translated into English.  On top of that, though, this book is itself a very melancholy and Nathanish sort of book [1].  It should come as little surprise that this book is Nathanish if one has read my reviews to the author’s other books.  For those of you who have not, tough, it is worthwhile to ponder what makes this book so melancholy.  And a big part of that has to do with the “big concept” aspect of this book, where everything written is connected as part of an overall theme and is also tied to a very specific and melancholy place, namely the area of the North Sea where the narrator who both is and is not the author takes a long walking tour and reflects on a variety of more or less unpleasant things while dealing with his intense loneliness along the way.

The novel begins with a commentary on the rings of Saturn that makes this book far more easy to understand, namely that the rings of Saturn are thought to be the bits of a moon that got obliterated by the tidal force of that large planet.  Similarly, this book consists of the bits and pieces of thoughts and reflections by a lonely man who undertakes a walking tour of the area around the North Sea.  He reflects on the inexorable path of the sea, devouring villages, thinks about the once-flourishing Norwich silk industry as well as art history, the fate of manor houses, the strange habits of the longsuffering herring, the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, the mysterious behavior of scientists during the Second World War, the isolation of pubs and reading rooms from the general public, and many other subjects.  The chapters are relatively short and as is common for the author there are a lot of drawings and photographs in the pages of the book that give a strong feeling of verisimilitude to the whole proceedings.  In general, the mood is rather gloomy, with the walker traveling alone in generally isolated places thinking about deep subjects of existence and the transient nature of life and the threat of annihilation that we face as limited and temporal beings.

Do you like books written by people who have read a lot of books and who might be better served by being less isolated and inwardly directed?  Do you enjoy an author who can move effortlessly from a long description of the sympathies of Rembrandt with the thief whose cadaver served as a way of demonstrating anatomy to privileged European elites of the 17th century to his own sympathies with silkworms and bewildered quails in mouldering manor houses inhabited by the scions of once wealthy and powerful aristocratic houses?  If so, this is a book that you too can enjoy.  Nonetheless, as is often the case when I read a book like this and enjoy it, I wonder if my enjoyment does not have a somewhat darker edge to it, in that I can understand the author’s fears, and I too have felt the loneliness of someone who travels widely and reads widely and thinks deeply about a wide variety of subjects and who wonders if anything will be remembered by others, or if there was any purpose to it all, all the while trying to keep the memory of the past alive for other obscure people who have lived and died, spinning threads like silkworms.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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