W. G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn

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I had of course been aware of Sebald for a while, but only as a name I recognized and I had no idea what he might be like as a writer. So only just now did I pick up this book, started reading, and realized what I had missed – but also what I can still look forward to.

So, it is a travel book. In much the same way that something like, say, Claudio Magris’ Danube is. But where both writers show immense erudition, Sebald’s voice in the more personal and his imagination the more fertile – interesting, considering that where Magris has the length of the Danube as his itinerary, Sebald merely strolls along the coast of Suffolk, not a very long walk, either. But then Magris’ book is a very cultured travelogue, but Sebald’s is, actually, billed as a novel – although the unnamed narrator does seem to share a bit of biography with Sebald himself.

The Suffolk landscape the book travels through is decaying and withering, and literally crumbling into the sea. At every turn of the path, memories of a more glorious past gives rise to associations that at first seem perhaps far-fetched, but always, after a dizzying trip around the world and the ages, turn out to be poignantly related to the present and the place. The traveler does not interact with other people along the way in any personal sense – he does not strike up new friendships or learn about deep experiences (with the one exception of the translator – who happens also to be Sebald’s translator in real life).

We hear about Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad, and imperialism and imperial China and silkworms, and Kafka, Flaubert, Diderot, Levi-Strauss, Borges, Stendhal, Swinburne, Hoelderlin, Grimmelshausen, Omar Quayam, and Chateaubriand. And most of all about Thomas Browne, another Norwich resident with a wandering mind and a vast knowledge of things diverse.

Sebald – or his narrator – especially dwells on Browne’s Urn Burial, an essay on (among other things) mortality and the uncertainty of our fate. And that ties it all together and it ties the book together as a large, sweeping arc. Now, at the end, after the sojourn through the barren land, we see that it all was, in some ways, also a grand meditation on some of the most fundamental questions we ask ourselves.

And it is, I believe, a book that one can return to and read over again, and enjoy as much the next times as one did this first time.