The Rings of Saturn

by W. G. Sebald

Other authorsMichael Hulse (Translator)
Paperback, 1999

Call number




New Directions (1999), Edition: Proof, 296 pages


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.

Media reviews

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JanetinLondon
This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. I don’t really know how to describe it, and I can’t remember ever reading anything quite like it. It’s ostensibly Sebald’s thoughts and adventures as he wanders along the Suffolk coast in eastern England. But I imagine it’s
Show More
more often the thoughts the walk, or numerous walks in the same area, bring up in him later, because if he was really thinking in such rambling ways as he walked he wouldn’t remember it clearly enough to write it all down so well. It’s like a series of mini-essays on interesting topics.

Each chapter starts with a description of where he is, and perhaps some anecdote about that place – something historical, or how things have changed, or someone he knows there. But soon enough he is off on a tangent, discussing topics from St Mark the Evangelist to VE Day, and back again. These are without exception entertaining, interesting and educational, and terrifically well written (and/or translated – I can’t read German well enough to check).

Often, we got so far from the original topic that I couldn’t imagine how it had happened, so I went back to look. He is a real master of the transition. Here’s an example. He’s been looking at out the dark sea at night, and it reminds of a dream he once had. After describing the dream, he muses on how events in dreams seem so real, yet so unreal at the same time. Then he writes:

“Just as these things have always been beyond my understanding, so too I found it impossible to believe, as I sat on Gunhill in Southwold that evening, that just one year earlier I had been looking across to England from a beach in Holland.”

and then he’s off, describing some events from that earlier trip.

I have no talent for writing at all, but if I were a writer, I’d want to write like this. The book made me want to know more, on any subject, really, to talk to and listen to others about what they know, and to get out and walk more, but not along that Suffolk coast, which did not come across as particularly enticing, I have to say.
Show Less
LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
W.G. Sebald wrote strikingly odd and original books which mix fact and fiction, the sweep of history and the smallest of subjects, with a tone at once distant and intimate. The Rings of Saturn is a perfect example of this and if it’s not quite perfect, that’s only in comparison to The Emigrants
Show More
- which for me is a hard book to top. The plot is supposedly centered around the author/narrator’s walking tour on the east coast of England but it’s really about anything and everything. Anything and everything, however, is, in the end, all about death and decay. The title is seen in a quote at the beginning, noting that the rings of Saturn are made up of fragments from a former destroyed moon. In his travels, the narrator recreates whole cities, buildings, industries, species, individuals and memories in his mind - describing the history and bringing the past to life, then following his subject to its inevitable downfall. While the book might have less appeal than Austerlitz or The Emigrants, as it is considerably more diffuse, it’s still another fantastic Sebald.

Sebald’s prose is wonderful as usual, somehow catching, in a few sentences or paragraphs (though his paragraphs do tend to go on), the essence of his subject. There are a couple touchstones that he returns to in the book - Thomas Browne and Borges. Browne is an excellent choice as he studied and wrote on a number of odd, diverse subjects - much like Sebald in this book - but his Urn Burial, a 1658 treatise on death rites, is especially relevant. Borges’ multiple invented worlds in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius - and the overall metafictional concept - are also appropriate. As the narrator walks along the coast, some of the things he muses on are concretely related to the walk, others are thoughts that are only tangentially related.

Some of the varied topics include - Somerleyton, the formerly opulent country estate in Lowestoft; the history of herring fishing; George Le Strange, an odd local landowner; the WWI massacre of Serbs, Bosnians and Jews at the Jasenovac camp; Joseph Conrad and his meeting with Roger Casement, an advocate of the native people of Congo and the Irish but executed as a traitor; Edward FitzGerald’s lonely life; a former love of the memoirist Vicomte de Chateaubriand; the history of the European silk business. Despite this diversity, Sebald always makes you interested and somehow, despite the overt distance created by his narrative method, gets into the heads and thoughts of many of the characters who pass through the book.
Show Less
LibraryThing member UinzatoMone
I found this book next to a big blue recycling bin while walking to work one morning. It's probably the best thing I've ever found.
I can only imagine that its owner had died and some cretin of a relative was rummaging through her things for something he could sell and dumped this book in that
Show More
alley, thinking it of no use to him.
But I rescued it.
It's the only book I've ever read that I immediately started reading over again, as soon as I'd finished it. What a treasure trove of detail it contains, all woven with one long fortuitous thread of silk.
Show Less
LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
This novel started so promisingly but swiftly subsided into rampant tedium.
LibraryThing member wandering_star
This is, superficially, a travel book - a record of a journey along the coast of East Anglia. Most of the book is not about the journey itself, but about the thoughts and associations which are triggered by what the narrator sees - so, for example, fishermen on a beach lead us to a natural history
Show More
of the herring. Actually, that's not a good example - the leaps of association are usually much greater, and one diversion becomes embedded in another - a passage on Joseph Conrad's early years leads into a description of Sebald's visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, before returning to the Norfolk coast.

One of the themes that Sebald is interested in is decay and decline, and all that is lost in the pursuit of modernity and progress. Where better to think about this than on the English coast, looking over the increasingly polluted sea, and passing through all the seaside towns whose livelihoods vanished as the railway branch lines were closed and the English began to take their beach holidays in the Mediterranean?

He's also interested in power - and the futility of seeking it - most aptly highlighted in the description of a sea battle which it was never clear who won. The tale is introduced in a typical Sebald segue: "I sat down on a bench ... and looked out on the tranquil sea, from the depths of which the shadows were now rising. Everyone who had been out for an evening stroll was gone. I felt as if I were in a deserted theatre, and I should not have been surprised if a curtain had suddenly risen before me and on the proscenium I had beheld, say, the 28th of May 1672 - that memorable day when the Dutch fleet appeared offshore from out of the drifting mists...". With equally typical humanity, he describes the agonies suffered by the sailors and the lives lost - "at that date there can have been only a few cities on earth that numbered as many souls as were annihilated in sea-battles of this kind".

The book is a melancholy read, but beautifully written - fascinating ideas, expressed in simple and lyrical prose.
Show Less
LibraryThing member papalaz
When translated and published in England this work, for some reason unknown, lost its subtitle - An English Pilgrimage. I don't know why and I think it was a mistake to drop it. It is a difficult work to categorise but then Sebald was a writer who was difficult to categorise. Part travelogue, part
Show More
novel, part meditation,part memorial, it is a wholly fascinating and enjoyable read. And it even has pictures!

That's right pictures - grainy, low contrast, photos or images trouvee are scattered throughout the text and one is never entirely sure whether they are to illustrate or amplify the text. They are a wonderful addition - a true masterstroke - and I sometimes found myself gazing at them and silently interrogating them, a sure sign, I'd aver, that they are crucial. .

Sebald begins by telling us, through the narrator whom one immediately assumes is Sebald himself, how the book came to be written or rather how the travelogue part of the text began - the strange circumstances of the genesis. This opening sets a stage on which the narrator will wander through East Anglia, his memory, several personal histories, European history and ultimately the human condition of decay and passing. Though the actions the narrator covers are far from calm and anodyne he maintains an oddly flat and detached voice - voice both fully rational and objective. His meditations that spring from these are fascinating. His insights are illuminating and often insightful. As with the pictures I found myself carrying on a dialogue with this narrator about his ideas.

Although this may be a difficult book to categorise it is a very easy book to love. I can see myself coming back to it in future years or maybe even months. I shall definitely learn from it and I hope you will too.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dazzyj
A mesmerising, tone perfect, marvellously digressive account of a semi-finctional walk through a semi-fictional landscape.
LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
It's one of those books that sound better on paper as an idea than when you're actually reading it. I feel like it gets more credit than it deserves simply because people consider it "innovative", but taken passage by passage, there is nothing very innovative about it. It's simply a blend of memoir
Show More
and historical essay. If it were categorized as either, nobody would raise an eyebrow, but the simple fact that it has the "Novel" label attached to it has everybody in a frenzy.But I don't judge a book by how innovative it is, so even if it's not innovative, that's not the main problem. The main problem is that it never rises above a level of good or merely interesting, never feels completely spontaneous, never totally alive (though it tries so hard to be free form... "like jazz"). Everything feels so well "considered" (not that it shouldn't actually be, but it shouldn't feel labored when read) that at times I would say it's even lifeless. Thankfully, Sebald is good at avoiding the jargon of an academic, but at heart he IS an academic. Only in novelist's clothing and with a taste for occasionally delving into the personal.Above all, the book never changes course, it is steady as can be. It's like listening to an album all the way through and then realizing that all the songs (though different in melody) have the same level of intensity, the same register of emotion, never building up to anything or calming down from something, just one flat line of consistently being merely "good".The one exception is the very beginning. The first chapter of the book is the most interesting and cohesive and I was actually beginning to expect great things from the book. Despite my complaints, I did enjoy the book, and am interested in reading more of Sebald to see if his other novels have anything different to offer. At times, the book achieves what I call "so boring it's bold", which is a characteristic I really like in some of my favorite films... like in those Kiarostami films where he intentionally repeats some visual motif to the point where it's at the risk of losing the viewer's interest. But at the same time, there is something intriguing about it and you keep watching, and it has something to do with the pacing or something else interesting in the frame that is not the main object of concern but that forces it out of merely "boring-boring" into the "so boring it's bold" category. The very nature of the category (in my mind) is that it rides that fine line between "boring" and "interesting" so dangerously.I think the boring-ness makes your mind wander which is exactly the point: so that you're paying less attention to the "main thing" and more on the visceral level of the word (or image if you're talking about film). I've rarely encountered this effect in literature, except in VS Naipaul's novels, though I can't even get through one of his novels because they eventually become just "boring-boring" to me. But there is a point early on in Naipaul's novels that I admire the same quality, where I feel viscerally connected to something lying right beyond an obstinate rhythm.
Show Less
LibraryThing member et.carole
A most beautiful scrapbook, a wormhole of memories, a way to trap the mind in a maze which delights it. This travel story is joy-killing at the same time it brings a quiet humor to everything, even the most dead of ends, the most morose ruins and the agentless way they fall from their height and
Show More
grace. Sebald shows how everything is destroyed through the agency of human cruelty, human inattention, and the will of nature.
“Where a short while ago the dawn chorus had at times reached such a pitch that we had to close the bedroom windows, where larks had risen on the morning air above the fields and where, in the evenings, we occasionally even heard a nightingale in the thicket, its pure and penetrating song punctuated by theatrical silences, there was now not a living sound.”
It is these descriptions, and the photos, and the winding topics, and the impossibility and needlessness of getting a straight-on look at the narrator (a true fictional travel narrative if I've ever seen one) that give this book the invisible scaffolding for which it deserves the abundant praise it has received.
Show Less
LibraryThing member stillatim
Nobody can accuse me of not trying to understand the appeal of WGS to so many trustworthy readers, but for the life of me, I can't come up with a good reason for his popularity. This review is a really a group review of 'Rings,' 'Emigrants,' 'Campo Santo,' and and Lynn Sharon Schwartz's 'The
Show More
Emergence of Memory.' I'm putting it under 'Rings,' because this is certainly the best book of Sebald's that I read.

I've asked people why they think Sebald is popular. One fairly broad response was: his work was translated at the perfect moment. He wrote 'interstitial' or genre-blurring books just when everyone was getting into blurring genres, and so he gave a kind of imprimatur to that form. I can accept this on the level of "how did Sebald get his start in English," since it's a nice hook.

I'm not sure how well it explains individual readers' experiences, though. Yes, a few David Shields types might really enjoy the 'reality' of the books, the way they use novelistic techniques but lack novelistic tropes. If you're the kind of person who wants to read, but doesn't like novels or essays, Sebald might just hit a sweet spot.

Although I don't like the idea, I fear that a lot of people like these books because of their content. In Sebald's work, all roads lead towards the Shoah, but asymptotically. We're forever just missing the event, getting traces of it, seeing its effects. In one particularly silly instance, Sebald describes the history of silk-worm farming in Germany, and links that directly to Nazism. The same thing, we're given to understand, is true of herring fishing.

The point of all this, he tells us in Campo Santo and Emergence of Memory, is to show up the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding the holocaust in small-town Germany. Sebald finds it appalling that ordinary people can go about their lives as if Nazism and genocide never happened, that they prefer not to talk about it, and so it is. However, he doesn't think one can just discuss the events openly. Instead, one must get there through indirection.

This is a fairly standard modernist strategy, but Sebald literalises it in (what I find to be) a particularly dull way. Beckett, for instance, can be read as indirectly pointing to any number of 20th century horrors, but he does it by abstraction and humor. Sebald tries to be indirect in a far simpler way: he just doesn't talk about what he obviously wants to talk about. And given the omnipresence of the holocaust in late twentieth century cultural life, that's the right choice.

But it also points to a problem with the project as a whole: Sebald's books appeal mostly to the cultured, who, if anything, over-discuss the holocaust, which has the effect of distracting attention from all the other injustices that are *currently* taking place. And, I suspect, Sebald knew this very well, which explains his thinking in "Natural History of Destruction." His method is to write in the teeth of a conspiracy of silence, but there simply *is no* conspiracy of silence around the Shoah. So he moves on to a different, far less offensive conspiracy--this time, the German literati's unwillingness to deal with the destruction of German cities in the second world war.

Again, though, an English speaking audience is unlikely to believe in this conspiracy: Slaughterhouse 5, to take only one example, has dealt with the theme in a suitably indirect but also direct manner. 'Natural History' has been criticized for insensitivity--how could WGS deal with these matters, knowing that the destruction was the direct result of Nazi actions? It's almost as if he's been accused of a conspiracy of silence over the holocaust. And so the cycle continues.

Some readers might value oblique reminders that the holocaust and Luftkrieg took place, but I suspect that anyone who gets something from the content of Sebald's work has something else in mind: its comfortable pessimism.

"It is a characteristic of our species," he says, "in evolutionary terms, that we are a species in despair." This is arrant nonsense, at almost every turn: 'evolutionarily,' it is obviously false; that we are a species in despair is obviously false, and so on. But late-Victorian pessimism has always attracted the comfortably off intellectual. With no God to demand that we act well towards each other, and no poverty forcing us to act well for ourselves, we're left in an extremely boring spot. But we can think about that spot at great length, at least, and thus face up to the abyss that we have created twice over--once in that the cost of our comfort is actual suffering for the poor, and second in that the 'despair' Sebald writes of is just self-aggrandizing melancholy masquerading as deep insight, the kind of insight that greatly appeals to readers of literature. We know very little about history, or even the present, and we prefer not to learn about it. What we want is the experience of being ourselves.

As for the sentences, lavishly beloved, I see nothing special:

"After I had taken my leave of William Hazel I walked for a good hour along the country road from Somerleyton to Lowestoft, passing Blundeston prison, which rises out of the flatland like a fortified town and keeps within its walls twelve-hundred inmates at any one time."

Reviewers often praise Sebald as bringing back the nineteenth century, and this sentence (chosen as random, which is unfair, but I can't go through them all) confirms that claim: it is bloated and falsely colloquial ("taken my leave", "good hour"); it is cliched ("rises out of") and it is bombastic ("keeps within its walls"). His (or his translators') vocabulary is deeply impoverished; everything is "in decline," everything is "ruined." The syntax of the translations is often Germanic for no very good reason (in the 'we for twenty minutes walked along the black but also reflecting light with small flakes of bright material road' way), and that, I suspect is just bad translation.

All of which is to say that if Sebald's books have any worth, it is in their formal features rather than their almost vapid content. And his meandering, coincidence, essayistic prose is unusual for its time period, and unusual in a way worth preserving. Unfortunately, readers of 17th or even 18th century writers won't find his work anywhere near as 'innovative,' 'strange' or 'original,' as so many reviewers do. Sebald himself, I think, wouldn't make such claims: why else describe Browne at such length? In any case, Sebald's books are all, essentially, extended essays of the Montaignian type, wandering from one topic to the other, but modernist in their self-consciousness. The wandering is always around one point, the moments each reflect that point. Like Montaigne, the essays don't develop; like Burton, the essays are all about one thing (the abyss, though, rather than melancholy); like, say, Adorno, the essays are tightly constructed despite the appearance of randomness.

So my long winding decline-filled journey through the ruins ends in puzzlement and anger and acceptance: puzzlement because I honestly do not understand why so many people find Sebald worthy of so much praise; anger because I suspect his popularity rests on a dull but attractive pessimism that should really be dealt with in a church, temple, or mosque rather than indulged by art; and acceptance because, if nothing else, Sebald's form could be used by others in the future to better effect.

But for now his influence seems to be the most malignant part of his work, throwing up the puerilities of Ben Lerner, Teju Cole, David Shields, Rachel Cusk's 'Outline,' and so on. Just reciting this family tree makes me think better of WG, who at least took an interest in something other than himself.
Show Less
LibraryThing member MarkKeeffe
I didn't enjiy this book at al. I couldn't see the point in it. It seemed to be about someone wandering around the coutryside on the east coast of England with no particular porpose or reason, reminiscing and dreaming about past eras and imaginary situations. There wasn't much wrong with the
Show More
writing except he used a fair few words i didn't know, but it didn't really strike me as great or beautiful either.
Show Less
LibraryThing member thorold
Sebald is wonderful: my biggest regret on finishing this book is that I've now read all his major works. But the consolation is that I have the excuse to start re-reading...
I was expecting to enjoy this book — I read it with a walking holiday in East Anglia fresh in my own mind, and I got a lot
Show More
of pleasure out of following the connections that Sebald makes, whether it's the port of Lowestoft and a slept-through BBC documentary on the hotel TV that put him onto Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement, or the remains of the Southwold Railway that launch him into 19th century China and the empress Tzu H'si. According to the books I've looked at, the local legend about the Southwold coaches having been intended for China has no basis at all, but that's beside the point. Sebald uses the presumed connection to link his themes of colonialism and East Coast decay, just as he does with Conrad, Casement and the Belgian Congo.
Show Less
LibraryThing member dr_zirk
Sebald's The Rings of Saturn is a fascinating ramble through the dregs of colonial empire (among other things), presented in the form of a wandering travelogue.

There is a wonderfully random and recursive nature to many of Sebald's musings on history and literature, but there is a definite method
Show More
to all of this - the author presents us with a variety of images and incidents that return to the arrogance, impotence, and violence inherent in European (and particularly British) colonial adventures through the early part of the twentieth century. Paired with this are observations on the decline of Britain as a world power, and the parallel decline of the British aristocracy.

The real magic of this book derives from the chatty, airy nature of the prose, as Sebald succeeds in taking the reader effortlessly through a complex series of ideas and reminisces without ever letting up the wonderfully flowing pace of the narrative.
Show Less
LibraryThing member maykram
ramblings of a german in Suffolk, well written but boring
LibraryThing member LizaHa
Here is a long quote, and maybe I am wrong to do this because it comes near the end, but so be it:

"We talked about the deserted, soundless month of August. For weeks, said Michael, there is not a bird to be seen. It is as if everything was somehow hollowed out. Everything is on the point of
Show More
decline, and only the weeds flourish: bindweed strangles the shrubs, the yellow roots of nettles creep onward in the soil, burdock stands a whole head taller than oneself, brown rot and greenfly are everywhere, and even sheets of paper on which one endeavours to put together a few words and sentences seem covered in mildew. For days and weeks on end one racks one's brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while we intuitively know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life."

And, on the same page: "Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect? How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one's own precursor."
Show Less
LibraryThing member HenryKrinkle
"History is but an account of calamities>" W.G. Sebald takes a long walk (several weeks worth of long walk) down the coast of East Anglia and ponders the decay of large English estates, slavery in the Belgian Congo, the bombing of Germany, Borges' Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", and the history of
Show More
silkworm production in Europe among many other things. Mournful,elegaic and obsessed by decay and disaster, "The Rings of Saturn" is never entertaining. It's never boring either. "The Rings of Saturn " is a facinating enthralling work.
Show Less
LibraryThing member RiversideReader
A complete and utter drag of a book, swollen with negativity and bleakness.
LibraryThing member saloliver
At first I thought this book was going to be way too highbrow for me. I don't think my first impression was helped by the fact that it has been marketed and reviewed as a novel. I only bought it because the blurb said it was set on the Suffolk coast, an area I happened to have just escaped from. I
Show More
was so struck by the accuracy of his description of the landscape and its inhabitants down to the last detail of each rock and fisherman that I had to read on just to see if I could catch him out.(I couldn't). And then the book starts to make sense and you begin to realise that you are being made privy to the connections of a mind so quirky, knowledgable, observant etc etc that you get sucked in. At least I did. And I laughed and learned tons of useless information, about Rembrandt and silk worms amongst other things. This is a wonderfully uplifting read for any self-respecting depressive; definitely a case of "only connect..."
Show Less
LibraryThing member lxydis
rather boring and detached, occasionally fascinating snippets
LibraryThing member waltser1
A walking tour of eastern England and a collection of stories about many histories.
LibraryThing member otterley
Travelling round East Anglia, Sebald gives us a witty, provocative, sometimes moving and always thought provoking book - which stimulated many other wry and reflective tomes. He introduces us to a rich cast of characters, moving across the scene, mostly as lost as Sebald nearly is in the flatlands
Show More
of Suffolk, from which the reader can hear the tide withdrawing in its melancholy way. While often disengaged and intentionally distanced, Sebald mixes this with strong emotions about man's inhumanity with man, juxtaposed with the complete ineffectiveness of many individuals.
Show Less
LibraryThing member jon1lambert
It starts and ends in Suffolk with the whole world in between. There is a sense of greatness within these pages if only I could put my finger on them.
LibraryThing member mearso
The blurb on the back claims this is a 'thought-provoking meditation on the transience of all things human', but I just found it a rambling collection of arcane knowledge allied with some lovely prose that served to further frustrate me.There are some lovely passages that made me really enjoy the
Show More
language, but I found myself aching for some structure to hang it on.
I gave up when I realised that it would continue in that vein.
Show Less
LibraryThing member mykl-s
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (1999)
LibraryThing member lriley
A very well written--interesting account of a foot journey along the coastline towns of Southeastern England. I don't if I'd call this a novel though it seems to borrow fiction writing techniques. It's a snapshot of a once thriving area that over the course of time fell on hard times and then into
Show More
neglect. Sebald is adept at looking for paralells throughout history not just from other towns and places but fits personalities in as well with fascinating insights into the lives of once famous but nowmostly forgotten people. The book is in a sense for me a meditation on the historical fickleness of fame and glory--how nature eventually returns all natural things to their roots. The book reminds me in a lot of ways of Camilo Jose Cela's most excellent Journey to the Alcarria or even a little bit to Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. Sebald's prose is sly and subtle--he keeps the action moving at his own walking pace as it's meant to be--he uses photographs to enhance his commentary. As long as the reader is willing to keep his pace it is full of rewards--like sitting on your deck or balcony on a hot summer day and sipping at your favorite alcoholic beverage. Anyway I enjoyed it a lot and think I will look into more of his works.
Show Less




0811214133 / 9780811214131
Page: 0.226 seconds