The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of Saturn

3.4 5
by W. G. Sebald
     
 

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Shortlisted for the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Fiction: "Stunning and strange . . . Sebald has done what every writer dreams of doing. . . . The book is like a dream you want to last forever. . . . It glows with the radiance and resilience of the human spirit."—Roberta Silman, The New York Times Book Review

"Ostensibly a record

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Overview

Shortlisted for the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Fiction: "Stunning and strange . . . Sebald has done what every writer dreams of doing. . . . The book is like a dream you want to last forever. . . . It glows with the radiance and resilience of the human spirit."—Roberta Silman, The New York Times Book Review

"Ostensibly a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia," as Robert McCrum in the London Observer noted, The Rings of Saturn "is also a brilliantly allusive study of England's imperial past and the nature of decline and fall, of loss and decay. . . . The Rings of Saturn is exhilaratingly, you might say hypnotically, readable. . . . It is hard to imagine a stranger or more compelling work." The Rings of Saturn - with its curious archive of photographs - chronicles a tour across epochs as well as countryside. On his way, the narrator meets lonely eccentrics inhabiting tumble-down mansions and links them to Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson," the natural history of the herring, a matchstick model of the Temple of Jerusalem, the travels of Sir Thomas Browne's skull, and the massive bombings of WWII. Cataloging change, oblivion, and memories, he connects sugar fortunes, Joseph Conrad, and the horrors of colonizing the Belgian Congo. The narrator finds threads which run from an abandoned bridge over the River Blyth to the terrible dowager Empress Tzu Hsi and the silk industry in Norwich. "Sebald," as The New Yorker stated, "weaves his tale together with a complexity and historical sweep that easily encompasses both truth and fiction." The Emigrants (hailed by Susan Sontag as an "astonishing masterpiece-perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read") was "one of the great books of the last few years," as Michael Ondaatje noted: "and now The Rings of Saturn is a similar and as strange a triumph."

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Editorial Reviews

Joyce Hackett

In narratives that blend reportage, memoir, art criticism, social chronicle, natural history, fiction, literary essay, personal anecdote and images, W.G. Sebald is literally reinventing the diary as his own genre. Not since Montaigne has an author bound such a breadth of passion, knowledge, experience and observation into such a singular vision.

The author's first book, The Emigrants, fictionally intertwined the lives of four unrelated Holocaust survivors. Occasioned by a walking tour of East Anglia, The Rings of Saturn is a looser book, the diary of a journey that records a series of impossible human strivings. The hubris he chronicles is minute and grand, good and evil, ranging from Roger Casement's futile efforts to stop Belgian exploitation of the Congo to Frederick the Great's quixotic attempt to force the German people to cultivate silkworms. When a church tower jutting up on a beach turns out to be the last vestige of a medieval port that has washed into the sea, the life Sebald breathes into that lost city is as passionate a pastiche of research and fantasy as Heinrich Schliemann might have nurtured during his decades-long search for the mythical Troy. But to step into Sebald's stream of consciousness at any point is to enter the same river twice; for the lost hopes, dreams, ambitions, projects and cities Sebald documents are really excuses to explore one central subject, which is time itself. Sebald views every object in its simultaneous then and now: Inevitably, his labyrinthine excavations -- his dips in reality's river -- are less about the nature of water than about the inexorability of its flow.

Sebald edits images into the text like filmic jump-cuts, sometimes as illustrations, more often as flashes from his own or a collective unconscious. In the middle of a story about a World War II veteran who participated in the liberation of Bergen Belsen -- a man who later left his entire estate to the maid who dined with him in silence for decades -- Sebald startles the reader with a two-page uncaptioned photo of corpses strewn across a forest floor. The reader is left to ponder the image as one Sebald has never forgotten, as one of the few memories so unbearable that it might occasion a man not to speak for decades, and the image is all the more evocative because its relationship to the text is left oblique. The unarticulated connection between words and image elucidates the ways in which we know without knowing we know and remember without memory. Even as he asks us to consider the meaning of minutiae, Sebald forces our peripheral vision into active cognition of the broader picture.

The diary consists of that which Sebald sees, feels, thinks and encounters. Yet the self around which Sebald organizes such disparate subject matter is an empty one. The narrative never sinks into narcissism. Rather, it's as if Sebald allows the landscape and its inhabitants to use his memory and senses. He cares for lost worlds, dreaming like a war nurse caring for casualties she knows will expire. In gathering their personal effects, he revives, at least for a little while, pasts that cannot, or will not, speak for themselves. -- Salon

Roberta Silman
The book is so natural and accessible...that one is left enchanted.
&151; The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
The author turns his solitary walks (through Waterloo, Amsterdam, the coastal towns of England) into meditations of Borgesian range. A description of an abandoned bridge over the River Blyth occasions the story of the silk-obsessed Tz'u-hsi, Empress of China, which leads, in turn, to the sad end of the excitable poet Swinburne -- 'whose life was coterminus to the year with that of the Dowager Empress.' By such slim threads Sebald weaves his tales together with a complexity and historical sweep that easily encompasses both truth and fiction.
Forrest Gander
Astonishingly subtle, marked by lovely, clear sentences of perceptual grace, Sebald's new novel is haunting and unlikely to be forgotten.
The Providence Sunday Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Like his much praised novel The Emigrants (1996), this new work by Sebald is steeped in melancholy. It's also highly idiosyncratic, beginning as the record of a fictional walking tour along the coast of Suffolk in southeast England before turning into a broad, rich meditation on Britain's past and the power of history. Observations en route link with psychological and historical elements to form a kind of dreamscape, the boundaries of which become increasingly hard to define, though the 17th-century naturalist and physician Thomas Browne acts as fixed point of reference.

The walk starts at the remains of the fairy-tale palace known as Somerleyton Hall, once a Victorian railway king's monument to extravagance. On the nearby coastline are other ruins, from the recently foundered town of Lowestoft (where Joseph Conrad first made landfall in England), a wreck after the Thatcherite bubble burst, to the more spectacular ghost of the once-mighty port of Dunwich, which over several centuries toppled inexorably into the North Sea. Each of the sites prompts stories of Britain's past. A railway bridge, for instance, leads to the story of the odd train that once ran over it and of the train's unlikely connection with the Emperor of China and the silk trade. Turning inland, the trail leads to writer Michael Hamburger (a number of writers, most long dead, figure in the journey), whose story of flight from the Nazis in 1933 resonates with the narrator's own more recent history, and on to a disorienting sandstorm among the remains of a forest uprooted by the freak hurricane of 1987 before turning back to the history of Britain's colonial involvement in the silk trade, which binds many threadsof this trek together. Erudition of this sort is too rare in American fiction, but the hypnotic appeal here has as much to do with Sebald's deft portrait of the subtle, complex relations between individual experience and the rich human firmament that gives it meaning as it does with his remarkable mastery of history.

American Book Review
“Sebald has been writing what I give the unpromising name the documentary novel, in which subject matter becomes character. A future critic with considerably more time and space will find Anglia. Seen from above, his footsteps will describe, like the good detective he is, the outline of a body that has many times been ferried away, the body we call civilization. From these fading contours left upon the land, we Lilliputians are left to ponder the shape of what came yesterday, or centuries before. to such puzzling terrain, is indispensable.”
The Iconoclast
“Sebald depicts a landscape that is fascinating and disturbing, a world whose minute differences from the actual is a bit of virtuoso reality. If I might be so bold as to sum up his work in one sentence, it is this: Time always wins, but offers as a consolation and booby prize, Memory. Thus the futility of existence is partially erased by both the grandeur and inability of our imaginations. We can dream. And somewhere in those dreams, reality is defeated.”
Courier-Gazette [Maine]
[A]lways clear and present—always ringing true, not necessarily comfortable but not easily forgotten.”— Marilis Hornidge
The New Republic
This German who has lived in England for over thirty years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers. . . . And here, in The Rings of Saturn, is a book more uncanny than The Emigrants.”— James Woods
The New York Times
The book is like a dream you want to last translation from the German seems little short of miraculous. The book is so natural and accessible, and yet so odd, that one is left enchanted and also curious about the author, who presents such a prodigious mass of material in such a modest and engaging way. As you read along, and as you become an active participant in the unfolding of this book.”— Roberta Silman
Museums New York
He is the most hypnotic and exhilarating author. Lyrical and genius. No one like him.”— Maira Kalman
The Wall Street Journal
[A]n extraordinary palimpsest of nature, human, and literary history.”— Merle Rubin
The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires
One of 'Five Best [of the year].' Historical fiction of the first rank.”— Rebecca Stott
The Mookse and the Gripes
It is full of wonderfully rendered scenes…. Full of insight and beauty…. Tragic, yet beautiful.”— Trevor Berrett
The New York Times Book Review
The book is like a dream you want to last translation from the German seems little short of miraculous. The book is so natural and accessible, and yet so odd, that one is left enchanted and also curious about the author, who presents such a prodigious mass of material in such a modest and engaging way. As you read along, and as you become an active participant in the unfolding of this book.”— Roberta Silman
Roberta Silman - The New York Times Book Review
“The book is like a dream you want to last translation from the German seems little short of miraculous. The book is so natural and accessible, and yet so odd, that one is left enchanted and also curious about the author, who presents such a prodigious mass of material in such a modest and engaging way. As you read along, and as you become an active participant in the unfolding of this book.”
James Woods - The New Republic
“This German who has lived in England for over thirty years is one of the most mysteriously sublime of contemporary writers. . . . And here, in The Rings of Saturn, is a book more uncanny than The Emigrants.”
Maira Kalman - Museums New York
“He is the most hypnotic and exhilarating author. Lyrical and genius. No one like him.”
Marilis Hornidge - Courier-Gazette [Maine]
“[A]lways clear and present—always ringing true, not necessarily comfortable but not easily forgotten.”
Merle Rubin - The Wall Street Journal
“[A]n extraordinary palimpsest of nature, human, and literary history.”
Rebecca Stott - The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires
“One of 'Five Best [of the year].' Historical fiction of the first rank.”
Trevor Berrett - The Mookse and the Gripes
“It is full of wonderfully rendered scenes…. Full of insight and beauty…. Tragic, yet beautiful.”
Roberta Silman - The New York Times
“The book is like a dream you want to last translation from the German seems little short of miraculous. The book is so natural and accessible, and yet so odd, that one is left enchanted and also curious about the author, who presents such a prodigious mass of material in such a modest and engaging way. As you read along, and as you become an active participant in the unfolding of this book.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780811221306
Publisher:
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
03/15/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
296
Sales rank:
237,103
File size:
4 MB

What People are saying about this

Michael Ondaatje
"'The Emigrants' by W.G. Sebald was one of the great books of the last few years, and now "The Rings of Saturn' is a similar and as strange a triumph."

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