The Rings Of Saturn (available for 1p here) is a strange book, not in any conventional sense a novel. It has affinities with the kind of thing the great psychogeographer Iain Sinclair writes – if less convivial and fantastical than Sinclair.
Dispensing with what he called the ‘grinding noises’ of the machinery of plot, Sebald provides no more in the way of structure than a walk, from Lowestoft to Norwich, undertaken by himself, or a version thereof, a self of whose outward circumstances we learn very little. Paul Klee described drawing as ‘taking a line for a walk’, and Sebald seems to be doing something similar, except that the line – and indeed the walk – are only intermittently discernible.
What is happening is essentially a mental journey, formed of digressions and allusions growing out of each other, taking in such topics as silkworm breeding, herring fishing, Croatian wartime atrocities and the October hurricane (a brilliantly vivid description). The book is peopled with exiles – Conrad, Chateaubriand, Michael Hamburger – and the self-exiled – Swinburne, Edward FitzGerald, various reclusive eccentrics in country houses. The pervasive figure of Sir Thomas Browne, another East Anglian, tops and tails the book. For a lover of digressive and miscelleneous literature – Tristram Shandy, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s Essays, Sir Thomas Browne indeed – this is irresistible stuff.
What The Rings Of Saturn adds up to – apart from a deeply satisfying reading experience – is hard to say, but it is full of facts (with some errors – deliberate?) and wonders, superb descriptive writing, keen insights and a strong sense both of place and of history. Like Sinclair in London Orbital, Sebald catches what it’s actually like to walk around in the marginal, strange, overlooked places of modern Britain, and always sees the past glimmering darkly behind the present.