1p Review: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

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.

Would you like to recommend a book that can be bought online for one penny or one cent (there are thousands)? Email your review to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk.
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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

10 thoughts on “1p Review: The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

  1. Worm
    August 17, 2011 at 09:16

    Good to be reminded of this excellent book – The thing I’ve always found fascinating about rings of saturn is that it was originally published in german and then translated later on. I wonder what jerry thought of it

  2. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    August 17, 2011 at 10:19

    Indeed – it must have been deeply mystifying…

  3. hydriotaphia@ntlworld.com'
    August 17, 2011 at 11:34

    Hoping that a better objective perspective upon Sebald is reached after the frenzy of the 10th anniversary of his untimely death. R of S is a scrap-book of notes with the vaguest of structures, primarily that of doctor’s orders, to take a long, healthy hike ! Inevitable really that an academic professor should take notes while walking. A long ramble of a book in all senses of the word, and vastly over-rated. Umberto Eco does it all so much better.

  4. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    August 17, 2011 at 12:26

    Umberto Eco!?
    Someone might do it better, Kevin, but surely not, in the name of God, Umberto Eco? If Sebald’s overrated, what on earth is Eco?

  5. Worm
    August 17, 2011 at 12:49

    kevin are you referring to eco’s ‘on…’ books? i found ‘on literature’ to be a similarly lucid and dense read, but being linear in construction it didn’t fascinate in nearly the same way that RoS did. Personally I enjoy it when authors go on a ramble and ping around with subjects – which is why I liked Hitch 22 so much as well

  6. hydriotaphia@ntlworld.com'
    August 17, 2011 at 13:14

    Points taken onboard, though Eco, like Sebald an academic, seems to have survived the hyperbole so much associated with Sebald.

    Well if you’re looking for a book which goes into obtuse, rambling, internal excursions of the mind, try reading ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ by Sir Thomas Browne.

    It still remains very unclear how much a man such as Sebald who wrote in German could understand of early modern English/17th century baroque prose such as Browne’s.

  7. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    August 17, 2011 at 13:35

    I read Rings of Saturn some years ago and can remember almost nothing about it. (That’s true of most books I read, alas, so is no reflection on the quality). I do remember enjoying it.

    • Worm
      August 17, 2011 at 13:49

      exactly the same here!

  8. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    August 17, 2011 at 14:09

    I read this soon after it came out and remember enjoying it very much while feeling more or less completely baffled by it. What sort of a thing was it meant to be, this rambling baffling un-book-like Sebald book thing?

    Thinking about it now, it seems obvious that there are certain books, pre-1999 or so, that are really frustrated blogs. This would be one of them.

  9. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    August 17, 2011 at 15:14

    Interesting theory that, Jonathan – I’ve been thinking the same about Logan Pearsall Smith (Trivia) – what a blogger he’d have been! It might take him all day to come up with a couple of short paras, but they’d be worth the wait…

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