W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is one of the strangest books I have read it a while. It is part travel book, part memoir, part discursive anecdotal history text and part… Part something I can’t quite define.
Sebald goes for a walk around East Anglia – through tiny villages and faded coastal resorts, past stately homes and alongside the walls of army barracks… He wanders, and as he wanders he thinks about various events (from his own life and outside of it), and then writes with great detail about these disparate subjects. They include the spread of silkworm culture, the German-English touristic tradition ended by the First World War, the early life of Conrad, the emperors of China, the life cycle of the herring, the Easter rising, and the relationship between sugar and art. There are so many short essays here on utterly different topics that a reader is bombarded with information, almost all of it very interesting.
Sebald writes about the world from the perspective of someone who knows a lot about it. About history, about politics, yet his key interest seems to be decline. The abandoned buildings, the fallen grandeur and the lack of industrialisation of East Anglia is the backdrop to his walking tour. He is alone for many hours at a time, treading barely trodden paths and seeing many odd sights.
Yet despite being a personal, internal, monologue, it is an incredibly sexless book. Although he briefly watches a couple screw on a beach and details various historical romances and scandals, Sebald himself comes across unbodily. There is no tiredness from his walking, no pain. No hunger, no thirst. Though he talks about Belgian colonial exploitation, the cruel practices of some farming methods and many executions, he himself seems aloof, and removed. Despite the book being from the perspective of a narrator and a real person, that voice feels more like an omniscient third person narrator than the voice of some novels do.
Sebald floats through East Anglia, observing, watching, digressing into fascinating and unrelated short essays. This is an odd, and an informative, piece.
My favourite section was his piece on Dunwich, a coastal village once a thriving international port, now a tiny collection of houses ever-made smaller due to the advance of coastal erosion. Sebald uses this as a metaphor for the human condition, as he does with many things – all tends towards destruction, all tends towards dust. There are photographs and anecdotes throughout of damaged buildings, those destroyed both through malice and neglect. He seems to equate them as the same – wilfully destroying something is equal to consciously failing to maintain it.
This is a book of the mind. Like Bad Blood, it is by a dead UEA academic, but The Rings of Saturn is far more interesting, complex and stranger than the other.
This is full of information, historical detail, geographical description and discussion of many unexpected and intriguing topics. If you have any specific interest in the economic decline of East Anglia (which Sebald posits begins a very long time ago), in rural peace, in historical anecdote or in strange, contemporary hybrid books, then this is well worth looking at.
I like the idea and I like it’s execution. But it’s a very impersonal memoir. A rare book.