The Rings of Saturn

Unclassifiable masterpiece.

The Rings of SaturnI keep re-reading The Rings of Saturn. It is a masterpiece. It is also a total enigma, which is impossible to describe, but I suppose I ought to try.

The Rings of Saturn is a strange (and wonderful) mix of travelogue, memoir, history, and fiction. A typical chapter begins with Sebald describing the next desolate place on an East Anglian walking odyssey (yes, they're all desolate), then the next thing you know, he has somehow changed the subject to Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Emperor of China, Sir Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, silkworms, some chap who is making a model of the Temple of Solomon, etc. (whatever etc. means when applied to this apparently random list).

Sebald, I think, gives a hint as to what The Rings of Saturn is about in his opening paragraph: ‘the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place’. Having now re-read (many times) Sebald's other masterpieces, The Emigrants, Vertigo, Austerlitz, and On the Natural History of Destruction, I have a better idea where he was coming from—but please don't ask me to describe it.

The Rings of Saturn is as enigmatic as ever. You should read it. Then, you should read it again.

  • This page was originally written in 2003.
  • I amended the page in May 2011, having just re-read The Rings of Saturn.
  • I completely rewrote the page in December 2012, having once again re-read The Rings of Saturn.
  • I'm sure I'll get my head round this wonderful book eventually. I make a point of re-reading it every year.

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