Book review: ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald

Unclassifiable masterpiece.

‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald

I keep re-reading The Rings of Saturn. It’s a masterpiece. It’s also a total enigma, being 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 in beautiful prose the next desolate place on an East Anglian walking odyssey—they're all desolate. But, before you know it, our narrator has somehow segueed into a section on Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Emperor of China, Sir Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, silkworms, some chap making a model of the Temple of Solomon, etc.—whatever the hell ‘etc.’ is supposed to mean when applied to seemingly random lists.

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 enigmatic masterpieces, The Emigrants, and Vertigo, I have a better idea where he was coming from—but please don’t ask me to elucidate, as I wouldn’t do it justice.

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

  • Buy from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com (for which I receive a small commission)
  • …or, better still, buy or order a copy from your local, tax-paying independent bookshop, who could really do with the help.

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