Like his previous novel, The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn describes history as ambition and collapse. The “Rings” in the title are, like the dissolved moons and meteors that form the rings of Saturn, the various dissolutions expressed by history. Among these, Sebald focuses on habitations small and large, such as houses and countries, and on figures such as the seventeenth century English doctor and antiquarian Thomas Browne.
The Rings of Saturn is presented as a traveler’s ruminations on history and art. It begins when the narrator suffers a nervous breakdown a year after his travels and ends when he details the history of silk production in China and the West. The chapters of The Rings of Saturn take up the towns and areas the narrator visits on his walking tour of Suffolk on the east coast of England. The title may also refer to these chapters because, although separate, they share the same debris.
The hospital in Norwich, England, where the narrator recovers from his breakdown, contains in its museum the skull of Sir Thomas Browne. Browne’s interest in the artifacts of death, as in his Urn Burial, coincides with Sebald’s. With the hospital as the tie between him and Browne, Sebald invokes Rembrandt’s seventeenth century painting “The Anatomy Lesson,” which depicts an autopsy that Browne, a medical student at the time, may have witnessed. To Sebald the painting is not only a way to preserve the dead, as Browne’s writing does, but also an attempt to examine fully what has died—in this case, a thief recently hanged.
The narrator’s account then returns to the start of his tour from Norwich. His first stop is Lowestoft, all but a ghost town by the sea, and the town’s Somerleyton Hall, which had been re-built in the mid-nineteenth century by the businessman Sir Morton Peto in a style meant to flatter his success and appear to be a creation of nature at the same time. Yet, in the end the house becomes a relic in a landscape once the site of airfields from which Germany was bombed during World War II.
As he moves between Lowestoft and Southwold, the narrator reflects on how chemicals have destroyed the fish, including the once immense schools of herring on which the area made its living at one time. After this, having considered Major George Le Strange, an eccentric who is falling apart like the manor house in which he lives, Sebald is reminded of the swine in the Gospel of St. Mark. Filled with the demons Christ transfers into them from a lunatic, these unclean animals leap off a cliff into the sea. To Sebald, they seem to be an image of how humans, in trying to escape corruption of the spirit, corrupt their environment instead.
After taking up the naval battle between the Dutch and the English near Southwold in 1672 and the expense of building fleets that fire destroys in the end, Sebald goes on to his namesake, the patron saint of Nuremberg. St. Sebolt, as he is called, began his career as a saint by telling his bride on their wedding night, “Today our bodies are adorned, but tomorrow they will be food for worms.” The miracles he performs, such as baking bread from ashes, crossing the Danube on his cloak to repair a broken glass, and making “a fire with icicles,” are mere curiosities, useless against the fact that life ends.
Likewise, the narrator’s writings about the nature of time are charming oddities compared to what he finds in a local history of World War I and in a newspaper article in Southwold. In the first, he sees “illustrations of all conceivable forms of violent death . . . corpses rotting . . . battleships sinking,” and in the second, he sees examples of the massacre of Serbs, Jews, and Bosnians by Croats in World War II. Death, in short, is not only a curse we cannot dispose of, but a sentence we impose on other humans.
Dissolution on a large scale continues to fascinate Sebald at this point. As in war, entire countries slaughter entire peoples through subjugation. In the nineteenth century Belgium did this to the peoples of the Congo, pretending that its aim was to civilize them in the name of Christ, whereas its real aim was to enrich itself in the name of King Leopold. Between 1890 and 1900, Sebald writes, a half million natives in the Congo died each year under Leopold’s rule. Joseph Conrad revealed in The Heart of Darkness what Belgium was doing, and Roger Casement, the British consul in Bomu in the Congo in 1903, tried to put a stop to it, but neither the one through art nor the other through...