The Rings of Saturn

by W. G. Sebald

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Part memoir and part fiction, The Rings of Saturn is a journal of a walking tour that takes the narrator (Sebald) through the English countryside of Suffolk and, at times, through the dark places of his mind.

At the beginning, the narrator states that he is taking the walk to help counter

The emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.

However, he soon collapses and is taken to a hospital in Norwich where he compares his state to the main character in Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, and begins his notes for his book.

Now that I begin to assemble my notes, more than a year after my discharge from hospital, . . .

Central to the story is Sebald's search for the skull of the 17th century physician Sir Thomas Browne, a writer whose ideas on life and death he seems to identify with.

And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, the shadow filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence. And because it is so, it befits our philosophy to be writ small, using the short hand and contracted forms of transient Nature, which alone are reflections of eternity.

In addition, the narrator reflects on what it means for him to be German. He also reflects on the work of writers such as Joseph Conrad, particularly Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Jorge Luis Borges.

By the end, the reader understands the book is about Sebald's identity as a writer and a person.

But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight.

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