The Rings of Saturn

by W. G. Sebald

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Rings of Saturn is German author W.G. Sebald's 1995 novel about an unnamed man on a walk across the English county of Suffolk.

The central character in the story is its unnamed narrator who, though not directly identified, is in fact Sebald himself. Early in the book, he informs the reader that his reason for walking through Suffolk is to dispel "the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work." The narrator is hospitalized. From his bed, he recalls various personages he encountered in his journey or at other points in his life.

Like many of Sebald's novels, the characters in the Rings of Saturn are more props for Sebald's central narrative than uniquely developed personalities, and many of their tales are melancholy or tragic. Following are several cases in point.

Frederick Farrar forms one of the narrator's recollections. A Cambridge educated attorney, Farrar sat on the bench until old age, retiring in 1982 at the age of 80. Sebald's principal memory of Farrar is how he was burned to death in his garden.

Michael Parkinson, a middle-aged bachelor, is another character. Described by the narrator as "one of the most innocent people I have ever met," Parkinson is almost entirely disinterested in the material world and lives a modest, humble, and seemingly lonely existence. He dies suddenly and without apparent cause; this, in turn, prompts the death of his female alter-ego, Janine Dakyns.

Michael Hamburger, whom the narrator visits on his walking tour, is cast as his double. They are both from Germany, both live in East Anglia, are of relative age, and have recently retired from teaching. Hamburger's existence is framed as a lonely one and the narrator recoils at seeing himself in this incarnation.

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