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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 253

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is a walking meditation, literally. The narrator recounts historical, literary, and cultural changes in the context of a walking tour of bits of the east coast of England. It's a lamentation, given the narrator's accounts of the 1987 hurricane that ravaged the...

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The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald is a walking meditation, literally. The narrator recounts historical, literary, and cultural changes in the context of a walking tour of bits of the east coast of England. It's a lamentation, given the narrator's accounts of the 1987 hurricane that ravaged the southern half of the UK and the car crash that almost killed him. You're reading about uprooted trees and barren landscapes, about accidents and injuries, and then put in context, you're meant to understand them as the effects of colonial oppression, class warfare, and environmental destruction. In this aspect of lamentation, the book is more like J. G. Ballard's Day of Creation than James Joyce's Ulysses. The natural setting of Ballard's book plays a role similar to Sebald's. In Joyce, Dublin is just there. It's not really an actor. In The Rings of Saturn, nature has agency, just as the river did in Ballard's novel.

Once you understand the point of the hurricane story and the automobile accident, the reason for Sebald's choice of the title of the book is clear. Saturn's rings were formed when two planets collided in the early history of our solar system. A smaller one, caught by gravity, caught by forces it couldn't resist, smashed into a larger planet and was destroyed. The larger planet is what we know as Saturn. The remnants of the smaller planet became Saturn's rings. In the book, contemporary society and the narrator are the rings; Saturn is history. It's not a happy allegory.

The Rings of Saturn

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

THE RINGS OF SATURN seems less a novel than a travelogue, but it still holds the reader’s attention with its examples of decomposition, a taste for which it shares with W.G. Sebald’s first novel, THE EMIGRANTS (1996).

Sebald himself is the main character, as well as the narrator, of THE RINGS OF SATURN, and his walking tour of East Anglia in England in 1992 provides the setting for his research along the way. What he finds so dispirits him that, in 1993, he ends up in the hospital, where the book begins and where he reflects on the seventeenth century English antiquarian Sir Thomas Browne’s interest in the artifacts of death.

The “Rings” in the title refer to the debris the chapters are formed by, like the rings of the planet Saturn. Towns like Lowestoft and Southwold that Sebald journeys to have all but dissolved because the fishing industry they depended on has failed; the town of Dunwich is gone altogether because the cliff it was on eroded so far inland that the town fell into the sea.

The mansions and estates that Sebald visits on his tour, such as Somerleyton Hall in Lowestoft, are themselves remnants of splendor. The Ashbury house in Ireland, which Sebald recalls his visit to, is like this, and the Ashbury’s themselves have nothing left to do but save dead flowers and build a boat that would sink were it launched.

The other eccentrics marked by futility whom Sebald considers include his namesake St. Sebolt, who performed such miracles as crossing the Danube on his cloak; the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who spent his life in horror of stimulation; and the English farmer Thomas Abrams, who spent twenty years building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem without knowing what it actually looked like.

Much of Sebald’s focus is on the large scale dissolution caused by greed or arrogance. The decimation of the people of the Congo by King Leopold of Belgium, and the conquest of Imperial China by the British, exemplify this.

Sebald ends his book with the history of silkworms. The Dowager Empress of China T’su-hsi liked them because they worked, multiplied, and died for her without question, and the economies of the West liked them because they produced riches without much expense. They show, in Sebald’s mind, how human projects fail from an excess of ambition and a misuse of nature.

Though Sebald finds despair in decomposition, he also finds enchantment in its details.

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. XXXVI, Summer, 1998, p. 29B.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1998, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXIX, July 6, 1998, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 3, 1998, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 26, 1998, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 6, 1998, p. 60.

Quadrant. XLII, November, 1998, p. 76.

Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 241.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 31, 1998, p. 11.

The Wall Street Journal. October 28, 1998, p. A20.

The Rings of Saturn

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1881

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 political action could defeat the horror.

One of Sebald’s major examples of dissolution in the human world is China. First, the imperial court in the nineteenth century has evolved to the point at which even the smallest gesture is regulated by ceremony and at which little, if any, sense of the China beyond it penetrates its habitat, the Forbidden City. It is as if the emperor’s world were a work of art in which death is a devoted subject rather than a threat that time carries out.

Part of this threat is a revolt in China that lasts for fifteen years at the cost of twenty million lives. Another threat is England. The culture of England, defined by greed, and the culture of China, defined by the restrictions of beauty, are so different from each other that in the war between them in 1860 negotiations collapse. As Sebald writes, “Word was conveyed to the commanders of the enemy forces that . . . the Emperor was obliged by law to go hunting in autumn”—meaning that the working out of a treaty would have to be postponed. The British, with their allies the French, respond to this by looting and destroying the emperor’s garden outside Peking. The death of Hsien-feng, the emperor at the time, reflects the dissolution of his country in that he becomes “the battlefield on which the downfall of China” takes place, just as the empress dowager Tz’u-hsi reflects the ordinariness of dissolution in that she dies of “a double helping of her favourite pudding.”

Through Tz’u-hsi Sebald introduces us to silkworms. They are the only creatures toward which she feels kindly, for they are “diligent in service, ready to die, capable of multiplying vastly within a short span of time.” These qualities make them ideal for exploitation by the economies of the West, but before Sebald explores this, he presents other examples of settings come to ruin and mansions gone to seed. Among the first he mentions Dunwich, in medieval times a rich port, but the cliff on which it was built gradually eroded so far inland that the entire town dropped into the sea. Sebald also mentions the forests of England; they once covered the island, but fire and Dutch elm disease depleted them.

Among the shabby mansions Sebald describes, the Ashbury house in Ireland exemplifies the futility of ambition. Unlike many other mansions burned down in the Irish Civil War, it remains, a shadow of the opulence it had once displayed. The surviving Ashburys themselves can only play at having a purpose, much like the imperial family of China. Mrs. Ashbury puts seeds in bags which she uses to cover the heads of dead flowers, and her son Edmund plays at building a boat which he will never sail.

These eccentrics are like their better known counterparts, the nineteenth century English writers Algernon Charles Swinburne and Edward FitzGerald. Swinburne was born in the same year and died in the same year as the empress dowager Tz’u-hsi, and he had the same sense of unremitting ritual. As his friend Theodore Watts- Dunton said of him, he “always walks in the morning, writes in the afternoon and reads in the evening.” Also, Swinburne typifies decadence; decadence was in his poetry and in his near hysteria in the face of stimulation, which he craved, especially if the source was gruesome—such as the story his aunt once told him about the night burial of a suicide victim.

FitzGerald became a recluse like Swinburne, not to revel in a taste for ponderous ornamentation but to escape it. He became a recluse also because he was suffocated by his mother, the sole heir to the family fortune. Much like the empress dowager herself, she was, as FitzGerald recalls from his childhood, enveloped in a “great cloud of scent” as she strode “to and fro like some strange giantess” in the family mansion during her occasional visits there. Except for a few poems by Swinburne and FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, these writers’ lives were as pointless as those of the Chinese emperors and the Ashbury’s. Swinburne had little else to do but to be elaborately delicate in his habits, and FitzGerald had little else to do but to make scrapbooks and plan reference books.

As for the past, at which these writers were adept, it is as much a repository of dissolution to Sebald as memory itself, which his friend, the writer Michael Hamburger, affirms when he writes about his return to the Berlin of his childhood: “all I see is a darkened background with a grey smudge in it . . . gothic script . . . half-wiped away.”

Sebald summarizes futility as an aspect of dissolution when he describes the work of an English farmer, Thomas Abrams, who spent twenty years constructing a model of the Temple of Jerusalem. To Sebald, Abrams “immersed himself deeper and deeper into a fantasy . . . an apparently never ending, meaningless and pointless project.”

Finally, Sebald sees in the history of silk production in the West an image of the collapse of human projects on a large scale. This happened in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, because the government forced the citizens to cultivate silkworms. In Norwich, to cite another example, the silk industry on which the town grew rich simply died out by the early twentieth century, its final sale the mourning silks of upper class women at the funeral of the empress dowager of England, Queen Victoria.

At this point, Sebald has returned to Sir Thomas Browne, who records in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica the Dutch habit of draping mirrors and paintings with black ribbons lest the souls of the dead linger on reflections of their bodies and their environment—these embodiments of dissolution. Although Sebald chooses the unchanging aspect of change as a source of relief at the end, he finds alluring the discovery of exotic examples of ruin and their similarities to one another, believing that they are well suited to the elaborate style he presents them in.

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. XXXVI, Summer, 1998, p. 29B.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1998, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXIX, July 6, 1998, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 3, 1998, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 26, 1998, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 6, 1998, p. 60.

Quadrant. XLII, November, 1998, p. 76.

Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 241.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 31, 1998, p. 11.

The Wall Street Journal. October 28, 1998, p. A20.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69

Sources for Further Study

Artforum. XXXVI, Summer, 1998, p. 29B.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 28, 1998, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXIX, July 6, 1998, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 3, 1998, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, July 26, 1998, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 6, 1998, p. 60.

Quadrant. XLII, November, 1998, p. 76.

Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVIII, Fall, 1998, p. 241.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 31, 1998, p. 11.

The Wall Street Journal. October 28, 1998, p. A20.

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