The Rings of Saturn

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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....

(The entire section is 487 words.)