The Rings of Saturn

by W. G. Sebald

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Rings of Saturn is German writer W.G. Sebald's 1995 novel about an unnamed man, later revealed to be Sebald himself, on a walk across the English county of Suffolk. It is told in a series of recollections, many of which are melancholy and lonely and focus on themes of memory, loss, and separation. In these, the narrator recalls bittersweet and sometimes painful moments from his personal and observed past.

In one case, he tells of Charlotte Ives's parting from François-René de Chateaubriand. He muses on whether isolating painful memories makes them even more painful when they eventually surface. He ultimately concludes that:

Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.

On another occasion, Sebald looks at a photo history book of World War I. Upon observing the carnage depicted, his mind fixates on a World War II atrocity in the Balkans involving Croatian militia. Recalling the children forcibly adopted out of their dead families, he notes that,

... no one knows what shadowy memories haunt them to this day.

At another point, Sebald comments on his own lifetime motivations, revealing something more of his character:

For days and weeks on end one racks one's brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane.

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