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THE RINGS OF SATURN by W.G. Sebald

THE RINGS OF SATURN

By W.G. Sebald

Pub Date: May 29th, 1998
ISBN: 0-8112-1378-1
Publisher: New Directions

Like his much praised novel The Emigrants (1996), this new work by Sebald is steeped in melancholy. It’s also highly idiosyncratic, beginning as the record of a fictional walking tour along the coast of Suffolk in southeast England before turning into a broad, rich meditation on Britain’s past and the power of history. Observations en route link with psychological and historical elements to form a kind of dreamscape, the boundaries of which become increasingly hard to define, though the 17th-century naturalist and physician Thomas Browne acts as fixed point of reference. The walk starts at the remains of the fairy-tale palace known as Somerleyton Hall, once a Victorian railway king’s monument to extravagance. On the nearby coastline are other ruins, from the recently foundered town of Lowestoft (where Joseph Conrad first made landfall in England), a wreck after the Thatcherite bubble burst, to the more spectacular ghost of the once-mighty port of Dunwich, which over several centuries toppled inexorably into the North Sea. Each of the sites prompts stories of Britain’s past. A railway bridge, for instance, leads to the story of the odd train that once ran over it and of the train’s unlikely connection with the Emperor of China and the silk trade. Turning inland, the trail leads to writer Michael Hamburger (a number of writers, most long dead, figure in the journey), whose story of flight from the Nazis in 1933 resonates with the narrator’s own more recent history, and on to a disorienting sandstorm among the remains of a forest uprooted by the freak hurricane of 1987 before turning back to the history of Britain’s colonial involvement in the silk trade, which binds many threads of this trek together. Erudition of this sort is too rare in American fiction, but the hypnotic appeal here has as much to do with Sebald’s deft portrait of the subtle, complex relations between individual experience and the rich human firmament that gives it meaning as it does with his remarkable mastery of history.