“The Rings of Saturn” by W.G. Sebald

A chance find on the bookshelves of a holiday cottage in Staithes. Ten short chapters.
I’d heard of the author, but that only: I didn’t even know he was German. If I had I might have been put off, as translations for me often jar, but this one (by Michael Hulse) never did; from the off it was like reading a novel by an outstanding English writer and stylist.
The novel describes a (real, I take it) walking tour the author undertook through Suffolk (although German by birth he was a professor in Norwich), from Lowestoft to Ditchingham. Sebald uses what he sees and finds as springboards for stories from history, illustrated with photographs and beautifully told. There’s an encyclopaedic feel as you move from the walk to an account of different places and times, back to the walk, then to somewhere else. These stories are usually depressing: about suffering in wars & battles (e.g. Waterloo), the suffering of herring as they died in their billions, the unfulfilled love between the French writer and diplomat Châteaubriand and a Suffolk rector’s daughter, the torments in the lives of writers such as Conrad, Fitzgerald and Swinburne, and the reclusive (and truly shattered) final years of Major George Wyndham Le Strange, the allied commander who liberated Belsen. Places take the stage too: the collapse of Dunwich into the North Sea, the destruction of trees in the 1987 storm, and the bleak post-military wasteland of Orford Ness. Throughout, the evils of the Third Reich are never far beneath the surface, and I suspected as I read that many of the stories were symbolic treatments of this; I was reminded of George Steiner’s argument (in Silence) that the only proper response to the Holocaust is just that – silence (silence and motionlessness are recurrent themes in Sebald’s book); I was reading the book as a muted indirect response to Nazism, and I think in many ways it is. One of the few positive episodes is an encounter with a farmer called Thomas Abrams, who, to the neglect of his farm, has devoted decades to the construction of a large model of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ; yet even this is tinged with regret, through Abrams’ fears that his model will never be finished, and through our knowledge of the Temple’s then-imminent destruction by the Romans, and European Jewry’s near destruction by the Nazis. A particularly upsetting passage describes the murders carried out by the Croatian Ustasha in WWII, which implicitly fingers former UN General Secretary Kurt Waldheim with, at the least, clear knowledge of what was going on.

Sebald’s walk ends in the middle of Chapter IX: the chapter concludes with an account of the 1987 storm destroying the park near his home in Norwich. What was to come in Chapter X? What were, after all this, the “Rings of Saturn”?

The inside jacket quotes the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

The discovery of the terrible reality hidden in this narration has a shattering power.

And the blurb beneath includes:

The Rings of Saturn follows the trails of destruction human beings have wrought on themselves. … Its narratives are unfolded with a melancholy ever the domain of Saturn and, like its rings, created from the fragments of shattered worlds.
(Note “shatter” twice: I was expectant.)

Aha! I hadn’t thought of that (and was glad I hadn’t read the blurb before reading): Saturn as the planet of melancholy – Holst etc. And the Rings are the way history repeats itself: often Sebald observes that history is a series of disasters. But Chapter X does do something else too – its detailed discussion of the silk industry (yes) links everything together into the revelation picked up the Frankfurt newspaper. As you read this section you remember that silk has appeared as a theme throughout – not only clothing, but also silken ropes as a literal and metaphorical method of aristocratic execution. The final chapter stresses silk as a garment of mourning, and points out as an aside that one of the orders of moths used for silk-production is the Saturnidae… And a quick focus on the Nazis’ innovative revival of German sericulture links thematic image with underlying subject matter.

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