The ethereal rings of Saturn are constructed of mere space rubble, removed from formerly glorious space bodies. This idea, of decomposition and of unimportance, is pursued serenely by the roving author, W.G. Sebald. His third book, “The Rings of Saturn,” is a walking tour of the Eastern shores of England, as well as a meditation on the nature of decay in society and the fluidity of time. Sebald’s simple and precise language translated from German, follows the narrator, who may or may not be Sebald, along the coast and through the different dimensions of British Imperial history. This short novel defies the laws of time and lacks any backbone of structured plot. To read “The Rings of Saturn” is to spend a sun-warmed afternoon drifting through transpirations of hundreds of years of history, all interconnected and webbed by the undefinable powers of chance and natural beauty.
Sebald writes what cannot be written about, and the result is a hypnotic and introspective tale which has no bounds. He richly paints his experiences, traveling through commercially desolated tourist towns on the coast, and of figures such as Sir Thomas Browne and the dowager Empress Tzu Hsi, with a ghostly perspective. The solemn tone of the novel, however, does not lend itself to any mood of sadness. The array of barely connected features are depicted with an undercutting irony which forces the reader to consider the inevitable pull of obscurity. In fact, Sebald goes as far as to write this, “on every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation.” This principle runs as an integral theme of the novel, as the majority of the tales are derived from a sense of slow decay. There are parallel stories of the disrepair of a nobleman’s country house in Somerleyton, the downfall of the Celestial King and his Taiping rebels, and the economic decline of Lowestoft. These ideas seem to align with quintessential DeLillo, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.”
The book follows Sebald, maybe, as he spends time in the quiet towns of East Anglia which were once soaked in the flavor of historical affairs. He journeys from town to town, visiting tourist sites and lesser known locales. So, in a sense, this novel has value as a travel book. However, in between the descriptions of his contemporary wanderings are accounts of events which relate to one artifact or group of people. These strange stories, laced with serendipity, formulate the core of the novel. We see the journey begin in Norwich, as the narrator takes us on a historical account of the county of Suffolk, town by town. It is difficult to define a line of plot or even what is action versus what is aside, but despite its shapelessness, it retains interest. To root the action, the book contains a spectacular array of archival and contemporary photographs to go along with the text.
Ultimately, “The Rings of Saturn” is a novel which can easily consume the ponderings of an individual, and which brings a unique style into the debate of the workings of time. Sebald’s prose shines, as his sentences focus and disarrange subjects simultaneously, leaving readers more questions than answers. While it does walk off on a tangent, sometimes for pages, even these side notes entertain. The ECHO recommends New Directions Publishing’s 2016 edition, translated from the German by Michael Hulse, with a stunning, simplistic, and dreamy cover designed by Peter Mendelsund.