The Pequod Review:
The Rings of Saturn is W.G. Sebald’s finest book, an enchanting novel that once again blends fact and fiction, as well as text and photographic illustrations, but this time with his most cohesive narrative and deepest philosophical observations. Structured as a first-person account of a walking tour across the English countryside, the book’s primary theme centers on the “traces of destruction” that the narrator observes throughout his journey. These observations are used as starting points for extended musings on a wide range of subjects: war, genocide, politics, economic growth, literature, insects, herrings, silk production, and even the weather.
Near the beginning of the book, the narrator appeals to the work of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century English scientist and philosopher, whose melancholic observations revolved around the inevitable destruction and decay of all living things:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator.
And since the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature, Browne scrutinizes that which escaped annihilation for any sign of the mysterious capacity for transmigration he has so often observed in caterpillars and moths. That purple piece of silk he refers to, then, in the urn of Patroclus—what does it mean?
Throughout the book, Sebald has a similar focus on the impermanence underlying everything in the world:
On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.
Our spread over the earth was fueled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. From the first smoldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of those lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artifact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.
It is hard to convey through excerpts the intensity, curiosity and intelligence in Sebald’s writing. He has carved out an entirely unique form of prose, one that combines elements of narrative fiction, documentary history, and photographic travelogue. The Rings of Saturn brings these together more successfully than any of his other books, and is the best place for new readers to start.