The Rings of Saturn by W.G. SebaldThis is such an unusual book that I am not certain whether I am posting these few words about it in the right category. The publisher's descrpition on the back says 'Fiction/Memoir/Travel' and I am sure that it is all of these, and more besides.
The 'Fiction' element to me seemed the least important: I have no doubt that this story of Sebald's walking tour in Suffolk has been tidied up and edited in such a way that it diverges a little from the exact truth, but surely that is true of most travel writing and memoirs? For example, Sebald's account of his conversation with the gardener at Summerleyton Hall has the ring of veracity, even though I doubt if the gardener delivered his thoughts on allied airpower and air strikes against German cities in the form of the well-balanced essay that appears in the book.
To reduce the story to a simple account of a walking tour is in any case to remove the most interesting aspects of the book. It is in fact the diversions and digressions which give the book most of its interest. We hear about Thomas Browne, perhaps best known today as the author of 'Melancholia', but by Sebald's account, a man of wide and varied knowledge. This leads on, via Browne's account of an urn burial, to other thoughts on death and dying. Equally, we are treated to accounts of eccentric and strange characters that Sebald has either known or read about, both contemporary and historical.
In many ways, the book reads like a sort of Winterreisse. Although most of the journeys take place in Summer, there is often a feeling of chill, a bleakness which makes one think that in some senses this is a meditation on death. The fact that Sebald did in fact die (in a car accident) not long after the book was published adds a poignancy to this aspect of the tale. This is not to suggest that it is a gloomy book: life in all its rich variety is celebrated on every page, yet underlying that celebration, there is always an acknowlegement that all things come to an inevitable end.
One of the sources of Sebald's joy in life is the strange patterns formed by coincidence and chance. It is this which leads him from topic to seemingly unrelated topic throughout the book. His visit to the writer Michael Hamburger is made even more important to him by the knowledge that 'I first passed through British customs 33 years after Michael,... am now thinking of giving up teaching as he did...and [we] both suffer from an allergy to alcohol'. This makes him feel instantly at home in a place he has never visited before. The following day, he moves on to meditate upon the importance of sugar in building major art collections and galleries in Europe and the life and times of Edward Fitzgerald (of 'The Rubiyat of Omar Khyyam' fame). It is all intriguing stuff, bringing together huge swathes of erudition in an entertaining, but far from trivial fashion.
Given Sebald's fascination with coincidence, it should have been no surprise to me that on the morning after I finished reading the book, I turned the radio on to hear that scientists had discovered a new ring of Saturn. The rings of Saturn, supposedly formed out of the debris of moons which came to close to the planet, provided one of Sebald's meditations on death and change, as well, of course, as an intriguing title to a stimulating book.