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The Rings of Saturn
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Buddy Reads > The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald (June 2020)

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Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Welcome to our June 2020 buddy read discussion for...


The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald



Hugely original and erudite travelogue-come-memoir from one of Europe’s most lauded writers.
The Rings of Saturn begins as the record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia. From Lowestoft to Bungay, Sebald's own story becomes the conductor of evocations of people and cultures past and present: of Chateaubriand, Thomas Browne, Swinburne and Conrad, of fishing fleets, skulls and silkworms. The result is an intricately patterned and haunting book on the transience of all things human.



Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
I'm about two thirds through this book now, so thought it was as good a time as any to open up this thread

The Rings of Saturn is quite extraordinary - which is not quite the same as saying it's good, although I think it is very good.

I've not read many books like it.

I've long wanted to read W.G. Sebald and I had high expectations due to the high number of rave reviews this book has yielded.

In a way it's a book about nothing - and about everything

In essence, it's about W.G. Sebald's walk down the Suffolk coast from from Lowestoft to Ditchingham. I've visited most of the areas he visits which has added something to my reading experience.

The meditation of walking, results in W.G. Sebald taking flights of fancy and so it's part memoir, part travelogue, and part history book

Despite its freeform nature, I have found it very readable and, so far, have been engrossed throughout

I particularly like Southwold which added to my enjoyment of his two days in Southwold. These two days prompt musings into the history of Belgian colonial exploitation in the Congo, and the links between Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement (a knight of the realm and latterly Irish nationalist).

Elsewhere other historical figures come to life. For example, the Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi who presided over China for 47 years, or Victorian entrepreneur Sir Morton Peto.

There so much to get your head round but, if you're inately curious about the world, I'd say this is a joyous thing rather than any kind of chore.

I'm very curious to discover what other readers make of it.


Hugh (bodachliath) | 664 comments It is a long time since I read it, but you have captured its essence pretty well. I remember the section about Southwold being striking, but I have never been there.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
You really should visit Hugh - it's a bit twee but it retains a real magic, and the countryside thereabouts is wonderful

I've just read the section about poet and writer Edward FitzGerald - what an extraordinary character

I have just been struck by how much The Rings of Saturn reminds me of All the Devils Are Here by David Seabrook which I reviewed here...

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

All the Devils Are Here is lot less rarified and more populist but the vibe is very similar. It's a book I read whilst visiting Broadstairs which really added to its impact. I recommend it.




Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
The Ashburys and their Irish country house at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. What an incredible story. There's some remarkable tales in this book.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I expected the discussion to begin on the 15th or thereabouts, and I will read accordingly.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Completely understandable Elizabeth. I jumped the gun. Looking forward to discovering your thoughts and feelings when you get to it.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
The good thing is that it's not a book that can be spoiled. As you will discover there's no plot.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Nigeyb wrote: "Completely understandable Elizabeth. I jumped the gun. Looking forward to discovering your thoughts and feelings when you get to it."

It will work out, Nigeyb. I can't have both of the titles ready to read on the 15th, so one will be earlier. The decision is now easy!


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Note to self: visit Orford Ness


It is now a National Trust nature reserve 🌱


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Charlotte Ives and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand is another stunning little vignette


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
I remember the Great Storm of 16 October 1987 very well. I was in London where the damage was extreme but perhaps without the same trauma that Sebald describes so powerfully


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Nearly finished now...


Is this a journey of the body? Or a journey of the mind?

And does it really matter?

Most of it has a dreamlike quality which suggests to me that it was a meandering subconscious state that informed the book


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Finished


I eagerly look forward to discovering what the rest of you make of it

One of the challenges in reviewing The Rings of Saturn is to try to define it.

I was captivated by Sebald’s curious travelogue/history/memoir hybrid, and learned a lot.

Abandon all expectations about what a book should be about, surrender to Sebald’s journey, and you will be richly rewarded.

I look forward to reading more Sebald - and to discovering what you make of this unusual and original book

4/5

Here’s my review




message 15: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4191 comments Mod
I will also be starting this mid-month or thereabouts - I'm looking forward to it but have a lot of other books under way already!


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Splendid news Judy


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
I made a brief start last night, only read about 15 pages but think I'm going to love it. It's more melancholic than I expected (not that that's a problem for me).

Interesting question above from our Nigeyb: "Is this a journey of the body? Or a journey of the mind?" as Sebald has already conjured up Descartes, most famous for his articulation of the mind-body problem.

I'd hesitated previously as the idea of travelogue isn't my favourite but this is so much more.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "...only read about 15 pages but think I'm going to love it..."


Here’s a rough list of the different topics WG Sebald touches on during the first 10 pages of The Rings of Saturn (not my work - see link below)

A walk in Suffolk, undertaken by Sebald himself.

Post-work “emptiness”.

A superstition about ailments that assail you “under the sign of the Dog Star”.

Sebald’s hospitalisation in Norwich.

The view from Sebald’s hospital bed.

The nature of reality.

Norwich rooftops at twilight.

Michael Parkinson, a UEA academic who studied Charles Ramuz.

Parkinson’s walking holidays, and his death.

The death of Romance languages lecturer, Janine Dakyns, and her interest in 19th-century French novels.

Stupidity. Everywhere.

Sand.

Africa, the Mediterranean, the Iberian peninsula, the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen, the Sahara.

Dust.

Glaciers.

The angel in Dürer’s Melencolia I.

Surgeon and medical historian Anthony Batty Shaw.

Thomas Browne – particularly his skull.

Hydrocephalic foetuses.

The church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich.

The exhumation of Browne and the afterlife of his mortal remains.

There are a few things to note. First, this is just a rough list; providing the full tally of allusions and references would take up as much space as the chapter itself, and it’s far better just to enjoy Michael Hulse’s wonderfully smooth translation. Second, many of the items in this list are portals to further exploration: more allusions, more stories, more rabbit holes.

Third, when I mention “Sebald” as a person, I may be deceiving you. The narrator of this book appears to be its author – most of the time. But there are enough odd references and fantastical descriptions to make the reader suspect that the person telling these stories may be part-fiction.

Fourth, Sebald has barely got going by this stage. As The Rings of Saturn progresses, he references a staggering number of books, facts and historical events, interrupting his text with pictures we assume he must have taken on his peregrinations. And some he can’t possibly have taken. There are also historical photographs, reproductions of art works, documents, maps and illustrations. Some are explained by the text around them. Some aren’t. He quotes numerous authors, but never includes quote marks. He rewrites texts in his own words. And just makes things up. He includes deliberate errors, drifts into flights of fantasy, and makes us wonder about the truth of everything. Did he really, as he writes, climb over a wire to run his hand across the “dusty back” of a pig? “I stroked its snout and face, and chucked it in the hollow behind one ear, till at length it sighed like one enduring endless suffering.” What?

https://www.theguardian.com/books/boo...-


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Ooh, thanks - so much to look forward to! I love the intertextuality and the way it all weaves together (and I've only read about 15 pages!).

It's also a book that we can bring our own interests to: some stuff is completely new but in other cases we might know connected information - for example, I'm familiar with Thomas Browne's 'Urn Burial' and Rembrandt's 'The Anatomy Lesson' - but Sebald contextualises them in different ways.

Can't wait to get back to it after work! And if anyone is interested in another Sebald buddy-read, I'm in. Both The Emigrants and Austerlitz look fabulous.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "And if anyone is interested in another Sebald buddy-read, I'm in. Both The Emigrants and Austerlitz look fabulous."

Deffo

My library, which I am hoping is going to reopen soon, has a copy of Austerlitz which I hope to nab the second the doors are flung open to the public. Last I heard 4 July is the earliest date this might happen. I'll keep you posted.

I'll add this onto the W.G. Sebald thread too, so anyone else interested can see it there as well


message 21: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 664 comments I would certainly recommend both Austerlitz and The Emigrants.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Thanks Hugh.

I just realised that Saturn via 'saturnine' links to the idea of melancholy.

Also I love the way the two epigraphs immediately introduce ideas of destruction, struggle and 'the deep despair of the vanquished' - it's like Sebald wants to give an aura of artlessness but actually this is a very carefully composed text.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Not made that connection until you pointed it out RC - well done


Yes, definitely a carefully constructed book which works on numerous different levels


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
I've just got to Joseph Conrad, and had no idea his father had been a radical. Sebald shows wonderful restraint describing young Jozef doing his homework while his father was dying.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
I loved the way this section weaved together Conrad, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo, Roger Casement and Irish nationalism as if they were natural cognates - which they are, of course.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Absolutely. I was spellbound in sections, including that one


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
I'm at 80% now and wonder how others feel about this as fiction, given that it's been categorised that way in some prizes?

Perhaps it feels more natural now in the wake of autofiction (I'm thinking of Rachel Cusk's Outline trilogy, for example) to accept the way this teeters on the edge of genre boundaries, but it must have been revelatory and novel when first published.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Ah - finished! I absolutely *loved* this - can't believe I've never read Sebald before. Can't wait for the next one - and yes, very interested to see what others make of it.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Hurrah


I was very confident that you'd feel that way, guessing it would tick all your boxes


Elizabeth (Alaska) I have scratched the surface. I'll read posts sparingly as I make my way through. However, I do need to comment on the few pages of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson. I remembered reading a book about this painting, but I certainly didn't recall there was a gross error in its depiction. But just in case any of you might be interested, the book I read was called (no kidding!) The Anatomy Lesson. My review.

My other observation so far is that Sebald doesn't seem to know when to break paragraphs and they are really long. Maybe this doesn't continue. It isn't necessarily a complaint, by the way, but truly an observation.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Thanks Elizabeth


The section on Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson was wonderful. Actually, on reflection, the whole book is wonderful

Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "Sebald doesn't seem to know when to break paragraphs and they are really long"

I concluded the punctuation, or relative lack thereof, is a conscious decision which adds to a stream-of-consciousness, meditative atmosphere


message 32: by Roman Clodia (last edited Jun 08, 2020 01:02AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "My other observation so far is that Sebald doesn't seem to know when to break paragraphs and they are really long. Maybe this doesn't continue. It isn't necessarily a complaint, by the way, but truly an observation"

It does continue, Elizabeth, and I think reflects the way Sebald makes connections to shore up a tentative sense of temporary unity in the face of the destructions and ruinations he is contemplating. In other words, I thought his form of writing is part of what he is saying.

I should also say that I thought the translator, Michael Hulse, did a tremendous job and, I think, won a prize. I know Sebald worked closely with his translators in this and other books.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
How about this slice of Sebaldian trademark profundity which, in an age of bush fires, global warming and ongoing destruction of the amazonian rain forest, feels even more prescient…

Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact 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.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
... and also looks back to the 'thing' that Sebald seems not to be able to ever leave behind - the Holocaust: ''fuelled by... burning... combustion... bodies... reduced to embers".

I love the way the book compresses time so that past, present and future appear on a continuum.

I have such a book-hangover from Rings of Saturn that I haven't been able to start anything else.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "... and also looks back to the 'thing' that Sebald seems not to be able to ever leave behind - the Holocaust: ''fuelled by... burning... combustion... bodies... reduced to embers"."

Yes, of course. I hadn't even made that connection. Thanks. You're far more perceptive than me.

Roman Clodia wrote: ".I have such a book-hangover from Rings of Saturn that I haven't been able to start anything else"

Understandable RC. My thoughts keep coming circling back to it (although my reading continues unabated)


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "... and also looks back to the 'thing' that Sebald seems not to be able to ever leave behind - the Holocaust: ''fuelled by... burning... combustion... bodies... reduced to embers". "

I'm not there yet ...

There is a section in Part II where an Englishman speaks to so many Allied planes dropping bombs on Germany. Then, after the war, he visited Germany (or so I remember) but no one in Germany would talk about the war.

The German people lived with such guilt over he Holocaust for a couple of generations at least. It was unspeakable for them.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
From what I've read about Sebald, it's his great topic: how, as a German, to come to terms with his country's past.

I have German friends (and my sister-in-law) whose grandparents lived through those war years and yes, they won't speak of it.

I think it's only now that Germany is beginning to heal: the “Stolpersteine”, or “stumbling stones” project (stones to mark the last freely chosen residence of German Jews) is a contemporary and ongoing project of remembrance and memorialisation.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "I have German friends (and my sister-in-law) whose grandparents lived through those war years and yes, they won't speak of it.."

Not civilians, but many who fought also would not speak of what they saw in war - any war. What we put men through ...


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "Interesting question above from our Nigeyb: "Is this a journey of the body? Or a journey of the mind?" as Sebald has already conjured up Descartes, most famous for his articulation of the mind-body problem."

Through Part IV, I'll say it's a journey of the mind, but the mind's itinerary is prompted by the journey of the body.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "From what I've read about Sebald, it's his great topic: how, as a German, to come to terms with his country's past.."

I've read two more chapters after reading the above comment. It has informed my continued reading of this. Often I don't want to know anything about anything before reading a book, but I think in this case knowing more about something is better. (Does that make even a bit of sense?)

Anyway, I came across this quote, which I think fits the coming to terms.

Or was this parable made up by the evangelist, I wondered, to explain the supposed uncleanliness of swine; which would imply that human reasoning, diseased as it is, needs to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation?

No point in focusing entirely on the holocaust. Groups of people, based on whatever reasons they conjure up (and those reasons aren't restricted to religion, race or other oft-used reasons), decide other groups are inferior. Sometimes the groups are small, as in a primary classroom that might see 2-3 children bully one other, or large where there are numerous examples. Sebald doesn't refer to the holocaust, but instead shows that the German persecution of the Jews was only just another instance of persecution as, for example, the Croats and the Serbs.


Elizabeth (Alaska) In a lighter, less heady direction ... (and sorry, this turned into a longer post than I would have thought)

The boats in which the fishermen once put out from the shore have vanished, now that fishing no longer affords a living, and the fishermen themselves are dying out.

This sentence astounded me. I live in a fishing community, and the commercial fishermen, whose boats often cost more than $1 million, are some of the most prosperous among us. The sport fishermen don't spend as much, of course, but I know people who take their boats out regularly for several days or just a weekend, the same way people go out in motor homes

Sebald goes on to discuss the collapse of the herring fishery. Here each year, it is the herring fishery that truly starts things off. This and other fisheries are regulated by the state, so that some years there is almost a free for all and others very very tightly controlled - all dependent upon how many fish show up and when. Also, our fishermen don't use the gillnet method Sebald describes, but instead use the purse seine method. I looked for photos to show what this looks like overhead, but the only decent one I found wasn't much good unless you knew what you were looking at. The boats were almost invisible and the circle of the nets and they drew their purse was about all you could see.

We have herring in the grocery stores - not to eat. It's bait. Salmon is king here (no pun intended). The packages are colored according to size - fishing for King salmon you'd want bigger herring than if fishing for coho. As to herring to eat, my husband buys jars of pickled herring. He has to buy it now, but I know there is a family pickled herring recipe and I think his brother, who sport fishes, sometimes makes a batch.

Another thing that struck me is the herring roe is usually deposited on kelp. We have extreme high and low tides here compared to most places (although I think there are a couple of places in the UK with extreme tides?) Anyway, some years when the tide goes out, the roe on the kelp is so thick that the Natives harvest it - they call it candy. I most certainly haven't ever tasted it - but one year I was in the right place at the right time to observe it.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "I'll say it's a journey of the mind, but the mind's itinerary is prompted by the journey of the body."

I wondered if it might be the other way around (and this goes back to the question of how fictional this book is): is the physical journey a fictional conceit that holds together the intellectual issues that Sebald is concerned with?

He was a professor at the University of East Anglia so clearly knows the places he discusses. Our individual responses might depend on how discursive or coherent we ultimately see the text to be - and I'm at the latter end.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Elizabeth (Alaska) wrote: "Sebald doesn't refer to the holocaust, but instead shows that the German persecution of the Jews was only just another instance of persecution"

I'm not sure about this, Elizabeth - I agree that Sebald does take a wide view of ideas of destruction, decay and collapse, of persecution and exile across time and history, but for a German academic born in the 1940s (just checked, 1944), I don't think the Holocaust is or can be just one more example of humanity's need to persecute the Other. It's more personal, more traumatic than that for him, I'd say.

I'm not sure he ever does directly speak of the Holocaust, does he? But it's there in the industrial ruins he passes, and the image of all the dead herring lying on top of each other, and a couple of other examples we've discussed above - it's subtle but I found it pervasive.


Roman Clodia | 3974 comments Mod
Fascinating on fishing, btw!


Elizabeth (Alaska) Roman Clodia wrote: "I'm not sure he ever does directly speak of the Holocaust, does he? But it's there in the industrial ruins he passes, and the image of all the dead herring lying on top of each other, and a couple of other examples we've discussed above - it's subtle but I found it pervasive."

Since I haven't gotten to the end, I can't say he doesn't ever directly speak of the holocaust. What I was trying to say is that it isn't just the Holocaust, but we humans seem to need to find others who we believe are inferior, in order for we ourselves to feel superior. It starts when we are very young and I don't know where it comes from.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
I think I understand what you are saying about an inherent instinct to exert superiority (- although isn't there also an inherent instinct to be friendly and co-operative too?) however the holocaust (along with a few other incidents) was a programme of industrial scale extermination complete with killing factories which systematically murdered six million Jews. Imagine your country/generation having initiated such a programme? All must feel intense guilt and culpability.

I found this...

...(Sebald's) father, he learned much later, had served in the Army and had been among the troops who invaded Poland in 1939. Like so many German men of his generation, Sebald’s father refused to speak about his war experiences, and this reticence, with that of post-war Germany as a whole, is what impels Sebald’s narratives of shame and historical occlusion.

Re body/mind

I read somewhere, and now can't find it, that the hospital bed he writes about at the start of the book was the result of quite a serious back injury. I think he was in the hospital bed for quite some time. I'll report back when I discover how long. I mention it as that might suggest all that he writes about is imagined in his hospital bed.


message 47: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Jun 08, 2020 11:26PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Nigeyb wrote: "was a programme of industrial scale extermination complete with killing factories which systematically murdered six million Jews. Imagine your country/generation having initiated such a programme? All must feel intense guilt and culpability."

Yes, of course. It was an observation, not a complaint nor criticism.

And let's keep in mind that the extermination wasn't just 6 million Jews. There were 12 million (give or take) exterminations. Some were criminals, but others were of minor Christian religions and others that Hitler's regime found undesirable.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Nigeyb wrote: "I think I understand what you are saying about an inherent instinct to exert superiority (- although isn't there also an inherent instinct to be friendly and co-operative too?) "

From a young age, little boys are wont to say (about a lot of things, not just the obvious) "mine is bigger than yours." Little girls try to be prettier or more coquetish. Yeah, I'm being sexist about the genders. But these traits come about at a very young age - pre-school. It is the need to be acceptable, yes, but in being acceptable is the recognition that not being acceptable is to be inferior and so the opposite must be found.


message 49: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Jun 08, 2020 11:40PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) While I'm up losing beauty sleep (and goodness knows I need it!), I'll mention that I knew some of the discourse on the trip up the Congo. What I knew, however, wasn't from knowing about Conrad. King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is excellent. More of the full story about the subjugation of the people and also the corruption of the regime.

EDIT: I said excellent and yet I gave it three stars. But I remember more of it than 3-stars worth. Something wrong on my end, I think. My review.


Nigeyb | 8411 comments Mod
Thanks Elizabeth - some interesting thoughts and ideas. Please keep them coming.


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