21 thoughts on “The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald

  1. Pages 3 – 11

    “In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown, said Janine, Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara.”

    Thank goodness, I have been brought back to Sebald before I die. Thanks, Rhys, for mentioning this book, and bringing back to me its black and white photos, a projected or past walk around Suffolk, and also along the same North Sea, where I live now. His subsequent or previous stay in Norwich hospital, emitting a flow of long-textured and extruded paragraphs of pre- or post-wandering through literature, reaching Sir Thomas Browne’s skull…


    “…who is to know the fate of his bones, or how he is to be buried.”

  2. Pages 11 – 32

    “To set one’s name to a work gives no one a title to be remembered, for who knows how many of the best of men have gone without a trace.”

    We commute — from or toward speculations on Browne, Rembrandt, anatomy, a quincunx, the patterns in nature (and patterns of this text itself) and other rarifyings, some of them via long sentences that are described as phenomena by the long sentences themselves, a Gestalt perhaps in more than name only — we commute, yes, from or toward the nightnurses and the hospital by a journey on a steam train from Norwich to Lowestoft, and the syntactical route therefrom to a stately home and its miniature railway from a sort of Jacques Tati film, I guess. And windmills vanishing, how that changes the landscape, Sebald says. I wonder what he would now say about the wind turbines that pepper the anatomy of this North Sea coast. Have they brought back some airy genius-loci, I ask?

  3. Pages 32 – 40

    “There are indeed moments, as one passes through the rooms open to the public at Somerleyton, when one is not quite sure whether one is in a country house in Suffolk or some kind of no-man’s-land,…”

    Also a house and grounds with “the illusion of complete harmony between the natural and the manufactured.” A striking description by this author of Somerleyton, a genius-loci as apotheosis. Also a telling description (via German-born Sebald) from the house’s head gardener of his school day memories of Britain’s wartime bombers on their way over the house toward Germany …and his then thoughts and visualisations of the German dead caused by the bombs…

  4. 67F65C43-A4EE-4147-8544-F6836E88E299Pages 40 – 48

    A striking description of costal Lowestoft (England’s furthest eastern point in post-Thatcherite decline from its previous glory (this book having been published in 1995). Mann’s Death in Lowestoft or its equivalent…


  5. Pages 51 – 53

    “I do not believe that these men sit by the sea all day and all night so as not to miss the time when the whiting pass, the flounder rise or the cod come in to the shallower waters, as they claim. They just want to be in place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”



    “, and the cables with which they were once hauled ashore are rusting in the salt air.”

  6. Pages 53 – 59

    “By night, it appeared, the nets were cast, and by night they were hauled in again.”

    Not for freshwater Tench, but presenting a darkly intense view of sea fishing, especially herring fishing as a didactic lesson taught at schools and elsewhere, as well as symbolic of man’s battle with nature, and some of the intricacies are still playing out today, with fishing lore and quotas intrinsic to Brexit. Darkly intense, I say, but finally mention is made of the legendary luminosity of dead herring and how such light might be harnessed, or so I infer.

  7. 6832A3DA-54B2-453F-951F-DB2A8EBC5B19Pages 59 – 71

    “…that invisible spirit aboard his unmoving barque.”

    “….during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air.”

    Now my own photo from a few years back –
    The rest of my photos scrolled here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com

    Much of interest in these pages, including the tale of the woman who was referenced in this newspaper headline: “Housekeeper Rewarded for Silent Dinners.” And…

    “…a writing of a novel that would fly in the face of palpable facts and become entangled in such a way that few readers — very few readers — would be able to grasp the hidden, horrific, yet at the same time quite meaningless point of the narrative.”

    Cross-referenced this Sebald book again with my chance concurrent review of VULGAR THINGS here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2018/09/05/vulgar-things-lee-rourke/


  9. Pages 75 – 92

    “— As I sat there that evening in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark. […], so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn —“

    Read today, the day in real-time when two mighty storms slowly touch the world on each side of the earth.

    “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?”

    …or a diarist like Pepys. As Sebald effectively is in this hindsight real-time diary, not only now, but in his past, when he was in Holland looking across to England. He simultaneously diarises the past as well as the present. I happen to live in Holland-on-Sea, Essex, a bit further down the coast from Southwold and I often gaze across the sea from Holland to Holland, imagining, with the dream hyper-reality of “submerged memories”, flatland to flatland, landscape painting to landscape painting, and straight canals there, straight long roads here in my Essex town. Then, by zigzagging his diary like a tangenteer, Sebald passes his thoughts to Rameau’s Nephew, Diderot himself. (My real-time reviews of Diderot: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/rameaus-nephew-denis-diderot/ and https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/jacques-trhe-fatalist-denis-diderot/)

  10. Pages 92 – 104

    “The Reading Room is thus almost always deserted but for one or two of the surviving fishermen and seafarers sitting in silence, whiling the hours away. Sometimes, in the evenings, they play a game of pool in the back room.”

    The click of balls, the scratching of chalk on a cue. A beautiful description of the Sailors’ Reading Room in Southwold. And Sebald’s own use of it. Learning of past war things. Then an account of Roger Casement meeting Joseph Conrad…

  11. Page 123

    “One evening in a bar in Rhode de Genèse I even watched a deformed billiard player who was racked with spastic contortions but who was able, when it was his turn and he had taken a moment to steady himself, to play the most difficult cannons with unerring precision,”

  12. —> Page 134

    Tangentising towards thoughts about the scene and scenario of the Battle of Waterloo: “This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” A useful tangent for me — amid Sebald’s further thoughts on Casement, Irish history and Korzeniowski — and I now think of this very act of gestalt real-time reviewing as a useful tool to obviate such “falsification of perspective.”

  13. —> Page 154


    When seeing the iron bridge on the river Blyth between Southwold and Walberswick, thought of the Chinese train that once crossed it causes him to link various factors in a brainstorming fashion to extrapolate dragons and Chinese history… leading to the above passage…after an old Dowager Empress died at three o’clock from dysentery.
    More misfortune, fear and nighttime in time as a perception or a reality?

    As an aside, the mentioning of Walberswick reminds me that I got married in Woodbridge where my wife’s family lived since the early 1950s. And I know that area of Suffolk well. And I notice the next page mentions Dunwich. Here is a story called THE MENTIONING (published in Aklo) that I first wrote on the beach in Dunwich in 1989.

  14. —> Page 190

    Much talk of Dunwich history, Swinburne being one who wandered there, Swinburne’s state of being co-terminous with the Dowager Empress Tz’hu-hsi, Sebald’s disorientation below, a maze, and a visit to Mr Hamburger…



  15. —> Page 222

    Sugar dynasties, doodlebugs, Edward Fitzgerald, George Crabbe, Woodbridge, Bredfield, Hasketon…
    If I remember correctly, it was a Crabbe poem that gave rise to Britten’s Peter Grimes.

  16. —>end


    We end with Sir Thomas Browne…

    From current Wikipedia:

    “The Rings of Saturn (German: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt – An English Pilgrimage) is a 1995 novel by the German writer W. G. Sebald. Its first-person narrative arc is the account by a nameless narrator (who resembles the author in typical Sebaldian fashion[1]) on a walking tour of Suffolk. In addition to describing the places he sees and people he encounters, including translator Michael Hamburger, Sebald discusses various episodes of history and literature, including the introduction of silkworm cultivation to Europe and the writings of Thomas Browne, which attach in some way to the larger text. The book was published in English in 1998. A film, Patience (After Sebald), directed by Grant Gee and released in 2012, is based on this book.”


    I have shared this book with Sebald. And in many ways he has become for me the “company” mentioned in the blurb on the back of my edition: “A walking tour through the haunted landscapes of the past, in the company of the exiled and the departed.” He was doing that ironically within the book, in retrocausation from today, as I read it. Also, similarly, I see that Lee Rourke’s book VULGAR THINGS in the 21st century (reviewed here) gave birth retrocausally to this book’s title! Arguably, so.

    Meanwhile, Wikipedia has things to say about its title ….

    “The title of the book may be associated with thematic content contained in the two passages—one appearing as part of the book’s epigraph, the other in the fourth chapter, which mentions Saturn—hinting at both astronomical and mythological associations for Sebald’s use of the word:

    ‘The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet’s equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.’

    ‘As I sat there in Southwold overlooking the German Ocean, I sensed a quite clearly the earth’s slow turning into the dark. The huntsmen are up in America, wrote Thomas Browne in the Garden of Cyrus and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. The shadow of the night is drawn like a black veil across the earth, and since almost all creatures, from one meridian to the next, lie down after the sun has set, so, he continues, one might, in following the setting sun, see on our globe nothing but prone bodies, row upon row, as if leveled by the scythe of Saturn–an endless graveyard for a humanity struck by falling sickness.’”



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