The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time. It’s ostensibly a travel memoir, a record of a walking tour of Suffolk, on the east coast of England, that Sebald took in August, 1992. However, the narrator sometimes seems to be someone else. The title comes from one of the epigraphs, a quote from the Brockhaus Encyclopedia explaining that Saturn’s rings are probably “fragments of a former moon” that was destroyed when it came too near the planet.

The image works on several different levels, not just his circuitous route around Suffolk but also the wanderings of his mind. Each location prompts a memory, some bit of arcane knowledge or history which Sebald shares with us. For example, sitting on the beach near Southwold, he is reminded of the Battle of Sole Bay, when the Dutch fleet attacked in 1672 and of the painting at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. He imagines the scene in rich detail, the powder magazines exploding, the hulls burning down to the waterline, the yellowish-black smoke. He says that the body of the commander of the English fleet, the Earl of Sandwich, washed ashore a few weeks later, “the seams of his uniform had burst asunder, the buttonholes were torn open, yet the Order of the Garter still gleamed in undiminished splendour.”

In another chapter, the bridge over the Blythe reminds him that the train that first ran on it was originally built for the Emperor of China. The story of how that came to happen is spun out through the Taiping rebellion, the Opium Wars, several emperors, Charles George Gordon (later of Khartoum fame), a scheming dowager empress and her silkworms.

In other chapters we learn about herrings, an Anglo-irish rebel, Joseph Conrad, Norfolk’s silk industry, and a housekeeper who obeyed her employer’s injunction never to speak to him and as a result was left a fortune, among much else—all of it fascinating. And almost all of it tinged with melancholy. He visits the once-thriving towns of Suffolk that are now run-down, remembering the luxury hotels and mansions that have now disappeared or become schools or hospitals. He walks across scrub that was once fields for the flocks of sheep required by the booming wool trade, now gone. His stories are illustrated by grainy black and white photographs, quirky evocations of a remembered past.

He ruminates about the things that are lost, things that have been destroyed or have disintegrated, such as the windmills “whose white sails revolved over the marshes of Halvergate and all along the coast”, dismantled after WWI. It is not surprising that he checked into a hospital at the end of his tour.

The narrator is working on a translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, a 1658 philosophical “Discourse” prompted by the discovery of some Bronze Age burial urns in Norfolk. While talking about various burial customs, Browne, a devout Christian, reflects on the transitory nature of our achievements in this life. References to Browne crop up in Sebald’s narrative, from his presence at an anatomy lesson in Amsterdam, recorded by Rembrandt, to his catalogue of remarkable books and other artifacts that Sebald believes were mostly imaginary.

The fashion these days is for memoirs to be built primarily of dramatic scenes, held together by as little narration as possible. This book is an interesting hybrid because, though it is all narrated by the author, he infuses his stories with plenty of drama, enough to keep me reading through the night. Even with his stories of what has been lost or forgotten, I loved this book. It is one I will long treasure and return to. Saturn’s rings made of fragments of a moon also make a fitting image for these themes of memory and decay.

What comes to mind when you think of the east coast of England?

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