Die Ringe des Saturn by W.G. Sebald

August 2018

Melancholy and meandering, a tricky read because the German sentences seemed to meander much like the narrator. I would be lulled into the rhythm of the narrator’s journey only to repeatedly be brought up short by the flat, offhand description of some personal tragedy or human atrocity. There’s a definite heart of darkness here. As I read this for an online “book club”, I tweeted some of my thoughts as I went along: Reading Sebald’s description of his fellow train passengers at the start of Ch. 2, I was reminded of an Edvard Munch painting: everyone facing the same direction in the gloom, silent, staring blankly ahead. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Evening_on_Karl_Johan_Street.jpg / “Auch in welchem Jahrzehnt oder Jahrhundert man ist, lässt sich nicht ohne weiteres sagen, denn viele Zeiten haben sich hier überlagert und bestehen nebeneinander fort” (“many ages are superimposed here and coexist”). Maybe why the book feels timeless? / Sebald is a ghost moving among ghosts: the mute train passengers, the woman in the Lowestoft hotel who looks right through him, the fishermen on the beach staring into emptiness, all the friends and neighbors who have died… / Sebald’s description of Conrad’s arrival in England could apply to Sebald himself: “ein einundzwanzig Jahre alter Fremder, einsam unter lauter Engländern und Engländerinnen” (p. 138, TRoS) / “I left Germany when I was twenty-one […]. I knew hardly any English at the time, and I had no idea what England was like” (https://brickmag.com/an-interview-with-w-g-sebald/). Again, the isolation of the immigrant. / I finally finished Die Ringe des Saturn last night, a dark book that ends on a pitch-black note, doubling down on the notion that the narrator is a lost soul - or perhaps that all of us are. I was especially moved by the last line: “damit nicht die den Körper verlassende Seele auf ihrer letzen Reise abgelenkt würde, sei es durch ihren eignen Anblick, sei es durch den ihrer bald auf immer verlorenen Heimat.” I’m surprised by the English translation: “so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.” Heimat doesn’t just mean land, it means homeland or home. I feel this distinction is important: “so that the soul leaving the body would not be distracted on its final journey, either by the sight of itself or that of its home, soon to be lost forever.”

Further reading…