The Rings of Saturn
by W.G. Sebald
“Perhaps we all lose our sense of reality to the precise degree to which we are engrossed in our own work, and perhaps that is why we see in the increasing complexity of our mental constructs a means for greater understanding, even while intuitively we know that we shall never be able to fathom the imponderables that govern our course through life.” ― W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
The novel as walking tour, but it is more than that being a voyage of the imagination into both the presence and history of one's own interior spaces. Inspired by writers from Thomas Brown to Conrad and Borges, Sebald narrates a journey outward through Eastern England and inward into his mind. The book brings Rousseau's Reveries of a Solitary Walker to my mind - part reminiscence, part meditation, as Rousseau seeks to come to terms with his isolation and find happiness in solitude and nature. Sebald also ventures into themes of nature and isolation, but even more important is the theme of desolation and the quest itself.
The book consists of ten chapters that seem to document a meandering journey, yet really provide a wide variety of thoughts, references, and experiences that all are connected with the major themes of desolation, interiority, and nature. The beginning reminded me of Dante as the author sets off on a journey into the countryside of Suffolk. He feels a joyous sense of freedom while he is traversing the countryside, even as he feels a disabling sense of horror when he encounters past events of destruction there with his own focus on "traces of destruction" so intense that he finds himself in hospital. There he looks out on the world from a small window and finds it difficult to judge reality from illusion; he thinks of himself as Gregor Samsa, the young man in Kafka’s story Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936).
Images of dust, sand, ashes, fog, and mist pervade The Rings of Saturn. The ashes contained in the burial urn are much like the particles of sand on a beach or the dust particles that ring Saturn; they are particles of matter that remain after some form of destruction or transformation of organic matter. One of the epigraphs to the novel recalls that the rings of Saturn consist of ice crystals and meteorite particles that are fragments of a former moon that was destroyed. The narrator concludes that human civilization, from its earliest times, is little more than a strange luminescence whose waning and fading no one can predict.
His journey is not only physical but mental as he shares his thoughts about the author Thomas Browne whose work was inspirational for him. More connections of this kind are described and even though they seem unrelated, upon reflection there are connections between disparate authors and divergent moments from history. These moments range from the Renaissance to Bergen Belsen to the cause of the Irish Nationalist Roger Casement. The connections are curiously frequent as when the author Joseph Conrad meets Casement early in his career. References from the art of Durer and Rembrandt are cited to demonstrate the desolation that exists in a reality that we know through the artistic genius of men like these.
Using a beautiful prose style the novel presents the borders between illusion and reality, fact and fiction, and dreams and life as porous and permeable. The novel does not contain a specific plot that can be followed from beginning to end. Much like Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Rings of Saturn records the narrator’s thoughts in stream-of-consciousness-like fashion as he moves from one topic to another, with various images or events sending him into associative reveries. The result is mesmerizing.