W. G. Sebald — The Rings of Saturn

October 22, 2008 at 10:48 am 2 comments

I recently had the chance to visit Orford Ness, a shingle spit on the Suffolk coast upon which stand the ruins of a disused military testing facility; and this strange and wonderful experience prompted me to write about one the most remarkable books I’ve ever read: The Rings of Saturn (1998 ) by W.G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse.

Everyone who encounters this book struggles terribly to pigeonhole it, including the book’s publisher, Vintage, which describes it as “Fiction/Travel/Memoir”. It’s all of these things and none of them. Sebald’s concern is, in his own words, “the natural history of destruction”. He considered himself “not a writer of fiction, but some sort of chronicler of damages caused.” The point of the book is discreetly set out on page one, when the narrator tells of how he “set off to walk the county of Suffolk”, a walk that supplies the book’s basic scaffolding.

At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.


The Suffolk coast is a smartly chosen setting for this literary undertaking. With the coastline receding at around four metres a year, coastal settlers wage a constant battle against the encroachment of nature. On the frontline, buildings are continually taken prisoner by the waves: the lighthouse above will be gone in five years. As Sebald notes touchingly and perceptively, even the trees have been ravaged by Dutch Elm Disease. But this destruction only frames the episodes of destruction that fascinate Sebald — those brushed-over chapters in history in which humans have busied themselves inventing new ways to destroy each other. From early modern dissections of criminals to 17th Century naval warfare, from the Belgian Congo to 19th Century China, The Rings of Saturn is an excavation of past suffering.

Much to my envy, Sebald visited Orford Ness before the National Trust acquired it:

But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways.

In German the book carries a subtitle: “An English Pilgrimage“. Pilgrimage to what? This is an allusion, perhaps (and similar allusions appear elsewhere in the book), to Suffolk’s centrality to the British blitz of German cities in World War Two. Suffolk was where the planes armed, took off and landed. Orford Ness was where they tested their weapons. For Sebald, this air war is one of the great suppressed traumas in world history, one he addresses in his celebrated essay Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999). It’s an irony that, in any war, even the victors are ultimately obliterated without trace.

The weight of the subject matter is leavened by the wonderfully light touch of the prose, marked by a poet’s eye for metaphor and obsessional attention to detail. One of Sebald’s most powerful and idiosyncratic techniques is to embed photographs in the text: they are so well chosen, so well integrated that they make a major contribution to the book’s evocative power. As you can see, I’ve embedded some mock-Sebaldian photographs of my own.


Sebald was on to something. A topic I’ve landed on several times recently is the question of what exactly, if humanity were obliterated tomorrow, we’d leave behind us as a geological legacy. People tend to assume we’d leave behind a world of junk (carrier bags, fridges, chewing gum). In reality, as Jan Zalasiewicz notes, it will be very little, if anything. A minute stratum of rock that might well be interpreted as some giant natural disaster (not necessarily inaccurately) by a future intelligent species. In the end, everything goes.

Pre-1789, natural history was the natural history of creation — the project of cataloguing all God gave to humanity. Post-1945, perhaps we should consider whether it’s the natural history of destruction that provides the bigger catalogue — and the truer picture of the world. Sebald was PR spokesman for the Faustian worldview. The Rings of Saturn is bleak, terrifying, dispiriting, and yet (and how often do these qualities go together?) an utterly beautiful work of art.

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Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Sebald WG. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. seachanges  |  December 30, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    Great review – When I read Sebald I think he creates his own parallel world in his books, one that sits alongside what we normally see and interpret of the landscapes and communities around us. And then he shows us how we can look at at this world again and convinces us to reconsider and see different aspects, ones of decay that signpost to earlier worlds and communities. But they seem irretrievably lost and like an anthropologist we can only try and imagine what it might have ben like.

  • 2. Clare Politics » Imperial blather  |  February 16, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    […] the description of the suppression of the Taiping rebellion of the 1850s, in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn: More than six thousand citadels were taken by the rebels and occupied for a while; five provinces […]

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