Debbie, Peter, and I read recently W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and met this week for dinner to discuss the book. I had first read the book, along with Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Natural History of Destruction, about four years ago as I explored relationships between stories and photographs. The Rings of Saturn interested me as I thought about ways to write about travel, especially the way that stories could emerge from walking.
The Rings of Saturn has a setting—a walking trip taken by the author through the English countryside in Suffolk—but it does not have a theme. The book has been compared to a collage—it is an assembly of stories that on the whole create an impression, but collectively the stories provide no narrative arc. The walk, which could provide the basis of a narrative, provides only as disjointed locales of reference that serve as points of departure for the stories. Sebald’s landscape is minimally described, but the independent stories that have tenuous roots in or wildly twining tendrils that grasp for the places Sebald visits are vividly told.
Near the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, where he writes of the author Thomas Browne, Sebald suggests (p. 18) that the earlier author saw the world as “no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond.” This serves also as an excellent description of The Rings of Saturn in which the villages and landscape of Suffolk are little more than umbral shadows cast for stories caught from the past.
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Photo by DL