The Rings of Saturn (tr. Michael Hulse, 1998. Original: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995) is beautiful, and melancholy, and strange. It is this paradox: a journey that can only be made in solitude; but, at the same time, one that can only happen in a relation between author and reader.
The book revolves around a walking tour the narrator took along the eastern coast of England in 1992. But it is much more than that: here we have a catalogue of everything that has gone into his head while he was in his English pilgrimage, as well as everything he thought a year afterwards, when he was at a hospital in Norwich, and even some time later, while he was writing about his pilgrimage.
Each town he passes through during his perambulations sparks a personal recollection, a rumination, anecdotes, a dream, some memories of previous travels, or fragments of some forgotten history. As the narrator wanders through decaying seaside towns, abandoned islands, and dead writers’ houses, his mind drifts from one topic to the next, weaving an intricate web of loosely interconnected topics. Like the accumulation of moon fragments that formed Saturn’s rings, the book is a blend of novel, memoir, literary essay, travel book, prose-poem, art criticism, reportage, natural history, and picture album.
The narrator’s saturnine pilgrimage works, in the book, as the gravitational centre around which various fragments are repeatedly revolving, connected to each other by an arbitrarily associative affinity which has its own private logic – just like in a dream, where anything makes sense. It reads as if the narrator’s stream of consciousness were running wild -first digressing, then connecting everything; first going on a tangent, then coming head on to the very centre from where it had departed.
You write as if you were moving in juxtaposed circles, weaving fiction and fact in and out, like the rings of Saturn. Some images repeat throughout the book, following the pattern of a quincunx – a kind of numerical code behind all creation. From the netting of a window screen to labyrinths and cross-grids, you seem to be intent on finding your favourite pattern everywhere – as much as you are intent on imposing this pattern on the book.
In the narrator’s mind, old cities are superimposed on current ones, the present is continuous with the past, personal histories are connected to fictional characters; Madame de Sévigné, Roger Casement, Hölderlin, Kurt Waldheim, Joseph Conrad, Chateaubriand, the Dowager Empress, Swinburne, Browne, among others, are the fragments orbiting this journey.
This is very much a book about time and temporality. Devastation, death and decay are recurring images: as if, by circling around them, you were enacting the erosion that time brings everywhere. We have decadent towns, grey landscapes, places devoid of people, or lost under the sea. Everything is in the process of being corrupted, destroyed, or simply discarded by something else.
It is as if you were trying to give us the panoramic view of history to which your narrator alludes when he is at the diorama at Waterloo: “This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.” The survivors have the fleeting vantage point of seeing everything from above; they see everything at once, and they still cannot know how it really was: “Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point?”
Time is not only a topic, but it is also embedded in the structure of the book: the story evolves in a series of overlapping time-frames that accumulate over each other, like sediment layers. We have the feeling that we can never say for sure which century it is, nor whether the stories are being told from a certain moment during the travel or afterwards. Past and present are juxtaposed here.
The narrative also draws from the tension, superimposition and continuity between man and nature. It is as if the narrator were crossing through the point where they mend together, and where one slowly overtakes the other: “the scarcely perceptible transitions from interiors to exterior; those who visited were barely able to tell where the natural ended and the man-made began”.
Furthermore, this topic is also crossed though by a sense of defeat and decay – the idea that civilizations die, and that our creations will somehow outlive us. “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.”
Connected with that sense of death and defeat, we have the ambivalent silk motif that reappears throughout the novel: it covers mirrors and women in mourning, but it is also an emblem of the act of writing, the act of bringing forgotten stories to life. The narrator, like a silkworm or a spinner, is weaving into the book not only ideas, but also ourselves as readers. You have thus imposed on the narrative a structure that perfectly reflects what you wanted to convey: it goes around, it overlaps, and it completely erodes itself in the process.
A sense of displacement is at the core of the book: not only because it is a collection of seemingly disparate subjects and time-frames, but also because the narrator seems to be always elsewhere. Not in his pilgrimage path exactly but locked in his mind, existing in a sort of vacuum. In the narrator’s eyes, everything seems at once familiar and foreign: “Across what distances in time do the elective affinities and correspondences connect? How is it that one perceives oneself in another human being, or, if not oneself, then one’s own precursor?”
His walking trip is, as he points out at the beginning, a journey undertaken “to dispel emptiness”: he keeps pulling back from the present; he keeps surrounding himself with a myriad of seemingly useless pieces of information; he keeps filling in the vacuum – and, in the process, he keeps coming back to himself and to the present, like a gravitational force too strong to resist. Is there some hidden logic in his mental associations, or are they the result of a tormented mind that sees affinities where there are none? “The ghosts of repetition haunt me with ever greater frequency.”
As any journey undertaken under the sign of Saturn, this is a book pervaded by melancholy. The narrator is going through a sense of loss, while crossing a decayed landscape: he is walking from one Dantesque circle of hell to the next, and Thomas Browne may even be his Virgil.
Together with the narrator, we are thrown into a whirlwind of scattered fragments, where we are made to impose new sediment layers of meaning over each other, so as to weave in the fragments all around. We are the silkworms, too. The book’s delight – and terror – lies in this consistent feeling of defeat: the centre will not hold, and we will eventually be taken along with the rubble.
“But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life. How often this has caused me to feel that my memories, and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere neverending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is!–so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.” ― W.G. Sebald,
“Unfortunately I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought. All of us are fantasists, ill-equipped for life, the children as much as myself. It seems to me sometimes that we never get used to being on this earth and life is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.” ― W.G. Sebald,
“This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.” ― W.G. Sebald,
“I suppose it is submerged realities that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno. What manner of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” ― W.G. Sebald,
“For days and weeks on end one racks one’s brains to no avail, and, if asked, one could not say whether one goes on writing purely out of habit, or a craving for admiration, or because one knows not how to do anything other, or out of sheer wonderment, despair or outrage, any more than one could say whether writing renders one more perceptive or more insane. 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,
“From the first smouldering taper to the elegant lanterns whose light reverberated around eighteenth-century courtyards and from the mild radiance of those lanterns to the unearthly glow of the sodium lamps that line the Belgian motorways, it has all been combustion. Combustion is the hidden principle behind every artefact we create. The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television programme, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade.” ― W.G. Sebald,
“I was overcome by a feeling of panic. The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye; the silence, which rushed in the ears like the sound of the sea in a shell; the flies buzzing about me—all this became oppressive and unnerving. I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out.” ― W.G. Sebald,
About the book
- New Directions, tr. Michael Hulse, 2016, 304 p. Goodreads
- Originally published in 1995
- Original title: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- I read this book for The Rings of Saturn Readalong with Robert Macfarlane, and for Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge