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W G Sebald: Die Ringe des Saturn. Eine englische Wallfahrt (The Rings of Saturn)

Sebald is off again on his wanderings, this time round the English countryside, particularly Suffolk. Of course, what makes this book as enjoyable as his other books are his ruminations on life and art, particularly the past life and past art. This time, he ruminates on various people from the British past – Sir Thomas Browne, barely read now but noted for his writings on melancholy; Sir Roger Casement, traitor or nationalist, depending on your point of view (Sebald is sympathetic), Konrad Korzeniowski, better known to the world as Joseph Conrad, and others. But he also looks around, showing a predilection for the slightly dilapidated, the slightly neglected, the slightly ruined, be it places, buildings or people. And you never know who is real and who is not. He talks about his friend Michael Hamburger, whose life parallels Sebald’s in many ways. While reading the book, I suspected that he might be fictitious, as I had never heard of him. He is, however, very real.

Of course, his ruminations are fascinating. Who could imagine that the life cycle of the herring and its ability to survive long after being fished, could be so interesting? Particularly when he then passes over to the life of the recluse, Major George Wyndham Le Strange, whose death Sebald had seen announced in the local newspaper. Le Strange had been one of the liberators of Belsen but had returned home immediately afterwards to manage the estates he had inherited. He had employed a housekeeper and cook who dined with him on condition that she never spoke to him. Or Sebald is sitting having a quiet cup of tea in a hotel, when, spurred by an article in a newspaper, he starts to muse on the cruelties of the Bosnian war. It’s all like this and it’s wonderfully told and wonderfully expressed and makes you strongly believe that this man really believes, from the depths of his soul, in what he is talking about.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Eichborn
First published in English in 1998 by New Directions/Harvill
Translated by Michael Hulse