To those not familiar with W.G. Sebald, the title might sound like a work of sci-fi or fantasy. Far from it. This work is based around a journey the author made through Norfolk, although he goes off down so many sideroutes of personal interest that it’s not even a travel book in any traditional sense. The topics covered include aspects of anatomy, history, herring fishing, Joseph Conrad, China, and the English hurricane of 1987, to name a few. And only Sebald would dare to end a book, classified as memoir/travel/history, with a chapter about the silkworm.
The Rings of Saturn is translated from the German by Michael Hulse, though Sebald himself was well acquainted with England before his untimely death in 2001. Another distinctive trait of Sebald’s is to break up his prose with photos related to the content, and that makes it more pleasing on the eye, given that it is quite dense with paragraphs often several pages in length. That said, Sebald is a superb stylist with a wonderful knack of being able to evoke the past with a clarity that makes you feel as if you are sharing every moment.
My mind wandered a little during the final third of this book. Maybe that wouldn’t bother the author too much because he seems to be all about moving on and exploring the next thing in a world where there is so much to see and experience.
I would have maybe given it three and half stars rather than four. There is a lot in it that I like but overall I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Austerlitz, a novel that left me wondering why I hadn’t heard of this author before. However, that is a lot to live up to and Sebald is a total master at what he does. The question is more about how many will come along for the ride as he is very, very different.