cover image The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of Saturn

Winfried Georg Sebald. New Directions Publishing Corporation, $23.95 (296pp) ISBN 978-0-8112-1378-3

As he did so brilliantly in The Emigrants, German author Sebald once again blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction in this meditative work. Sebald's unnamed, traveling narrator is making his way through the county of Suffolk, England, and from there back in time. We learn that he has recently been hospitalized, an event that ""marked the beginning of a fissure that has since riven my life."" Sunk in his own thoughts, he becomes obsessed with the ubiquitous evidence of disintegration he views in the landscape and history of the small coastal towns, from the moribund herring industry to the lost art of silk production. He spirals deeper into his own considerably learned historical memory to explore, for example, slavery, the Chinese opium wars, Joseph Conrad's life on the high seas and Chateaubriand's memories of estranged love. It comes as no surprise that the ""parlous loftiness"" of the 17th-century metaphysician Thomas Browne holds particular fascination for our narrator who, like Browne, writes ""out of the fullness of his erudition,"" pursuing his train of thought in sentences ""that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness."" Numerous photographs that illustrate the people, places and objects discussed in the text add to the curious beauty of this brooding, elegiac novel. (May)