The Rings of Saturn by Winfried Georg Sebald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The past year has been my year of reading European travelogues--Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, Lawrence Durrell, and now W.G. Sebald. Except none of these books are actually travelogues, any more than a novel is simply a story. They are compendiums. They are philosophical treatises. They are everything. Only--the writers have composed them while rambling. Place looms down into the works. Place catalyzes.
The Rings of Saturn is one of the most beautiful of all. Temporally, the author walks through an area that I myself have seen, so my love wells a little from nostalgia. Even without a familiarity with the Anglian countryside, however, there is no doubt this book is a masterpiece. I don't use that word lightly, but if a work of art can make one see the beauty and inscrutability and humor and cruelty and cravenness and mechanization of human beings side by side with the mysterious things they have built and created, and condemn the darkness of our souls, while still wanting to live, while still, in fact, loving that most tenuous of gifts--well, then isn't that work of art doing all that it is possible to do? Along the way, I learned about the last Chinese empress, silkworms, abandoned missile silos, crumbling country estates, Joseph Conrad, Chateaubriand, Rembrandt's painting of a dissection...I learned so much. Each section ended with a note of pleasure, like a cello string being plucked deep inside the sternum. I dreamed all kinds of beautiful dreams when I finished the book. I was changed by it.
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