Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

02 Dec 2011

(Novel) The Rings of Saturn by: W.G. Sebald

(Reaction) The aesthetic dimension of chaos by: Antonio Conejos

Sebald's Rings of Saturn is not a conventional novel by any means. There is no plot and no character development to speak of. (The book would have driven Aristotle nuts.) Instead, the reader is treated to a series of seemingly meandering impressions on a wide variety of topics. What exactly links all of these historical tidbits together?

Actually the topics are related and what ties them all together can be found in the very title of the novel. The rings of Saturn are the product of violence and failed cohesion. As noted tellingly by the epigraph, In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.

Yet despite their origin in chaos, the rings of evoke majesty. Similarly, all of the novel's historical oddities are linked by the central thought that decay holds fascination for us. Moreover, this is not a macabre fascination but one which is expressive and joyful.

As such, Sebald's novel is an affirmation that there is beauty in destruction; that the end of things can be transmuted into splendor more wonderful than any design.

The narrator relentlessly, almost obsessively, focuses on this central insight, finding it in man made objects as well as in man himself.

On visiting a decaying home: How uninviting Somerleyton must have been... when everything, from the cellar to the attic from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new... And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.

On art, specifically Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp: It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies. His gaze alone is free of Cartesian rigidity. He alone sees that greenish annihilated body, and he alone sees the shadow in the half-open mouth and over the dead man's eyes.

(The insight provided by the narrator into The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is brilliant and demonstrates the narrator/Sebald at his best.)

On man himself, particularly the silk weavers of England who: spent their lives with their wretched bodies strapped to looms made of wooden frames and rails, hung with weights... when we consider the weavers' mental illness we should also bear in mind that many of the materials produced in the factories of Norwich... were of a truly fabulous variety, and of an iridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by nature itself, like the plumage of birds.

From the limited excerpts above (Rings of Saturn links many more historical anecdotes, places and people) it is readily apparent that the novel's central conceit can be found in a myriad of objects and events. The same quality which makes the rings of Saturn so majestic can also be found here on Earth.

Rings of Saturn is a novel whose animating force is not plot but theme. It asserts the notion that entropy is ironically the final ordering force of both beauty and the universe.


At first I didn't know what t make of this book. Sure the historical tidbits were interesting and at times the insights were quite clever; but without a discernible plot it at first seemed to drag.

In the middle of reading it though everything just seemed to fit suddenly in my head (a genuine eureka moment, an epiphany, for me) and out of randomness emerged order.

The book takes inspiration from its central insight, the rings of Saturn and why we find them beautiful, and never looks back.

Admittedly it is a lovely insight to center a novel on and my hat is off to Sebald who presents it all with knowledge and grace.

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