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Over the course of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe, W.G. Sebald’s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz discuss Austerlitz’s ongoing efforts to understand who he is. An orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 and was raised by a Welsh Methodist minister and his wife as their own, Austerlitz grew up with no conscious memory of where he came from.
W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind’s defenses against trauma. Along the way, this novel of many riches dwells magically on a variety of subjects–railway architecture, military fortifications; insets, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague–in the service of its astounding vision.
A fictional account of a walking tour through England’s East Anglia, Sebald’s home for more than twenty years, The Rings of Saturn explores Britain’s pastoral and imperial past. Its ten strange and beautiful chapters, with their curious archive of photographs, consider dreams and reality.
As the narrator walks, a company of ghosts keeps him company— Thomas Browne, Swinburne, Chateaubriand, Joseph Conrad, Borges—conductors between the past and present. The narrator meets lonely eccentrics inhabiting tumble-down mansions, and hears of the furious coastal battles of two world wars. He tells of far-off China and the introduction of the silk industry to Norwich. He walks to the now forsaken harbor where Conrad first set foot on English soil and visits the site of the once-great city of Dunwich, now sunk in the sea, where schools of herring swim. As the narrator catalogs the transmigration of whole worlds, the reader…[more]