Three Rings is beautiful, and its beauty justifies its wandering ambulations, but what it suggests is ultimately incohesive: We’re all exiles bound to each other through a shared cultural destruction and rebirth — victims, every last one of us. But without some sort of metaphysical heft to give it context, Mendelsohn’s sophistication is ultimately flat — well-written but sentimental and a little preening. Writing about Sebald, Mendelsohn says that his “circling merely exhausts us while never bringing us any closer to the subject.” Mendelsohn never exhausts, but he, too, seems to be orbiting some central moral or spiritual truth without ever actually expressing it.
On the other hand, Three Rings performs exactly what it describes. It’s an object of its own subject, a tiny model that maps out the horror and frustration of its author without giving in to the temptation of dry rhetoric. After reading Three Rings, you feel as if you yourself have wandered in and out of exile, searching the patterns of recurrences for some clue as to the source of your personal suffering. Mendelsohn writes at the end of his book that for the German Jew Auerbach, “Ring composition; a wandering technique that yet always finds its way home, a technique which, with its sunny Mediterranean assumption that there is indeed a connection between all things,” was “a little too good to be true.” Perhaps the reader of Three Rings will share Auerbach’s sentiment. But he won’t regret the journey.
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