Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A walk to remember

“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work…” So goes the first of many elegant sentences describing, among many other things, a walk; sentences paced like walking, chronicling thoughts, discoveries and investigations that emerge from walking, that make up W.G. Sebald’s famously unclassifiable book The Rings of Saturn, first published in German in 1995, and in English translation in 1998. The book engenders its own pilgrimage, complete with occasional, enigmatic, caption-free illustrations, and immerses the reader in its author’s melancholic yet endlessly curious mental landscape, in his many attempts to preserve the memory of endangered themes, such as the industrialization of silk and the writings of 17th-century English polymath Thomas Browne. Sebald was born in Bavaria near the close of the Second World War, but he made his academic career in England, and died there, in a car accident near Norwich in 2001. Sebald has remained in print and beloved, beguiling and endlessly blurbable for certain publicists seeking haute literary cred. He remains a writer’s writer, but he is also a vast wood where any patient reader can wander, remember, and then forget many things so carefully memorialized.

Which is also to say that Sebald is ripe for fresh exegesis—there is both a genuine desire and a market. But I suppose it is a niche market, which would explain why even the fevered readers among you mightn’t have heard about Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald), which follows the footsteps of Saturn. It first appeared in select cinemas in 2011 and has since been released on DVD by Cinema Guild. It is nearly as resistant to category as the book it’s inspired by, bearing traces of biography, criticism, homage, travelogue and atmosphere-piece. Much of the film consists of slow dissolves between stark black and white landscapes, while rarely seen commentators address Sebald’s life and work in voice-over. As a way of invoking The Rings of Saturn for the uninitiated, I find Patience a little misleading: such a muted, limited visual field doesn’t reflect the calm yet constant cascade of data, narrative and conjecture on offer in the book (or, for that matter, any Sebald book). Not that we should expect Patience to be mimetic—if we want a film that feels more like reading Sebald, perhaps we should watch Sans Soleil (1983) or Buñuel’s The Milky Way (1969). Better to regard Patience as a valuable accessory rather than a parallel artwork, and to enjoy it as a sort of meditation object in its own right.

Some highlights: software developer Barbara Hui sharing her brilliant digital map of the Saturn walk, which includes footnotes explaining what digressions each spot prompted in Sebald; poet Andrew Motion on the Orford Merman; a consideration of the similarities between Suffolk and the Zone from Stalker (1979); visual artist Tacita Dean on itinerary maps one can “follow” without ever leaving home; psychologist and essayist Adam Phillips on how Sebald’s is the kind of Holocaust writing we need; and the voice of Sebald himself discussing the use of fog in literature. Patience marked the first time I’d ever heard Sebald’s voice; how ghostly when placed amidst all these other living voices. But living and dead intermingle always in Sebald, so how fitting, then, that Patience allows this particular ghost to linger, and to wander with us a while longer. 

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