After Sebald: Patience and Re-Enchantment

If there is one place I would have liked to be this weekend it is Aldeburgh, where a rather unique event has been taking place, which we found out about too late.

Organised by Artevents as part of The Re-Enchantment, their national arts project exploring and questioning the various meanings of  ‘place’ in the twenty-first century, the inspiration for the event has been the work of the writer WG Sebald, who lived and worked in East Anglia for four decades. The Rings of Saturn, his most famous book, mixed history, travelogue, memoir, meditation, fiction and images to explore the personal, public and often overlooked histories of Suffolk.  Across three days, and in varied media, his writing and its impact was celebrated by a bunch of artists who are among my favourites – including writers Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane, poet Alice Oswald, and musician Patti Smith.

The central event of the weekend was the world premiere of  the Artevents-backed documentary, Patience (After Sebald), an award-winning film by Grant Gee about the landscapes and legacy of  The Rings of SaturnPatience (After Sebald) is described as a multi-layered film essay on landscape, art, history, life and loss told via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking Sebald’s walk The Rings of Saturn.

The Artevents weekend also included a writer’s day, when writers including Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane  explored the meanings of place from different perspectives, and an evening with Patti Smith featuring a new work inspired by Sebald, Max: a Tribute.

Sebald has profoundly influenced many contemporary writers, thinkers and artists, some of whom speak in the film. He was born in Bavaria in 1944. His father served in the Wehrmacht under the Nazis, and the Holocaust and its meaning for post-war Germany came to constitute a central strand in Sebald’s work.  He studied German literature at the University of Freiburg, before being appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester in 1966 and settling in England permanently, later teaching at the University of East Anglia.  Sebald died in a car crash near Norwich in December 2001.

Sebald’s works are largely concerned with the theme of memory, both personal and collective. They are, in particular, attempts to reconcile himself with, and deal in literary terms with, the trauma of the Second World War and its effect on the German people.  But they are also noted for their overwhelming, hypnotic character, marked by repeated digressions. Roger Deakin wrote of Sebald:

I relish Max Sebald, as I love Thomas de Quincey, for his fearless digressions, for the sheer scope of his curious, cosmopolitan imagination and for his powers of  free association. As a Suffolk man I have a special appreciation for The Rings of Saturn, although the Suffolk coast Sebald evokes is nothing like the Suffolk I know. It is a landscape transformed by a particular state of mind, gloomy but compelling. The place he describes is outlandish, like the writer, who is an exile from his language as well as from his land. Max’s ornate, stately sentences appear to wander as widely as his narrators on their travels, following winding paths of digression, disappearing into side-streets, and pausing to examine objects or images of particular interest. When asked by an interviewer from the New Yorker how he came to write The Rings of Saturn, he replied: ‘I had this idea of writing a few short pieces for the German papers in order to pay for the extravagance of a fortnight’s rambling tour. So that was the plan. But then, as you walk along, you find things. I think that’s the advantage of walking. It’s just one of the reasons I do that a lot. You find things by the wayside or you buy a brochure written by a local historian which is in a tiny little museum somewhere . . . and in that you find odd details that lead you somewhere else.’ Digression is at the heart of Max’s work. As Dave Eggers puts it: ‘The digressiveness follows the path of memory, which is rarely orderly. The uncovering of the story through the thicket of the mind – that’s the plot in a way.’

Sebald opens The Rings of Saturn by telling how, in August 1992, he ‘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 stint of work’.  He collapses ‘a year to the day after I began my tour’. He tells of being rushed to hospital in Norwich, and from this point the narrative drifts from one topic to the next, weaving an elaborate skein of associations drawn from his walk, his reading, thoughts and memories to produce a work that is a pilgrimage, a memoir, a prose poem, rambling and constantly digressing.

For example: as Sebald passes through Walsingham, he recalls that here, in 1658, in a field in the village, nearly fifty urn burials were unearthed. This inspired Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich to write his HydriotaphiaUrne-Burial or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk. Sebald meditates, in turn, upon Thomas Browne and Hydriotaphia:

The inquiry of oblivion blindly scatters her poppyseed and when wretchedness falls upon us one summer’s day like snow, all we wish for is to be forgotten. These are the circles Browne’s thoughts describe, most unremittingly perhaps in Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial of 1658, a discourse on sepulchral urns found in a field near Walsingham in Norfolk. Drawing upon the most varied of historical and natural historical sources, he expatiates upon the rites we enact when one from our midst sets out on his last journey.

Sebald’s landscapes are usually empty of human inhabitants:

The train ground into motion again and disappeared round a gradual bend, leaving a trail of black smoke behind it. There was no station at the stop, only an open shelter. I walked down the deserted platform, to my left the seemingly endless expanses of the marshes and to my right, beyond a low brick wall, the shrubs and trees of the park. There was not a soul about….

But, at the same time, they are haunted by the residue of human endeavour:

Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable.

There is a great deal of characteristic laconic humour.  Just read his account of  entering Lowestoft on a grey evening and then eating armour-plated fish and chips in his deserted hotel : ‘the fish . . . had doubtless lain entombed in the
deep freeze for years’.

Robert McCrum in the Observer noted that Rings of Saturn is

Ostensibly a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia… [but it] is also a brilliantly allusive study of England’s imperial past and the nature of decline and fall, of loss and decay.

The Rings of Saturn is a strange, compelling work, with its curious archive of photographs and its chronicling of Sebald’s tour across epochs as well as the East Anglian countryside. On his way his thoughts meander via Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’, the natural history of the herring, a matchstick model of the Temple of Jerusalem, the travels of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull, and the massive bombings of World War 2. He connects sugar fortunes, Joseph Conrad, the horrors of colonial Belgian Congo, an abandoned bridge over the River Blyth, the Empress Tzu Hsi and the silk industry in Norwich.

He recalls visiting the Waterloo Panorama, a 360-degree representation of the battle wrapped around an ‘immense domed rotunda’, and muses:

This then . . . is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.

For the Re-enchantment project, Artevents has commissioned four artists to explore the significance of our various relationships to place – personal, collective, cultural, ecological or spiritual. One of these, England Revisited, is a monumental land artwork by Simon English that builds upon his earlier work All England Sculpture (1971). Then, he journeyed to, and marked with a St. George’s flag, 75 points from Cumbria to the South of England over three months.  For England Revisited, he has revisited all 75 points creating an entirely new work about change. From July to September 2010, Simon traveled across the country, photographing the locations, collecting samples of the local flora, talking to the locals, as he had done in 1971. This material from both journeys, along with Simon’s observations on England then and now, will eventually result in a downloadable touring exhibition to be produced by Artevents in 2011.

In December, Artevents published a book, Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, with contributions by various writers and poets reflecting on the meaning of ‘re-enchantment’, with reference to an actual, particular place or region. The book has essays by, amongst others,  Jay Griffiths, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Ken Worpole, with poems from Elisabeth Bletsoe, Lavinia Greenlaw and Alice Oswald.

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3 thoughts on “After Sebald: Patience and Re-Enchantment

  1. Max’s understanding of Browne was a bit patchy. He shapes Browne’s phrases and ideas imperfectly to suit his own artistic agenda. ‘all we wish for is to be forgotten’ is Sebald’s own thought and quite independent of Browne’s communication that all shall be forgotten.

    Cult of Sebald building up to the 10th anniversary frenzy in December 2011. But did anyone enthuse upon him BEFORE his untimely death?

  2. Dear Gerry
    as Co-Director of Artevents and Co-Producer of The Re-Enchantment, I’d like to thank you for your warm and generous analysis of the Snape weekend. I’m sorry you couldn’t be there but I’m very glad to have found your excellent blog.

    In reply to Kevin Faulkner’s comment, within a year of Sebald’s The Emigrants appearing in English (the first, out of sequence of original writing), Susan Sontag and others had noticed his genius, and by the time of Austerlitz, published in 2001, 3 months before his death, and largely as a result of the Rings of Saturn, he had become his own adjective and was tipped for the Nobel Prize. In living memory no other writer has spoken so promptly and urgently to his / her times, while still with us.

    with all best wishes
    Gareth Evans

  3. I agree, Sebald was on the cusp of greatness, just that his untimely death was a publisher’s dream. We can all be our own named adjective. Pity the Nobel prize is not awarded posthumously.

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