You Begin to Get the Picture
There’s these small disjunctions that start to occur. I took his word that that’s herring, I don’t know what herring looks like.
“Which category would you like your book to be in?” Christopher MacLebose recalls asking W.G. Sebald. The author had brought his book, Rings of Saturn to be published by the Harvill & MacLehose Press, and MacLebose had in mind where the volume might be shelved. It was a quaint notion, back in 1995, that a book had to shelved according to categories in a store, and Sebald resisted, says MacLebose: “There wasn’t a category that he wouldn’t require.”
The story serves as apt introduction to the story of Rings of Saturn, as recounted in Patience (After Sebald). As colleagues, writers, and artists remember and read various passages from the book, you come to realize that none of their observations is quite the same as another, that none of them finds the same resonance or possibility in what they read. And so Grant Gee’s odd, beautiful film becomes not just the story of the book—in which the narrator walks through the Suffolk countryside, describing if not categorizing what he sees, but also the story of reading, how individuals bring themselves to books… or films, or pubs, or cemeteries.
Patience (After Sebald) invites viewers to ponder this process (and so does the Film Forum, where it opens 9 May, and where a series of writers will introduce it on different nights over the week following). Though it occasionally illustrates passages, in dissolving images of book pages and shorelines, bare tree branches and bathtubs and clock faces, it’s less concerned with times and places than with how these might signify. Sometimes archival, other times composed for the film, these clips are infrequently layered with hovering headshots of the interviewees, remembering when they first met Sebald or encountered his work, and how they read him.
Gee—who made the superb 1999 Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy—structures the film to preserve a sense of loss and also a sense of seeking. Marina Warner remarks the indirection of the book—or maybe her reading—saying that, for all the book’s naming of actual places that can be (and have been) mapped, it is also about other episodes. As the narrator reflects on the brutal massacres of the Taiping Rebellion, he is, according to Warner, “using something to deflect from his main occupation, the genocidal wars of the 20th century,” including the World Wars, and including the Allies’ firebombings of German cities.
It matters that Sebald is German-born, and that he wrote in German, then worked closely with translators to conjure English versions (rather than translating his books himself). Rings of Saturn raises the specter of destruction and desolation, says Adam Phillips, landscapes “irradiated by melancholy.” For Katie Mitchell, the book evokes “the really fleeting and really fast way we perceive and put things together.” She offers her own example from Rings of Saturn, a section describing “a moth coming to its end.” If there are no “references to battlefields in this passage,” she says, it exemplifies the book’s pattern, by which “a subject which at first glance seems quite far removed from the undeclared concern of a book, can encapsulate that concern.”
As Warner insinuates here, the process of discovering that concern—or better, rediscovering it, for it’s never quite lost—is concerned with time (as time changes places and affects people’s memories). It is never-ending as well as endlessly rewarding, not to mention utterly ordinary, really, the way anyone gets through the day. “He’s a biographer,” essays Robert Macfarlane, “A biographer who walks his subjects back in time, then forwards afterwards into death, it’s never quite clear.” What is clear, in the film at least, is that walking offers a mostly useful metaphor, perhaps especially in its literalness. And for Sebald and his followers (including those who come after, sometimes walking in his footsteps, visiting the same sites named in the book), walking becomes a means to understanding, to absorbing and reflecting, to seeing and being seen.
Sebald’s writing, observes Adam Phillips, “seemed to have a way actually of thinking about these issues that was neither sensationalist nor self-pitying, that could be on one hand, sort of grimly humorous but also very, very straightforward.” For Phillips, it’s “like the best version of journalism one could imagine, really straightforward documentary writing that was really artful at the same time.” Just so, the film is at once poetry and observation, vérité and recovery, preserving and letting go. Macfarlane remembers trying to track Sebald’s journey, to, as he puts it, “To footstep his footsteeping,” by re-walking “most of Rings of Saturn.” Though he imagined he might begin on a gray day, as described in the book, he landed on a bright one, and so his efforts turned into something else from the start. Distracted by his own activities, he found himself having “far too much fun to footstep Sebald,” which made his memory of his walk very different from his memory of Sebald’s. He looks back on his walk and realizes, “I couldn’t be there, it was a completely bad fit between footstepper and footsteppee.”
At the same time—or perhaps another time—it is, you see too, a perfect fit. As Macfarlane may see himself, as you may see yourself, you must also read. For in Patience (After Sebald), seeing is reading, interpreting, contextualizing, situating, again and again.