April 19, 2017

Avoiding people is easy

Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, 2012). “Coincidence is like dreams. If you talk about them, they become dead, inert,” says artist Tacita Dean in this film. Does over-explaining the work of German writer WG Sebald, and his masterpiece The Rings of Saturn in particular, have the same risk? Reading Sebald has always been a highly private and individual experience; everyone (mis)remembers the books differently. The good news is that Gee’s sensitive documentary leaves Sebald’s deep and singular mysteries intact even as its selection of well-known Sebald fans have the fervour of cult followers – besides Dean, there is Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion and, possibly the most insightful of all, psychologist Adam Phillips. Artist Jeremy Millar takes a nearly Shroud of Turin-like photo of the site where Sebald died and the veneration does get almost holy. But Sebald still slips away. There is a sense that he was both unique – a German writer living in England, writing in German, often obliquely about the Holocaust, and with an antiquarian sensibility – and a pioneer of a type of writing that now almost borders on cliché. As Sinclair says, “The countryside is black with people going for walks to write books.” In most cases, these have a therapeutic angle: they are restorative nature walks, feel-good treks. Sebald’s walk dwelled instead on the dark catastrophes of history and the trip put him in hospital. Nor did he ever ask for disciples – as Sinclair says, following the trail of The Rings of Saturn is the worst way to experience or understand Sebald. It unfolds in your head.