For me, the eyes of W.G. Sebald may convey as much about this particular author’s work as any literary analysis or critical description…melancholy, gentleness, erudition. Some of the comfort one is afforded when immersed in a book of Sebald’s may be attributed to a vaguely felt resonance of one’s own nebulous melancholy with that which pervades the books. Such is my experience at least.
Wherever readers and admirers of W.G Sebald encounter those who have yet to read him a familiar struggle invariably takes place, an effort to convey a reasonably true, reasonably informative, reasonably useful description of Sebald’s books. So singular in nature are they that the task is daunting. In the artful and innovative documentary about Sebald, Patience (After Sebald) a publisher relates an anecdote about a meeting with Sebald prior to publication, in which Sebald explained that he preferred his volume be marketed with a classification in every available category. The publisher informed him that the folks in marketing preferred a limit of four. Whether Sebald was serious or not he had a point. The books make an authentic claim to being fiction just as well as non-fiction, to being history, memoir, ethnography, architecture, geography, travel and zoology even. Really.
Yet, if this makes the books sound stuffy or pedantic they aren’t. For all their uniqueness they could not be father away from anything as self-consciously grandiose as experimental, and are in no way abstruse or god forbid avant-garde. They are as earnest as their author’s face and as gentle as the man. The focus of Patience, an unconventional documentary whose structure somewhat approximates that of the books, focusses on an early work, The Rings of Saturn, in which a narrator, fresh from some distressing event or period of personal trial decides to take a walking tour of East Anglia (the locale where Sebald lived and taught) a marshy area of coastal England.
The film loosely follows the narrator’s own route of traversal, attempting a filmic approximation of the narrator’s mixture of rumination, fluid, meticulous description, anecdote, historical background and personal digression. Photographs, which have a prominent role in the books, though used obliquely, have a significant role in the film as well, often just as obliquely utilized. The film makes mention of and marvels at the ways in which Sebald elevates digression to a refined art, the prose spilling from contemplation of the fascinating habits and unexpected splendors of herring in their habitat to the startling history behind an encountered landmark to a contemplation of a personal relationship.
Seemingly formless, negligibly plotted, the books manage to galvanize nonetheless, or perhaps to mesmerize, in large part due to the luminosity and fluency of the prose itself, a hard to pin melding of narrative, information and aesthetic elegance. There is a kind of golden filigree of language Sebald crafts with his themes of displacement and dislocation, of expatriation, voluntary and involuntary, which may explain the level of affection for the works and their unique capacity to transfix.
Patience offers a juxtaposing of commentary from talking heads, observations and anecdotes from personal friends, photographs from the books interposed with the film’s own footage recorded in East Anglia, including of artifacts and landmarks mentioned or displayed in The Rings of Saturn. Not incidental is exploration of Sebald, the expatriate himself of German heritage, in his relationship both to England and his native Germany, and as one would expect, the ways in which the books gently excavate the subject of Germany and Germans during the second World War, the heinousness it inflicted and the suffering inflicted upon its people by their own and others, narratives of fates fictional or perhaps not. It is unlikely the subject is anything other than essential to the rueful pessimism if not despondency about the human race forever seeping through.
Arguably, the film is a work of fine art itself. Perhaps my favorite sequence is one in which a segment of writing from the book is overlaid onto photography of sheep grazing and resting amid the tombstones in the cemetery adjacent to the cottage of poet Michael Hamburg as the passage is read, segueing into the poet’s reflections, the books together something akin to a poeticized education. Certainly my favorite insight from the film came from one of the commenters, I can’t remember which, who said Sebald seemed to suggest “only children have homes, not adults”. For me, that captures a great deal about the man and his sadly beautiful work.