Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Patience (After Sebald): a geographer's reflections

I went to see Grant Gee's film 'Patience (After Sebald)' at Cinema City in Norwich this weekend, and I was completely blown away. I came out of the cinema with ideas and reflections rushing through my head, feeling all tingly and with a strong conviction that I had to find out more. Here is my attempt to make sense of this wonderful film and wonderful book that it's based on, from the perspective of a geographer interested in questions about space, place, exploration and experiencing landscapes.
Picture from the film, Grant Gee

W G (Max) Sebald was a writer and poet, born in Germany at the close of WWII and moving to the UK in the 1960s. He has a special relevance to us at Topograph because he lectured at the University of East Anglia for 30 years and had settled in Norwich. In 1992 he set off on a walk around Suffolk prompting a series of chance encounters, intense elemental experiences in the landscape and profound reflections on the human condition. In 1995 a version of his experiences was published as a novel (firstly in German) called 'The Rings of Saturn'. The book, like the film, is multi-layered, following the linear itinerary of Sebald's walk, travelling backwards and forwards through the history of East Anglia, drawing connections to distant times and places, and plotting points through Sebald's own emotional geography. Many of the people interviewed in the film described the book as enigmatic, ambiguous and gently wandering, and that was exactly the atmosphere in our dark theatre as we sat transfixed before the screen. 

Picture from the film, Grant Gee
The film struck a chord with some of things I have been reading recently, in particular a 2004 editorial in the journal Environment & Planning D written by Michel Callon and John Law, discussing those age-old geographical concerns: space, place and distance. Sebald's book is ostensibly about a journey around Suffolk. But the narrator isn't aiming to get anywhere in particular; rather he carefully explores the landscape, and through that his own mental state. The book is deeply rooted in the landscape itself, packed with references and detailed descriptions of the real places that the narrator passes on the way, from the railway stations he passes through on the train, to landmarks like Lowestoft pier, and the unremarkable inns and hotels he patronises. The reader begins to travel backwards and forwards through time with Sebald, as he recalls previous visits to points on his itinerary like Orford Ness, gives rich and evocative descriptions of the history of different sites, and talks to the people he meets about their memories.

Sebald's reflections quickly stray beyond his physical location to other sites in Suffolk, connecting places through invisible contour lines of shared history, personal relationships and experience, uncanny coincidences or the narrator's feelings and dreams. This web of connections across time and space soon reaches out across the channel: the narrator imagines the 1672 battle between Dutch and English fleets playing out in the vast sea in front of him at Sole bay; a gardener at Somerleyton describes his feelings at the carpet bombing of Germany cities in the 1940s; a chance discovery of Balkan archives at the Southwold Sailors Reading Room leads to an intense and detailed description of Balkan concentration camps of WWII. Sebald deftly weaves these disparate places together, beautifully illustrating Callon and Law's assertion that each place or location is distributed in others. These places have shaped each other through particular stories and memories, through the actions of individuals, through trade and cultural exchange, and, sometimes, through brutal conflict. Their apparent distance from one another is not as absolute as it once seemed. The comparative literature researcher and software designer, Barabara Hui, has mapped the entire book using Google Earth and her own software LITMAP. She firstly plotted each location visited by Sebald's narrator, then connected each of those places to the others described through memories, conversations and historical accounts. The result (which can be found here) is a complex network of lines and location markers, spanning five continents, accompanied by the reflections which transform a walk around the Suffolk countryside into a melancholic meditation on twentieth century genocides and beyond.
A small section from Barbara Hui's Litmap of 'The Rings of Saturn'
To add the feeling of multiple connections and flows through time and space, the film also explores why Sebald chose the title 'Rings of Saturn' for the book. The idea of rings evokes the circles he followed through Suffolk. But there is also a theory that Saturn's rings were formed by the wrenching apart of a body that was once Saturn's moon as it came too close to planet. Thus the rings might be shattered fragments of moon, like Sebald's shards of reflection and consciousness distributed around the Suffolk countryside.

The German subtitle of the book is 'Eine englische Wallfahrt' or 'an English Pilgrimage'. This highlights how Sebald is not only concerned with specific places or points on a map, but also the act of travelling between them and through the landscape. In the film Robert MacFarlane, a writer very much inspired by Sebald, suggested that the narrator's journey or pilgrimage was in the vein of the European romantic writers on landscape and exploration, such as Rousseau. This approach emphasizes the inner journey and views travel as a way to recover, something Sebald's narrator is clearly in need of; whereas the American romantics, like Thoreau, emphasized travel as a way to discover. The narrator's interactions with the landscape are physical and elemental - in one passage he get's stuck in a sand storm - but also intensely personal and emotional. In a memorable passage from the book, he describes his fear and disorientation in the scrubland at Dunwich Heath where he becomes lost in the landscape itself and in his own thoughts, leading to an account of the unnerving dreams which followed this experience. The reflections in the book are also a way of dealing with Sebald's personal history and identity, recounting memories of his life in Germany, trying to understand the horrific events that came before his birth, and hinting at Sebald's inability to feel 'at home' in East Anglia, or back in Germany.

I have given some personal and partial reflections on what was an extremely rich and multi-layered film. I got the impression that if I watched the film again or on a different day, I would come out with a completely new set of thoughts and feelings, and I'm sure different aspects of the narrative resonated and made sense differently to different people. I hope I've piqued your interest, but if not maybe this trailer will...

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this interesting discussion of this wonderfully enigmatic film. I saw the film last night myself, having read the book on a number of occasions, and always found deeper and more interesting things in it each time, so I am sure the same will be equally true of the film - which I understand is shortly to be available on DVD.It is particularly interesting to have the perspective of a geographer on a work of literature that is so steeped in the meanings of place and time, and in the memories and ideas that connect them. In the end I suspect we can only make sense of it in our own individual ways by making unique connections arising from our own lives and experiences. Fascinating topic, and many thanks for writing so elequently. Chris Gostick