Back in 2008, when I was in the thick of earning my M.A. in creative writing, I enrolled in a class in which the emphasis was the composition of hybrid fiction – that is, stories of an abstract and often free-flowing nature cobbled together from multiple genres and narrative techniques. It was in this class that W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn was required reading. Being accustomed to linear writing styles and straightforward plots, getting through this book was for me an experience not too far removed from having teeth pulled. The upside was that its meandering structure inspired the one short story of mine that earned the most praise from my teacher and classmates. Mimicking the book was not something I intended to do. It was an unconscious reaction, like a reflex. This has had a surprisingly negative effect on me; I cannot begin to explain how my story got written, nor can I willingly reproduce that style.
Patience (After Sebald), a hypnotic documentary by director Grant Gee, is a lot like the novel itself, which is to say that it cannot be pigeonholed into any specific genre. It’s all at once a travelogue, a history lesson, a biography, a critical analysis, a psychological study, and to a very small degree, a fan testimonial, with artists, scholars, publishers, and writers exploring what Sebald and The Rings of Saturn personally mean to them. We hear from Robert Macfarlane, Christopher MacLehose, Adam Phillips, Iain Sinclair, William Firebrace, and Rick Moody, among many others, including Sebald himself. The film is also like the novel in that it meanders from one topic to the next in a surprisingly patterned way, as if each subject were a logical extension of the one that came before it.
In the book, the narrator, who conveniently shares the same name as the author, goes on a walking tour of Suffolk, England; as he describes the locations he visits, all of which actually exist, he freely wanders off on narrative tangents, with extensive sections devoted to world history, literature, and the people he meets. Gee visually recreates some of the walking-tour experience by travelling to many of the locations and capturing them on film. Rather than make them look like picturesque snapshots for a tourism commercial, he drains the images of color and adds grainy texture effects, perhaps to visually represent the book’s dry, melancholy tone. Some shots transition with simple cuts, but most slowly bleed into one another, creating a kind of somber slideshow. The interviewees are for the most part not seen; their presence is largely limited to voiceovers. Only when their names appear at the bottom right corner of the screen do we know who’s talking.
In between passages from the novel, narrated by Jonathan Pryce, we get some insight into Sebald and his simultaneously academic and personal approach to writing. Born in Wertach, Germany in 1944, he studied in his homeland before moving to England in 1967, first to Manchester, then to East Anglia, then to Norwich, where he settled. In 1970, he would become a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, specializing in European literature and literature translation. In 2001, at the age of fifty-seven, he suffered a fatal aneurysm while driving, causing his vehicle to swerve and collide with an oncoming truck. Regarding his novels, he was known for writing in an old-fashioned and lengthy form of German. Despite this, his work has always been widely recognized in the English-speaking world thanks to translators such as Athena Bell and Michael Hulse. Of particular interest to him were the traumas of World War II and the Holocaust, specifically in relation to the German people. He would often examine themes of memory, physical and societal decay, and self-reconciliation.
Of all the people Gee interviews, three are especially memorable. One is Barbara Hui, who has started a project in which literary locations are plotted into digital maps. The one for The Rings of Saturn is extensive; the red line marking the narrator’s walking path is littered with pinpoints that themselves branch off to other world locations, all of which Sebald makes reference to. Another is Lise Patt, who attempts to explain the correlation between two photographs and two illustrations present in The Rings of Saturn. Of the four images, three are related to herrings and the bright colors they turn when they die; the final image is a photo of naked Holocaust victims piled in a section of forest land. Finally, there’s Jeremy Millar, who was inspired by the film Driving by Numbers to light a firework at the spot where Sebald’s car crashed. He took several photographs, not of the flash but of the trail of smoke, believing it to be more representative of Sebald’s novel. The last photo we see reveals ... something rather interesting.
Patience (After Sebald) has not motivated me to reread The Rings of Saturn, nor has it shed any light on how the novel inspired me to write my one successful short story in college. It has, however, done a wonderful job of explaining the novel to me, not just its mechanics but also its psychological and historical implications. The final fifteen minutes or so are devoted to a discussion on the novel’s most significant subtexts, namely the link between people and place and the perceived need to discover oneself through travel and physical effort. I think Adam Phillips sums it up best: What begins as the story of a simple walk ends as a documentation of the collapse of Western culture prior to and after World War II. Furthermore, Sebald operates under the assumption that one must never stop moving to avoid catastrophe. Only when one stops and becomes a writer does something bad happen.