Hidden places

An intimate celebration of a writer's legacy.

After Sebald: Place and Re-Enchantment, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

Friday evening in the small Suffolk town of Saxmundham. The 17.53 train from Ipswich disgorges an abnormally large number of passengers, most of them carrying overnight bags. The taxi drivers lined up outside the station, more used to greeting a few commuters and the odd visitor up from London, look perplexed.

We had come to Suffolk for After Sebald: Place and Re-Enchantment, a "weekend exploration" of the work of the German writer W G Sebald, held at nearby Snape Maltings. Sebald died in a car accident near his home in the neighbouring county of Norfolk in December 2001. The weekend - comprising the world premiere of Grant Gee's documentary Patience (After Sebald), a symposium on the writer's work and a reading (with musical accompaniment) by Patti Smith of excerpts from Sebald's book-length prose poem After Nature - was part of The Re-Enchantment, a year-long project produced by the Artevents agency which, the organisers say, examines the "importance of 'place' to the enhancement of identity and creative possibility in life and art".

The places Gee explores in Patience, his first film since the 2007 documentary feature Joy Division, lie on the route of a walk through East Anglia that Sebald describes in The Rings of Saturn (1995). The narrator of this strenuously unclassifiable prose work - in the film, Christopher MacLehose, Sebald's first English editor, recalls asking the author which category he wanted his books to go in - sets off to "walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work". As Robert Macfarlane, one of a number of writers and artists who appear in the film, observes, this is walking not as conquest or discovery - a distinctively American ambulatory mode, he thinks - but as "recovery".

It is also walking as digression. The narrator's encounters in Lowestoft, Southwold or at the country seat of Somerleyton Hall are occasions for extended historical riffs - on Joseph Conrad's meeting with Roger Casement in Belgian Congo, on the depredations of the Croatian Ustaše in the Second World War, or on the court of the Chinese emperor Hsien-feng. "In a way," Macfarlane told me when I met him at Snape Maltings, "Sebald doesn't travel through Suffolk at all. He travels through history; it's a hyperlinked landscape. The book's method almost denies place."

Gee has said that he chose to focus on The Rings of Saturn, rather than other works by Sebald, because it has something "easily filmable at its core" - namely, the walk. And the film, shot largely in grainy black and white, certainly lavishes concentrated attention on the beaches and reed beds of the Suffolk coast. But it is also sensitive to how the book is less a travelogue than a highly wrought skein of uncanny historical connections. Some of its most powerful sequences involve the use of archive sound or footage - for instance, the disembodied voice of the former UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim, whose spoken greeting to the inhabitants of distant galaxies was placed aboard Voyager II. (Waldheim had allegedly been an accessory, as an Austrian Nazi bureaucrat, to the crimes of the Croatian death squads.)

The film tries, successfully for the most part, to honour Sebald's ambivalence about place and also to avoid the piety that so often threatens to smother critical assessments of Sebald's work. At one point, we hear the writer Iain Sinclair saying of Sebald: "The man is dead. He's ripe for a cult." It is as if, in recording that remark, Gee is reminding himself of the dangers that lie in wait for him. Patience is, Macfarlane says with some justification, "a very critical-minded film".

Not critical-minded enough, one suspects, for the nature writer Richard Mabey, who made an entertainingly truculent contribution to the symposium on Sebald that followed the screening by launching into an assault on the writer's reputation. For Mabey, The Rings of Saturn is a gigantic pathetic fallacy - a sustained failure to look at the landscape he was passing through. Sebald's labyrinthine digressions, he argued, are nothing less than an "affront" to the particularity of that landscape, a way of "disrespecting" it.

Mabey's intervention was a reminder of just how hard the "hard business of writing about nature" is. But it was aimed at the wrong target because, as Macfarlane pointed out during a panel discussion, Sebald was not a nature writer at all - and so Mabey's critique was built on a category error.
Rather, Sebald's primary interest was in "the effect of landscape on mind", as the film tries to show. Macfarlane recalls disagreeing with the contention of the artist Jeremy Millar, whose colour photographs of places that Sebald passed through appear in Patience, that the German writer's work expresses an enduring human love for dwelling. "It's all about not being at home," Macfarlane insists. "It's about landscape giving away beneath you." The Sebaldian landscape is honeycombed with intimations of trauma and catastrophe - what he called, in a section of After Nature that Patti Smith read at Snape Maltings, "flickering[s] from beyond".

Smith's performance, to an audience so rapt and reverential that one young fan flounced out in disgust, was shot through with such intimations. And these moments were all the more extraordinary for being achieved with the accompaniment of just a piano, played by Smith's daughter Jesse, and acoustic guitar and vibes, played by Jesse's boyfriend, the young composer Michael Campbell.

Interspersed with Smith's readings from Sebald's poem, which were set to delicate arrangements by the young musicians, were crowd-pleasing versions of "Birdland" from her 1975 debut album, Horses, "Pissing in a River" from the follow-up, Radio Ethiopia, and a lovely reading of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Helpless".

At the end of the show, as the applause subsided, a woman from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of several European newspapers covering the event, turned to the poet and Sebald's friend Stephen Watts and asked him what he thought the writer would have made of it all. Looking distractedly into the middle distance, Watts replied: "I don't know. I don't know." And it doesn't really matter, for Smith was offering her incantations not in supplication to the shade of Sebald, but rather in creative identification with him. "Sometimes," she told me the following morning, "you look at the work of another person and it gives you permission to go on with your own."

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

After Sebald was part of The Re-Enchantment, a national arts project produced by Artevents

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt