December 14, 2011
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the death of one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures. On December 14, 2001, the German writer W. G. Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck.
The weight of the loss to literature with his early death—of all the books he might have gone on to write—is counterbalanced only by the enigmatic pressure of the work he left behind. His four prose fictions, “Vertigo,” “The Emigrants,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and “Austerlitz” are utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound.
The anniversary year has been marked by a number of commemorative events, mainly in Europe.
Recently, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series of five fifteen-minute audio essays from people who knew Sebald (or Max, as he preferred to be called—he hated his first name, Winfried, because he felt that it sounded too much like the woman’s name Winnifred).
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001,” was published last month by Penguin in the U.K. (and will be out in the U.S. in April).
[“I have even begun to speak in foreign tongues roaming like a nomad in my own town.”
- W.G. Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001]
The British filmmaker Grant Gee—best known as a director of music videos for Radiohead, Blur, the Kills, and Nick Cave—has made a documentary entitled “Patience: After Sebald.”
The film is an oblique, impressionistic reflection on his work, in which Gee reenacts the walk around Suffolk at the heart of “The Rings of Saturn.”
Ten years after his death, however, Sebald’s work remains more or less entirely sui generis. Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading. His books occupy an unsettled, disputed territory on the border of fiction and fact, and this generic ambivalence is mirrored in the protean movements of his prose. Often what is on the page, the writing itself, gives the impression of being only the faint, flickering shadow of its actual referent. What Sebald seems to be writing about, in other words, is frequently not what he wants us to be thinking about.
“I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all,” Sebald has Austerlitz say, “only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.”
Grant Gee's likably loquacious documentary elegantly re-traces WG Sebald's steps through the Suffolk countryside
Those who do, of course, love Sebald to bits, and his death in a car crash in 2001 (he was just 57, and already there had been talk of a Nobel prize for literature) quickly lent him a cult status. Quite naturally, enthusiasts feel the urge to don their walking boots and follow in his footsteps, as if he was some sort of lowland Wainwright who dropped dim, monochrome photos into his text instead of those hiker's-eye sketches of bracken and limestone walls.
Director Grant Gee has made something still and beautiful – an art documentary in the very best sense – that seemed to me to evoke perfectly the melancholia of Sebald's book while hinting at the horror which lies at the heart of its labyrinth.