IS LITERARY GREATNESS still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.
Vertigo, the third of Sebald’s books to be translated into English, is how he began. It appeared in German in 1990, when its author was forty-six; three years later came The Emigrants; and two years after that, The Rings of Saturn. When The Emigrants appeared in English in 1996, the acclaim bordered on awe. Here was a masterly writer, mature, autumnal even, in his persona and themes, who had delivered a book as exotic as it was irrefutable. The language was a wonder—delicate, dense, steeped in thinghood; but there were ample precedents for that in English. What seemed foreign as well as most persuasive was the preternatural authority of Sebald’s voice: its gravity, its sinuosity, its precision, its freedom from all-undermining or undignified self-consciousness or irony.
In W. G. Sebald’s books, a narrator who, we are reminded occasionally, bears the name W. G. Sebald, travels about registering evidence of the mortality of nature, recoiling from the ravages of modernity, musing over the secrets of obscure lives. On some mission of investigation, triggered by a memory or news from a world irretrievably lost, he remembers, evokes, hallucinates, grieves.
Is the narrator Sebald? Or a fictional character to whom the author has lent his name, and selected elements of his biography? Born in 1944, in a village in Germany he calls “W.” in his books (and the dust jacket identifies for us as Wertach im Allgau), settled in England in his early twenties, and a career academic currently teaching modern German literature at the University of East Anglia, the author includes a scattering of allusions to these bare facts and a few others, as well as, among other self-referring documents reproduced in his books, a grainy picture of himself posed in front of a massive Lebanese cedar in The Rings of Saturn and the photo on his new passport in Vertigo. Continue reading “Susan Sontag on W.G. Sebald”→
Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
I think it’s an important book—but more than that I think it’s an engrossing, good, excellent book, an enlarging book, a bewildering book, a depressing book, an intelligent book, an extraordinarily affecting book.
Whatever you do, please don’t use Grant Gee’s new documentary Patience (After Sebald) as a substitution for actually reading Sebald. It’s not that Gee’s film doesn’t lovingly attempt to approximate the spirit of Saturn. No, Gee and his cast of writers, architects, historians, and other Sebaldians clearly attempt to match the rhythms and moods and content of Saturn—and herein lies the film’s failure.
In an essay on Virginia Woolf—a writer who shows up in both Sebald and in Patience—literary critic (and Sebald champion) James Wood notes the anxiety of influence always at work between the artistic subject and the would-be critic: “The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Wood here is specifically calling attention to Woolf’s own critical powers—of her ability to transcend merely reviewing a work, of her status as a poet-critic—but I think he gives us a simple little rubric for evaluating critical work in general: the truly excellent stuff goes its own route. Gee’s film so dutifully commits to visually and aurally replicating the melancholy and erudite mood of Saturn that it often seems cartoonish or clumsy—or, even worse, dreadfully boring.
It’s not fair to put down one filmmaker for not being more like another, but I wish Gee had taken a page out of, say Errol Morris’s book. Morris’s style is, in a sense, to remove style, to eliminate the aesthetic shield between the subject and the camera/audience. In contrast, Patience is overstylized to an almost embarrassing degree. The film veers between lethargic, numbing black and white shots of the places that Sebald visited on his walking tour in Saturn, occasional archival footage, and slippery impositions of text, maps, documents, and talking heads—sometimes delivered in a bizarre, agitated pace. Perhaps the tone I’ve just described may seem appropriate to any critical measurement of Saturn; in my review of Sebald’s novel, I noted that one element of saturnine melancholy is “sluggishness and moroseness, paradoxically paired with an eagerness for action” — but Gee’s lack of restraint here is bad art school stuff. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to simply listen to (let alone watch) a talking head for a minute.
A few notes on those talking heads:
There are some very smart people here saying some really cool things about Sebald—writers like Rick Moody and Iain Sinclair, lit critic Barbara Hui (if you’re a Sebald fan you might’ve already seen her maps of his walks), some historians and architects and so on. There are also excerpts of Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm interview with Sebald woven into the film, sometimes to great effect. Especially interesting are remarks from Christopher MacLehose, Sebald’s publisher, who recounts the time he asked the author which genre his book belonged to. Sebald replied, “Oh, I like all of the categories.”
Gee’s technique with his band of experts is to mostly cast their voices over cold landscape shots, occasionally superimposing a head for a few seconds in a ghostly mishmash that dissolves—along with the voice—into another shot or another voice. Sometimes this is really frustrating because, hey, maybe we’re missing some enlightening remarks, but more often than not it’s frustrating in its sloppiness. Film editing that constantly calls attention to itself is tiresome. The film is at its best when it it stops trying to honor/compete with Saturn and instead imparts some meaningful information about the man and his work. When Patience relaxes enough to simply show archival footage of RAF training flights, it’s a welcome moment from the film’s earnest, torpid buzz.
I realize “torpid buzz” is an oxymoron, but I think it fits Patience. In fact, it might be exactly what Gee was going for. There’s an oppressiveness about the film that belies the often gorgeous and expansive and empty shots of Suffolk, and yes, to be clear, there’s often a similar oppressiveness in Sebald’s book—an oppression of history, of self, of other—but this paradox does not translate well into film.
Sebald makes ample room for his reader; we get to go on this excursion with him. He lets us puzzle out his themes, connect all his strange dots (or not, if we so choose, or, perhaps just as likely, find ourselves unable). The gaps in clear meaning make Saturn such a strange, engrossing book, the kind of book that you return to again and again, the kind of book you press on others (I’ve given away two copies to date). In contrast to the breathing room that Sebald allows his readers, Patience feels somehow stifling and simultaneously small. There’s a brickishness to it, a forceful inclination to fill in all those marvelous Sebaldian gaps. And while yes, some of these people have some really keen insights about Sebald and Saturn, over the film’s interminable 80 minutes these opinions and insights and back stories start to torture meaning out of the text. Any potential reader has had much of her intellectual work removed at this point.
But perhaps I’ve been harsh without illustrating enough. Here’s psychoanalytic critic Adam Phillips who probably gets more voice time than anyone else in Patience; throughout the film he repeatedly over-explains Sebald’s project. I’ll shut up and let him talk (these are a few clips strung together, if my memory is sussing this out right):
Did you watch it? I watched it too—and it seems pretty cool at under four minutes, I’ll admit. But over the course of the film the heavy, “arty” edits, the overexplaining, well . . . it’s too much.
Admittedly, only ten minutes into the film I asked myself who the film was for. As a fan of the book I’d much prefer to just spend 80 minutes of my time rereading parts of it. Or, alternately, a straightforwardish biography would be nice too. And I suppose there are many, many people who will love what Gee’s done (the film has gotten plenty of rave reviews, including one by A.O. Scott at the Times). I also suppose many folks will commend Gee for trying out his own hybrid, for showing a little plumage. This is another way of saying that I think that Gee has turned in the film he intended to make—it just wasn’t for me.