W.G. SEBALD'S MENTAL WEATHER

~ Posted by Simon Willis, January 26th 2012

When I left the office the other afternoon for a screening of a new documentary, the sky was grey and overcast: good weather for watching any movie, perfect for one about W.G. Sebald. His book "The Rings of Saturn" (1995 in German, 1998 in English) records a walk he took around East Anglia in 1992, during which the author meditates on everything from herring fishing to the Holocaust. Darkness is always falling in Sebald's books, or clouds casting a shadow or "veils of mist" drifting in from the sea.

Grant Gee's excellent new film, "Patience (After Sebald)", which is released in Britain tomorrow, retraces the journey. The film combines grainy and blustery footage of Covehithe, Southwold, Dunwich and Somerleyton with voice-overs from writers and artists interpreting the book's web of associations. There are also audio recordings of Sebald himself. At one point he talks about fog and mist, and how much he admires the ability of Victorian novelists "to make of one phenomenon a thread which runs through a whole text." 

That applies to Sebald's work too. Weather in "The Rings of Saturn" is more than mood. It's also a method of blurring what he sees, and a metaphor for the unbidden path the book takes. In the film, the author and academic Robert Macfarlane describes Sebald's work as "a vanishing of stabilities". It's not unlike a phrase Macfarlane used in a recent piece about mist for Intelligent Life. Mist, he wrote,  is “trickster weather…it turns familiar landscapes strange, dampens sounds, blurs vision".

In one passage in the book, which is explored in the film, Sebald takes a walk on Dunwich Heath in weather which is "uncommonly sultry and dark". After a while—during which he thinks about Britain's forests, charcoal and the relationship between combustion and creativity—he finds himself back where he began, lost among the crisscrossing tracks. "The low, leaden sky; the sickly violet hue of the heath clouding the eye...I cannot say how long I walked about in that state of mind, or how I found a way out."

"Patience (After Sebald)" is released in Britain on January 27th 

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life