In Sebald’s footsteps … Stuart Jeffries and Grant Gee retrace the author’s steps Link to this videoThe sea wind whips through my thermals and the driving rain mocks my decision to leave the waterproofs in the car. Cliff-top paths, walkable last spring, have toppled into the sea. The nearest pub is miles away. Yet here we are, standing on the cliff at Covehithe in Suffolk, on the very spot where the great writer WG Sebald stood, in August 1992. Hmm, perhaps we shouldn’t have come in January.
We, that is film-maker Grant Gee and I, are retracing a portion of the walk Sebald did over several days for what is arguably his greatest book, 1995’s The Rings of Saturn. Gee has broken off from editing Patience (After Sebald), his film based on the book. We’re hoping to go from Covehithe to Southwold and then on to Dunwich, the great middle ages port that collapsed into the sea. If we’re lucky, we will be rewarded by hearing church bells ringing out from this British Atlantis: legend has it they can be heard tolling from under the sea.
But first, we imagine Sebald in Covehithe. In The Rings of Saturn, he writes of crouching here and seeing a couple on the beach below: “. . . it seemed as if the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged . . . Misshapen, like some great mollusc washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being, a many-limbed two-headed monster that had drifted in from the sea, the last of a prodigious species, its life ebbing from it with each breath expired through its nostrils.”
Pure Sebald: al fresco coitus turned into horror by his melancholic vision. But there’s a twist, even more typical of Sebald: after scampering off, he looks back and feels he could “no longer have said whether I had really seen the pale sea monster at the foot of the Covehithe cliffs or whether I had imagined it”.
It’s this kind of narrative unreliability that makes you wonder if Sebald’s stories can be trusted at all. At a hilariously dismal-sounding Lowestoft hotel, did he really bend his fork on a battered fish “that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”? And can it really be true that the narrow-gauge railway near here once carried a train originally built in China to convey the emperor?
“Well,” says Gee, whose last film was the award-winning 2007 documentary Joy Division, “I’ve spoken to Southwold trainspotters and they say the train, which last ran in the late 1920s, wasn’t Chinese. It didn’t have the imperial dragon motif on it that Sebald claimed. Perhaps he made up that story so he could go off on a meander about China.” Such meandering is one of Sebald’s principal tactics. In The Rings of Saturn, he leaps from Suffolk to slavery in the Belgian Congo, while touching on the lugubrious history of herring fishing and the dismal lives of silkworms. Since his meander to China becomes a superb digression into the Anglo-Chinese opium wars, perhaps it doesn’t matter that he made the train thing up. And anyway, how likely is it that a train designed as a Chinese emperor’s plaything would end up in East Anglia?
We stop at the Crown hotel in Southwold, where Sebald, who taught German literature at the University of East Anglia, had sat leafing through the Independent as a grandfather clock ticked. “For some time I had been feeling a sense of eternal peace,” wrote Sebald of this moment. Then he reads an article about wartime mass murders of Serbs, Bosnians and Jews by Croatian thugs, backed by the Nazis, one of whom was a young clerk who was given an award by the king of Croatia for preparing memoranda on “the necessary resettlements”. That clerk later became secretary-general of the UN and, Sebald relates, recorded a message of greeting for aliens that was placed on board Voyager II before it flew off to the edge of our solar system.
Sebald doesn’t mention Kurt Waldheim’s name in the book, nor does he need to clinch the thought: how disgusting that a bureaucrat of the Holocaust is humanity’s representative out there in space. In a lovely touch, Gee’s film includes audio of Waldheim’s message to other life forms.
Patience, which receives its premiere at Suffolk’s Snape Maltings concert hall on Friday, features contributions from Iain Sinclair, author of London Orbital, which traced his walks along the M25. He warns that, if you want to get to the heart of Sebald, walking the path recorded in The Rings of Saturn won’t get you there. We also encounter Robert McFarlane, an English don at Cambridge and an award-winning travel writer, who tries to retrace Sebald’s walk but gives up. “He arrived in Lowestoft,” laughs Gee, “and saw everybody was happy, that the weather was lovely, and then he went and had a swim in the sea. He realised he was having too much fun – that what he was doing was unSebaldian – so he packed it in after two days.”
We drop in on the Sailors’ Reading Room on the Southwold seafront, where Sebald would go for some peace. It’s cold and empty inside. The Daily Express has been laid out, but there’s no one to read it. “Perhaps by now all the sailors are dead,” suggests Gee.
In December, it will be 10 years since Sebald died, aged 57. This year will see a flurry of conferences, books and commemorative East Anglian walks in the tracks of Sebald. There are even suggestions that, to make your mini-break in Suffolk perfect, you take along The Rings of Saturn. This is a strange notion: yes, after a nice walk and a hearty meal, why not tuck up with some light reading about Holocaust victims being killed in Banja Luka with hammers and knives?
Sebald set out “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”. McFarlane says this is typical of how the British walk. In America, he says, it’s about discovery; in Britain, it’s about recovery. The Rings of Saturn, then, is a flight from a previous project. But here’s the twist: it propels him to hellish places from which there is really no escape, least of all when he retreats to his study to write up the sense of paralysing horror he experienced on his meanders.
Gee and I stand on the old railway bridge between Southwold and Halesworth, the one Sebald claims carried the Chinese imperial train. The light’s failing, the mizzle unceasing. You wouldn’t want be on Suffolk’s beaches after dark, not with all those reports about two-headed monsters with many limbs. Perhaps that’s why we don’t make it to Dunwich. Or perhaps it’s because there’s a deli in Saxmundham with our name on it.
Gee says filming Patience and taking solitary coastal walks was nothing but pleasure. “I thought I could do something with the book,” he says. “There’s a strange comfort in it – I don’t find it in the least miserable. Being in the middle of Sebald’s melancholy isn’t depressing. In any case, I can’t believe Sebald’s walk was as miserable as he makes it sound. He was walking in the summer, staying at a pleasant hotel, visiting old friends, going to places that interested him.”
Good point: the German edition was subtitled Eine Englische Wallfahrt (An English Pilgrimage). And Sebald was, in part, a pilgrim paying surely pleasurable homage at the homes of some of his literary friends, the poet Michael Hamburger for instance.
As I closed The Rings of Saturn on the train home, I didn’t feel at all depressed either. Like Gee, and many others, I felt oddly consoled by its unremittingly miserable pages. To have that effect on so many people was, I thought, as the dark rain-soaked countryside streaked by, Sebald’s greatest literary coup.
Patience (After Sebald) will be screened on Friday at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, as part of After Sebald: Place and Re-Enchantment, a weekend exploration of WG Sebald’s work. Details:www.aldeburgh.co.uk