Following Sebald's English trail

Filmmaker Grant Gee will be a guest speaker at the Holon Mediatheque at a screening of ‘Patience (After Sebald)’ that will mark the 10th anniversary of the writer’s death.

'Patience (after Sebald) is based on 'The Rings of  Saturn' (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Patience (after Sebald) is based on 'The Rings of Saturn'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the face of it, W.G. Sebald would not be a natural choice for, say, a Children’s Hour book slot. But Grant Gee says he finds Sebald’s writing moving and enriching.
Gee should know, as he recently directed Patience (After Sebald), which is based on Sebald’s stirring tome The Rings of Saturn. On Monday the fortysomething award-winning British documentary filmmaker will be a guest speaker at the Holon Mediatheque, at an event marking the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death. He will take part in a panel discussion, along with visual artist and writer Zvi Goldstein, psychoanalyst, art critic and curator Itamar Levi, and Shpilman Institute for Photography research head Dr. Romi Mikulinski. The panel discussion will be followed by a screening of Patience (After Sebald).
The Rings of Saturn was inspired by a 100-mile walk Sebald undertook in late summer 1992. At the time, he explained that his motive for the odyssey was to try to “dispel the emptiness that takes hold of me.” Considering that the particular strip of Suffolk coast, in East Anglia, which Sebald chose is probably one of the least frequented parts of the British Isles it is hard to see how spending several days along that trail helped to lift Sebald’s spirits.
Then again, Gee says that he finds the German-born writer’s works, dark core notwithstanding, anything but depressing.
“A friend asked me if I’d read any of Sebald’s things, and I’d meant to for quite a while. So I started on one book, and then another and another, and then read books about him. I spent the best part of a year completely immersed in him,” Gee says.
Sebald’s work is replete with references to death, mass destruction and desolation, and one of his best known books, Austerlitz, references the Holocaust as the eponymous Jewish character arrives in England from his native Czechoslovakia on a Kindertransport. But Gee says his Sebald-literature-infused months were far from doom and gloom.
“You enter into a kind of intellectually, aesthetically exciting world. It is a very rich body of work.”
Sebald was born in Bavaria in 1944, and died in England in 2001. When he was old enough to grasp something about his country’s recent history he began to ask the classic “what did you do in the war” kind of questions but received no information about what had happened during the Holocaust. After taking a degree at the University of Freiburg he moved to England, initially as a research student at the University of Manchester, before becoming a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
He was to remain in that neck of the woods for the rest of his life.
His English place of residence notwithstanding, Sebald wrote in German and explored areas like the trauma of World War II and its effect on the German people, in On the Natural History of Destruction, and the life stories of four German emigrés to England and the US, two of whom have Jewish connections, in The Emigrants.
But Sebald was an avowed anglophile and was always looking to get a better handle on some aspect or another of British culture. His Suffolk jaunt, as The Rings of Saturn, was part of his efforts to gain an even better understanding of his adopted country.
The Rings of Saturn is described as mixing history, travelogue, memoir, meditation, fiction and imagery, and examined the personal, public and often overlooked histories of Suffolk.
Gee has an impressive filmography under his belt, which takes in portraits of stellar British rock bands Joy Division and Radiohead, and English musical and visual project Gorillaz.
There is also a little item in his CV called Tel Aviv (City Symphony), a six-minute documentary project he carried out on a previous visit to this country, in 2000.
Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv, part of it was a bit dilapidated, and I just filmed it. It will be interesting to see what the buildings are like today when I come back to Israel.”
Since Patience (After Sebald) opened at the end of January, Gee says he has attended all sorts of Q&A sessions about the film, and screenings, but that the forthcoming event in Holon will probably be one of the most moving ones connected to the film.
“Yes, of course Sebald inquires into Jewish connections and the Holocaust, and I can’t even begin to comprehend what that means to people in Israel. Sebald was deeply troubled by what his parents’ generation in Germany did during the war, and the fact that Germans of that time admitted culpability and then shut up. In On the Natural History of Destruction Sebald talks about how German literature almost completely avoided what happened in Germany after the war. In the The Rings of Saturn Sebald looks at the trauma, and what happened to Germans and to the Jews during the Second World War, the shock registers and then he kind of looks away.”
Sebald may have physically moved away from the country of his birth, but was always drawn back to that part of the world. It is probably not by chance that he settled in the eastern part of England.
“It is a bit like Holland in East Anglia, with canals and windmills, and the silt there drifted over from Holland,” notes Gee, adding that this may have allowed the writer to adopt a more objective and freer angle on the English people.
“That enabled him, in the The Rings of Saturn, to be more English than the English. Also, that part of England, when he did the walk, was not known to many people and he was able to see it with a fresh eye.”
As a native of the southwest of England, and now resident in Brighton in the southeast, Gee also approached the film, and East Anglia, with outsider’s insight. He took the same route along the Suffolk coast as Sebald, lugging his camera with him to take evocative black-and-white shots of certain parts of the trail, which find their way into Patience (After Sebald).
Naturally, with his hefty musical background, Gee incorporated music into the film, with an intriguing sound track provided by electronic musician James Kirby, who goes by the professional moniker of The Caretaker.
“I knew Sebald was a Schubert fan, so I dug up the oldest recording I could find of Schubert’s Winterreise [song cycle for voice and piano], which is a journey that ends in madness.
I somehow felt that there are parallels there, and I gave James some samples of it and, without much briefing, he took snippets of Schubert’s tracks and processed them and did his magic with them.”
There may not be many people familiar with Sebald’s work in this country, but it is a fair bet that that will change after Monday’s event in Holon.
The panel discussion and screening program will start at the Holon Mediatheque on Monday at 6 p.m., doors open at 5:30 p.m. Attendees should book in advance. Admission is free. For more information: (03) 502- 1555 and