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On W G Sebald’s ‘Rings of Saturn’

The German travel writer’s account of walking along coastal East Anglia has just been turned into an art-house movie, Patience (After Sebald), by the director Grant Gee. Andrew Eames wonders whether it works.

W G Sebald’s Rings of Saturn strikes me as a peculiarly British travel book, although strangely, libraries tend to categorise it as a novel, presumably because of the way it uses topographical excuses to ramble off on a variety of tangents: for example the author’s arrival in Lowestoft, where Joseph Conrad once lived, prompts a resume of the whole Korzeniowski (Conrad’s original Polish name) life story. Equally, a rumoured badge on a long-gone narrow-gauge railway which once ran into Southwold triggers a meditation on the life and times of Imperial China.

So why ‘peculiarly British?’ Well, one of our greatest travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, was equally prone to such riffs of erudition, especially when walking across Germany in his book A Time of Gifts, and nobody describes that as a novel, even though much of it was written 30 years after the actual journey. And W G, who himself lived in the UK for some 30 years while a lecturer in the University of East Anglia, seems to have adopted a very British sensibility, even though he still wrote his books in German.

Personally, I wish that he had given more space in Rings of Saturn to the immediacy of his journey. He captures the mysteriousness of Orford Ness perfectly, and I love his description of the line of fishermen camped out along a lonely beach as the last vestiges of some nomadic people, starting eastward out to sea. They were not there for the fish, or the companionship, but to ‘be in a place where they have the world behind them.’ We all feel like that sometimes.

Overall, Rings of Saturn is a fairly cheerless account of the landscapes he passes through, and it runs refreshingly contrary to the current fashions in travel literature, where everything has to have foodie haunts, celebrity visitors and a brilliant blue sky. That cheerlessness doesn’t seem to have done sales any harm, either, because the book is still widely available and selling well, 15 years after it first came out.

Anyway, I’d be curious to see how the director has managed to construct a film out of such an elliptical and dreich (good Scottish word, look it up!) piece of literature. And how he, and even Sebald himself with the original book, managed to persuade someone to put money into what is essentially a melancholic piece of work. If anyone out there sees Patience (which premiered at the end of January) let us know if you think it is any good.

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