Returning from an eerie winter’s afternoon walk round Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast in east England, I felt as if I’d returned from another country – a country mapped by WG Sebald, the German-born writer who settled in East Anglia. Sebald died in 2001 and his book, The Rings of Saturn, conjures an East Anglia that lies at more than one remove from that prosaically rendered by maps.
Sebald’s Suffolk is a place layered with memory and association: it is both elusive and allusive, encompassing the elaborate trajectories of those – from bomber pilots or herring fishermen to Swinburne, Chateaubriand or Edward FitzGerald – who have turned up there at some time or other. Could one recapture the mood of Sebald’s few forlorn encounters, that miasma of melancholy, the precise horror of those Lowestoft fish and chips? Should one even attempt to follow in his tracks?
Sebald’s powerful re-envisaging of Suffolk made him the focus of a lively weekend orchestrated by Artevents at Snape Maltings to explore the potency of place. One element of a year-long project called The Re-Enchantment, the weekend premiered Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) as the opening to a day’s symposium on Place and its Meanings, a tribute by the legendary Patti Smith, and a walk through the scarred and haunted shingle spit of Orford Ness with its derelict second world war bunkers and twisted shards of rusty ordnance.
Gee’s film does, boldly, set out in Sebald’s footsteps, tracing his path in grainy black and white that segues into archive footage and back with a dexterity that collapses present into past and echoes the ghostly images that punctuate Sebald’s text, after he had repeatedly photocopied the originals until their lines were sufficiently blurred. The pace is measured, snatches of Schubert’s Winterreise reinforce the minor key, and the film is peopled by some of those touched by his work: writers Robert Macfarlane, Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and artist Tacita Dean among them. As in Sebald’s book, we are brought sharply back into the 20th century by a sudden high-precision detail – a cameo in colour of his friend and translator Michael Hamburger, for instance – but the overall impression is timeless, elegiac: a homage that finds a close visual parallel for Sebald’s mental meanderings.
The theme of re-enchantment springs naturally out of the renaissance of nature writing in the past decade, itself partly fuelled by the ever-encroaching threats to the British countryside (notably the controversial sell-off of forests and woodlands), which give this debate an extra urgency: an urgency somewhat at odds with the lapidary prose of The Rings of Saturn. Indeed, Richard Mabey, the naturalist and writer, suggested that Sebald’s lack of precision about landscape amounted to a lack of respect for it, a betrayal of sorts – while Robert Macfarlane defended the author’s authenticity at a deeper level, pointing out that his concerns lay elsewhere in a realm of mental geography and excavation, at which surely he excelled. Saturday’s symposium on the meaning of place posed many more questions than it answered – but the mark of a good writer is to provoke good questions, and the spirit of Sebald hovered over the proceedings even when not directly invoked.
Rachel Lichtenstein, the writer and artist, told of how she disinterred the history of her Jewish antecedents in London’s East End, the dusty detritus of whose lives was subsumed under the accretions of later generations in the endless flux of immigration. The writer Alexandra Harris focused on the rediscovery and re-engagement with the English countryside by artists and writers of the 1930s, who turned their back on international modernism in the face of the threat of war. And Macfarlane’s BBC film, The Wild Places of Essex, was an essay in pure re-enchantment, a visual poem of great sensitivity to the natural world.
It was Patti Smith, however, whose sell-out gig in Snape Maltings Concert Hall was an extended riff around Sebald’s narrative poem “After Nature” – with some old favourites thrown into the mix – who put her finger on why we were all there: the breathtaking, unspoilt beauty of Snape’s setting among the Suffolk reedbeds, and the fact that – since the first Aldeburgh festival in 1948 (the programme of which featured Bill Brandt’s evocative images of Aldeburgh beach) – the Suffolk landscape has been integral to its arts enterprise.
So Patti Smith’s evident delight at her surroundings found an echo in the audience. To music composed and played by Michael Campbell, with her daughter Jesse Smith on piano, she combined resonant readings from “After Nature” with her own poetry and songs, and saw off a heckler with some wit and panache. It went down a storm and it was supremely ironic to think that the reclusive academic Sebald, author of some six books translated into English, should, a decade after his death, inspire with perhaps the most obscure of these a standing ovation for an American rock star newly fallen under his spell.
And why? Because, she told us over breakfast the following morning, as the sun rose over the glittering expanse of sea below her hotel window, she feels an affinity with this author “who gives me permission to write”.