Three Archivists of the Marginal: Keiller, Sebald, Sinclair
David Anderson’s recent book, Landscape and Subjectivity in the Work of Patrick Keiller, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair (Oxford, 2020), begins by quoting from Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Solnit has made it clear to us how closely related walking and creativity are. “To write,” she says in that important book, “is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination.” Since the age of Wordsworth, walking and literature, along with the other arts, have become increasingly entwined. Anderson has chosen three of my favorite artists—two writers and one filmmaker—for whom walking plays an essential role. Although, I must say that walking somehow seems to me like the exact wrong word for what these three did within the context of their art. Anderson uses the word “peregrination” once or twice and I think this is where we should start.
A peregrination usually implies a long, often meandering walk, perhaps somewhat geographically aimless and often directed by goals other than a physical destination. Anderson first examines Patrick Keiller’s trilogy of pseudo-documentary films, London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997), and Robinson in Ruins (2010), in which an enigmatic and melancholy flaneur named Robinson takes meandering journeys around parts of England, while a narrator recites an often ironic text that is somewhat, but not always, related to whatever we are watching on screen. Keiller uses “melancholia and estrangement” to achieve his goal to create a “compelling reimagination of [the UK] landscape.” Keiller (like the other two artists in this study) often focuses in on the human impact on the landscape, especially the ways in which technology and bad public policy have changed, damaged, and restricted the use of the land. If you haven’t seen these films—especially London—I encourage you to seek them out.
In 1992, the year in which Keiller was filming London, W.G. Sebald set off to make the first of the walks that would result in The Rings of Saturn, which would be published in Germany in 1995. Anderson sees “a strong family resemblance” in these two works. “Merging the mannerisms and form of documentary with a distinctly melancholic, reflective subjectivity, [The Rings of Saturn] offers a rich and nuanced account of space and place as a densely woven texture of loss, suffering, and ruination.” He identifies the fact that Sebald’s fictional texts are so loaded with “documentary data” that they often produce a “vertiginous, uncanny sensation” in the reader. Anderson then proceeds to give an attentive and sensitive reading to most of Sebald’s books and he manages to very briefly discuss the conclusions of a number of writers who have previously weighed in on Sebald, including Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag, Dora Osborne, J.J. Long, Diane Blacker, and Jon Cook, just to name some.
“Walking,” Anderson writes about the writer Iain Sinclair, “from Lights Out for the Territory  onwards, becomes not simply a theme for Sinclair, but the key to his creative-critical practice.” Sinclair, whose writing has tended to shift over time from poetry and fiction to “a highly idiosyncratic brand of non-fiction” in the 1990s, has claimed as his turf East London and the Thames Estuary, about which he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge. Like Keiller, Sinclair is more of an urban walker, and his walks are sometimes more theoretical than possible, such as his plan to circumambulate the M25 motorway loop encircling London, which Sinclair “walked” and wrote about in his 2003 book London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Because, as Anderson notes, the road has become “emblematic of madness,” Sinclair’s logical response is often to make “a self-defeating, ritualistic journey to nowhere.”
After considering several of Sinclair’s works (including his strange little 2013 piece on Sebald, whom he never met, Austerlitz & After: Tracking Sebald), Anderson sums up his section on Sinclair by saying that it is a kind of “‘attention’—one that is often obsessive, neurotic, producing a disorienting and provocative ‘psychotic geography’—that motivates and energizes Sinclair’s practice, fueling a body of work that bristles with vital energy and in which, finally, ‘place is burnished and confirmed.'” (Anderson is quoting Sinclair’s The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City.)
In Anderson’s eyes, the work of Keiller, Sebald, and Sinclair “celebrates, criticizes, and condemns often in the same breath, while always insisting on the reading of space as a thickly determined and open-ended texture or archive.” By this I think he means that, each of these three artists, in his own way, is deeply critical of the effects of modernization and industrialization on the land, is suspicious of traditional notions of landscape beauty and the “heritage” agenda, and often have a “melancholic attachment to objects, people, and places” that are overlooked and marginalized. But Anderson is also aware that other commonalities between the three can be more problematic. These are three more or less privileged white men for whom “the trope of the male ‘explorer’ figure” is not misplaced, and yet their explorations show little or no interest in ethnic or cultural diversity.
In Sebald’s case, Anderson also worries about the “quasi-religiosity” of the Sebald cult and the early “canonization” of the writer, which, he feels, leaves some “blind spots” in Sebald criticism. He suggests that Sebald gave a relatively “untainted” picture of contemporary Britain and had a “preoccupation with ‘eccentric’ English people, the bizarre traditions of private schools, and the picturesque decay of stately homes” that betrays a blindness to the British class system. In his chapter “An English Pilgrim: Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,” he considers various accusations that Sebald misrepresented England in his writings, most notably in The Rings of Saturn, where Sebald has been accused of various sins including offering up an outdated, antiquarian vision of England to being utterly blind to the country’s raging economic problems. Anderson reminds us that, despite the length of his time in England (approximately three and a half decades), Sebald nevertheless seemed to remain a German tourist in the country, someone who always sought the “strange, desolate, and undeveloped” when he traveled in England, subjects which he then invested with his own extended cultural meanings. (Think of the visit to to see Thomas Abrams’ miniature Temple of Jerusalem in The Rings of Saturn, as one example.)
In spite of the word “landscape in its title, Anderson’s book ranges over an enormous variety of topics that will of a great interest to any reader of contemporary literature or anyone interested in the implications of contemporary art. As with any original, deeply researched academic title that I write about here, my few paragraphs can never do justice to the 275 pages of David Anderson’s remarkable book. I urge you to read it yourself.
NOTE: Anderson credits the phrase “archivist of the marginal” to the writer Michael Moorcock, who used it in reference to Iain Sinclair.
For the full story behind the photograph of Chestnut Tree Farm, check out my earlier post on The Missing Picture from The Rings of Saturn.