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Posts from the ‘Rings of Saturn (Ringe der Saturn)’ Category

Lines of Sight


As we approach what would have been the 75th birthday of W.G. Sebald on May 18, 2019, two interrelated exhibitions will be celebrating and examining his legacy at two neighboring institutions that are only 7 kilometers apart in Norwich: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. I’ll deal with each in a separate post, starting with Norwich Castle’s exhibition, “Lines of Sight.” From the website of Visit Norfolk:

“Lines of Sight: W.G. Sebald’s East Anglia” at Norwich Castle from May 10 until January 5 2020  is an unprecedented exhibition celebrating the work of the author W.G. Sebald on the 75th anniversary of his birth.

In collaboration with The University of East Anglia, this exhibition brings together a diverse selection of celebrated artworks, curious objects, archive material and the author’s own, unseen photographs to tell the story behind the creation of one of East Anglia’s most famous literary masterpieces, The Rings of Saturn (1995).

From the mystery of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull to the secret landscapes of the Cold War, from the ghostly vessels of the vanished Herring fleets to intricate pattern books of Norwich silk weavers, this exhibition gathers the threads of Sebald’s enigmatic text to present a uniquely poetic visual portrait of East Anglia that will appeal to both those familiar and new to his work.

W.G. Sebald (1944 – 2001) – or Max to his friends – is one of the most revered, authors of the late 20th century. His evocative and unclassifiable prose works: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001) – continue to attract a remarkable international following. His reputation and the passionate devotion of readers to his work have grown significantly since his untimely death in 2001 at the age of 57.

Born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944, Sebald spent most of his adult life in England, first in Manchester then moving to Norfolk in 1970, to study and teach at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where he became Professor of European Literature in 1988. The exhibition “Lines of Sight” is held to mark what would have been Sebald’s 75th birthday.

Curator, Dr Nick Warr from The University of East Anglia explains: ‘Sebald’s books are an idiosyncratic mixture of text and image. Part fiction, part autobiography and part travelogue, they intertwine global history with personal memory to recount the fates of lost and forgotten people. Sebald produced all of his published texts whilst living and teaching in Norfolk and the distinctive character of the East Anglian landscape and the stories of those who have made a home here are the elements that connect them all.

‘A remarkable feature of this exhibition are Sebald’s own, previously unseen photographs that he took during his walks along the Suffolk coast. This extraordinary visual record, loaned from the Sebald Estate, not only documents one of the most famous journeys in Modern European literature but also maps out Sebald’s creative process as it meanders its way around the places, people and events that have shaped the region.’

All of the uncanny black and white images that appear in Sebald’s books were made in collaboration with the photographer Michael Brandon-Jones, who assisted the writer in transforming various photographs, found images and objects into the strange pictures that punctuate the author’s texts. A selection of rarely shown Brandon-Jones’ prints are on display alongside Sebald’s manuscript notes and instructions, giving the visitor a rare insight into how the text was carefully assembled image by image.

To augment this archival element of the exhibition with a view to expanding its appeal beyond those already familiar with the text, Sebald’s work is juxtaposed beside the objects and artworks he weaves into his narrative. Items from Norfolk Museums’ own collections, such as the ornate Norwich weavers’ pattern books are shown with loans from National collections, such as Willem van de Velde’s magnificent oil painting, The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Sole Bay (1672) from National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

With the story behind the creation of The Rings of Saturn as its focus, “Lines of Sight” is as much about showcasing the amazing things that inspired Sebald to write his masterpiece, as it is about inspiring renewed interest in his work for a new or established readership.

Each image in Sebald’s work is testament to his fascination with the overlooked; the objects, places, people and events that have drifted to the margins of everyday life. Inspired by Norwich’s most noteworthy polymath, Sir Thomas Browne, Sebald sets out in The Rings of Saturn to identify, through the diligent examination of these remnants, the patterns of nature and history and in turn seek meaning in the strange family resemblances they appear to share.

From the cosmic dust of an exploded moon to the gas lit winter gardens of a Victorian mansion; the luminous rays of Southwold lighthouse to the darkness of the Belgian Congo; the bombing raids of the Second World War to the history of sugar beet farming, “Lines of Sight” presents in an engaging and inclusive manner, Sebald’s unique perspective on the history and ecology of East Anglia.

Curator, Dr Rosy Gray of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery said: “Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is delighted to be showing this collaborative, seminal exhibition. The impact of Sebald’s work on artists today ensures that his writing and image-making is continually re-visited and re-discovered, bringing new audiences to the work. The opportunity to explore The Rings of Saturn’s visual complexity is an important moment, not only for existing admirers of Sebald’s work but also those with a more general interest in art, literature, photography and of course local history.”

More information, including a wonderful array of programs, can be found at the website of Norwich Castle.

London Review Bookshop Event – April 23

Patience Preview

I’ll be visiting London and Cambridge in April and the folks at the London Review Bookshop have invited me to join in a program celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication in Great Britain of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Grant Gee will be screening his terrific film Patience (After Sebald). Here’s the LRB’s program preview:

Marking 20 years since the translation into English of the late W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, one of the most remarkable books of the late twentieth century, Grant Gee introduces his acclaimed 2011 documentary essay film tracking both the journey taken in the volume, and the work’s own influence on numerous writers, artists and thinkers.

He will be joined in conversation by the film’s creative consultant, writer and critic Chris Darke, and Terry Pitts, founder of the remarkable literary blog Vertigo, founded out of a profound admiration for Sebald’s work. The evening is hosted by Gareth Evans.

You can purchase tickets for the 7:00 PM event at the LRB website. Come say hello!

In preparation for watching Patience, take a listen to the film’s hauntingly beautiful score by The Caretaker over at Bandcamp. Leyland Kirby (aka The Caretaker) used Franz Schubert’s 1827 piece Winterreise as his source material, which he “subjected to his perplexing processes, smudging and rubbing isolated fragments into a dust-caked haze of plangent keys, strangely resolved loops and de-pitched vocals which recede from view as eerily as they appear.”

Sebald Events for February 2015

If you are in New York City this Wednesday February 11, you might want to try to get to Symphony Space at 7:30 PM for a book club discussion covering W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn led by the amazing line-up of Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Dinaw Mengestu (All Our Names), and Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men). Denis O’Hare (American Horror Story) will read an excerpt from Sebald’s book. There is an admission charge. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets in advance. Symphony Space is at 2537 Broadway at 95th Street, New York, NY 10025-6990.


Flaubert’s Grain of Sand

 Álvaro Sánchez-Montañés[photograph by Álvaro Sánchez-Montañés]

Here is a summer-themed post for all of those Vertigo readers who might find themselves on a beach in the coming months, trying to eject a few grains of sand from in between the toes.

On the opening page of The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald’s narrator reflects briefly upon the walk through the county of Suffolk which he is about to relate to us in the remainder of the book.

In retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had overcome me at times with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

Read more

Sebald & The Rings of Saturn – Links March 2014

Sebald Rings of Saturn British Edition

W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn gets some attention from non-literary disciplines in two recent posts elsewhere. Over at Celluloid Wicker Man, Adam Scovell has written about Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald). He gives a thoughtful examination to the relationship between Sebald’s book and Gee’s film, especially the way in which the film and the book attempt to capture perception.

There are a number of reception possibilities attainable when watching Grant Gee’s 2011 essay film, Patience (After Sebald). Any film based on a book or around an author is always going to separate its viewers into two groups; those who have read the original source material and those who have not. While the latter will be seeking to latch onto the their initial experience of film as it happens, the former will be no doubt be cast in the inescapable lure of the original book and its contexts.


For a writer who is at once both extremely modern in his style but shot through with the prism of a classical antiquarian, the 16mm film perhaps is the most aesthetically pleasing and apt model left to us when exploring the writing of W.G. Sebald. Like his writing, it is just as littered with scratches, grooves and imperfections that make it both a leaping jump towards recreating perception and something deeply humanistic to experience.

Meanwhile, as part of his ongoing project Writing With Images (which I wrote about recently), art historian James Elkins has added a lengthy analysis of the images in The Rings of Saturn. Elkins writes about three specific photographs and ponders the “epistemological veracity of his images in this book, which are often manipulated and difficult to read.”

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Listen to “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision”

As I recently wrote, on June 8 BBC broadcast a short program on Katie Mitchell’s theater production of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn called “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision.”  Until June 15 (9:32 to be precise), you can listen to the program in the BBC iPlayer.  The segment available on iPlayer is 46 minutes long, but the Sebald portion ends about 31 minutes into the recording.  Here is a excerpt from the program information:

Last year, the acclaimed theatre director Katie Mitchell put The Rings of Saturn or Die Ringe des Saturn on stage – not in England but in Cologne, Germany.This programme follows her as she takes her German actors to East Anglia to experience at first-hand the landscape in which Sebald was writing and walking. They explore a coastline, which – as Sebald was acutely aware – looks out towards Germany, across what used to be known until the late 19th century as “the German Ocean”.

The trip along the coast precipitates the actors’ personal reflections and memories of their grandparents’ generation during the Second World War and the way the history of that time has been handed down to them.

The programme introduces The Rings of Saturn through beautiful readings by the actor Stephen Dillane, interspersed with music by composer Paul Clark, and sounds recorded on the Suffolk coastline; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be dismissed.

The program is well-done.  Sebald devotees won’t learn much, but there are a few points of interest.  Stephen Dillane (from Game of Thrones) turns out to be a very nice reader of Sebald’s prose.  The radio piece also includes the unannounced appearance of Sebald’s friend Rüdiger Gorner, editor of The Anatomist of Melancholy: Essays in Memory of W.G. Sebald (which I wrote about previously).

Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision

Katie Mitchell

Two years ago I wrote about British theater director Katie Mitchell’s plans to stage Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn in Cologne’s Schauspiel Haus in 2012.  I never gave that production a second thought until this week when several readers alerted me to an upcoming radio broadcast on BBC 3 called “Sebald’s Apocalyptic Vision,” Saturday June 8 from 9.00-9.30 PM (21:00).  Here’s the basic information from the BBC website:

Between The Ears offers an insight into one of the strangest and most original writers of the 20th Century: WG Sebald. Polymathic and profound, the intricacies of Sebald’s writing cannot be summarised or explained; but this programme explores a few of the themes that most preoccupied Sebald in his life and writing – in particular, exile and the memory of war. A voluntary emigrant from Germany to England, Sebald settled in East Anglia in 1970. The Rings Of Saturn, a book first published in German in 1995, recounts a long walk down the coast, from Somerleyton to Orford. This programme introduces The Rings Of Saturn through readings, interspersed with music and sound, archive and interviews; but it also shows Sebald’s contemporary importance in a world in which the significance of history, time and place can so easily be pushed aside and replaced by a virtual sense of time and space on screen.

Directed by Katie Mitchell.
Producer/ Isabel Sutton for the BBC Read more

Vertiginous Links for May 2013


The German Bookshop in London is having an event with Uwe Schütte on May 22 at 19.00.

We are delighted to have the author of W.G. Sebald. Einführung in Leben & Werk, Uwe Schütte, with us to introduce you to many little known aspects of the life and work of W.G. Sebald.  His book was published in autumn 2011 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of his premature death. It provides new biographical material and examines all major literary works. In addition, a chapter on Sebald’s critical writings sheds an interesting light on a neglected yet crucial part of his oeuvre.  Schütte came to the University of East Anglia in 1992 to do both his MA and PhD with Sebald as his supervisor. He is a Reader in German at Aston University, Birmingham and the author of ten books on German literature, as well as numerous articles and reviews in national papers in Germany and Austria. 

The event is free but requires an email reservation.  For details, follow this link and scroll down a bit.


Europe Mai 2013

The literary review Europe has announced that its May issue will focus on Sebald and Tomas Tranströmer (great pair!).  Go here to purchase a copyHere are the contents for the Sebald section:

Lucie CAMPOS et Raphaëlle GUIDÉE : W.G. Sebald, la marge et le centre.
W.G. SEBALD : « Mais l’écrit n’est pas un vrai document… »
François HARTOG : Le simultané du non-simultané.
Romain BONNAUD : Une expérience de l’histoire.
Sergio CHEJFEC : L’histoire comme représentation et comme peine.
Ruth KLÜGER : Cheminant entre la vraie vie et la vie fausse.
Raphaëlle GUIDÉE : Politique de la catastrophe.
Ben HUTCHINSON : « L’ombre de la résistance ». W.G. Sebald et l’École de Francfort.
Lucie CAMPOS : L’excès du savoir et du sentiment.
Patrick CHARBONNEAU : Max et le bélier hydraulique.
Karine WINKELVOSS : Pathos et théâtralité dans la prose de Sebald.
Muriel PIC : Élégies documentaires.
Emmanuel BOUJU : Mind the gap ! Humour et exil de la mélancolie.
Liliane LOUVEL : Un événement de lecture.
Mandana COVINDASSAMY : Le dépaysement en pratique.
Ruth VOGEL-KLEIN : Dans l’atelier de W.G. Sebald.
Martin RASS : Le bruit du passage du train.
Jean-Christophe BAILLY : Le troc silencieux de W.G. Sebald.
Fabrice GABRIEL : « Enjoy ».
Lucie TAÏEB : Sans histoire, pas d’histoire ?


Finally, over at The Public Domain Review, Adam Green has done all Sebald readers a great service with his elegantly conceived project “Texts in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.”  Here is his description of the undertaking:

Collected together in this post are the major (public domain) texts of which, and through which, Sebald speaks – accompanied by extracts in which the texts are mentioned. The list begins and ends with the great polymath Thomas Browne, an appropriate framing as the work of this 17th century Norfolk native has a presence which permeates the whole book. Indeed, in the way he effortlessly moves through different histories and voices, it is perhaps in Browne’s concept of the ‘Eternal Present’ which Sebald can be seen to operate, in this mysterious community of the living and the dead.


Wild Places

Robert Macfarlane’s self-imposed task sounded simple: “Would it be possible to make a series of journeys in search of some of the wild places that remained in Britain and Ireland?”  The end result became The Wild Places (2007), an accounting of fifteen such journeys, several made with writer Roger Deakin, who died in 2006.  But as the journeys unfold, so do the questions that Macfarlane comes to ask himself.

Like the best of those who choose to write largely about the natural world, Macfarlane expands the genre beyond pure science, embracing history, literature, the visual arts, philosophy.  The Wild Places is a blend of personal quest, reportage from the front lines, and deep reflection on the elusive definition and meaning of “nature” and “wild.”  For Macfarlane, there is no doubt that nature can provide many redemptive moments and unequaled insights to the receptive spirit.  At the very least, he thinks, people routinely draw happiness from their daily encounters with landscape.  At a much deeper level, Macfarlane suspects that we need nature to give us perspective, to remind us of our role – exceedingly minor and transitory – in the larger story of the universe.

We are, as a species, finding it increasingly hard to imagine that we are part of something which is larger than our own capacity.  We have come to accept a heresy of aloofness, a humanist belief in human difference, and we suppress wherever possible the checks and balances on us – the reminders that the world is greater than us or that we are contained within it.  On almost every front, we have begun a turning away from a felt relationship with the natural world.

Traveling through the Lake District, Macfarlane reads Coleridge, who, in 1802-3,  escaped depression by walking there relentlessly, experiencing the wildness of that countryside.  “Wildness, in Coleridge’s account, is an energy which blows through one’s being, causing the self to shift into new patterns, opening up alternative perceptions of life.”

But Macfarlane is under no illusion about the real nature of Nature.  Most of the places to which he journeys present him with forbidding conditions and relentless danger and it doesn’t take much to realize that nature is utterly disinterested in human existence.

The sea, the stone, the night and the weather all pursued their processes and kept their habits, as they had done for millennia, and would do for millennia to follow.  The fall of moonlight on to water, the lateral motion of blown snow through air, these were of the place’s making only.  This was a terrain that had been thrown up by fire and survived ice.  There was nothing, save the wall of rocks I had made and the summit cairn, to suggest history.  Nothing human….

There could have been nowhere that conformed more purely to the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys.  I had been drawn here by a spatial logic, a desire to reach this coincident point of high altitude and high latitude.  But now I could not wait to leave it…

All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest.  In small measures it exhilarates.  But in full form it annihilates.

The question that keeps popping up during Macfarlane’s short journeys is this: What do we mean by wild?  Do we mean remote and unforgiving or can the wild exist near at hand?

Lying there on the drifted sand, under the white stars, I thought about how the vision of wildness with which I had begun my journeys – inhuman, northern, remote – was starting to crumble from contact with the ground itself.  No such chaste land exists in Britain or Ireland….The human and the wild cannot be partitioned.

Visiting the Burren, a desolate, rocky place in the north of County Clare, Ireland, Macfarlane and Deakin spent a day walking slowly over the area’s limestone, where they discover a small gryke, a minute crack in the limestone.  As they lay on their stomachs and peer into it, they spy hundreds of different types of plants opportunistically growing in the sheltered, well-watered spot.  So, maybe wildness comes in miniature sizes as well as on a national park scale.  But the Burren also has a long human history and Macfarlane realizes that “five millennia of human activity in the Burren also means that buried in it are 5,000 years’ worth of the dead.”  As W.G. Sebald wrote, “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,”

I had passed through lands that were saturated with invisible people, with lives lived and lost, deaths happy and unhappy, and the spectral business of these wild places had become less and less ignorable.  My idea of wildness as something inhuman, outside history, had come to seem nonsensical, even irresponsible.

Eventually, he realizes that Roger Deakins had it right.

“There is wildness everywhere,” Roger had written once, “if we only stop in our tracks and look around us.”  To him, the present-day and the close-at-hand were as astonishing as the long-gone and the far-afield.  He was an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby.

…I had started to refocus.  I was becoming increasingly interested in this understanding of wildness not as something which was hived off from human life, but which existed unexpectedly around and within it: in cities, backyards, roadsides, hedges, field boundaries or spinnies….And it was there in the margins, interzones and rough cusps of the country: quarry rim, derelict factory and motorway verge.

By the end of The Wild Places, I was not surprised at the equanimity with which Macfarlane anticipates the eventual end of the world as we know it, as he contemplates the way in which the natural world quickly reclaims the places we have built, spoiled and abandoned – including poisoned places like Chernobyl.

I had spoken once to a climate-change scientist about the subject of abandonment.  The study of her science had changed her perception of time, she said, and of the relevance of human beings within history.  Though we are now among the dominant species, she said, our age will pass and our material legacy – unthinkable though it is now to imagine it vanished – will be absorbed by the land, becoming all but imperceptible.

Although Macfarlane never mentions Sebald (except to note The Rings of Saturn in his reading list), The Wild Places occasionally crosses over into Sebald territory, both literally and philosophically.  Macfarlane visits Orford Ness (which plays a role in The Rings of Saturn) at which point he muses on Sir Thomas Browne’s concept of the quincunx, a curious natural pattern that Sebald also discusses.  But in the end, Macfarlane and Sebald go their separate ways.  The final page of The Rings of Saturn is marked by death, mourning, and the onset of blackness, while Macfarlane ends his book by climbing up into a tree and surveying the landscape that surrounds him.

Wildness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived.  It was set about by roads and buildings, much of its was menaced, and some of it was dying.  But at that moment the land seemed to ring with a wild light.

Macfarlane has written about Sebald on several occasions – in the exhibition catalog Waterlog and a review of Campo Santo for the Times Online.


A few seconds after the title of Grant Gee’s film fades, a subtitle appears that tells us what the next 84 minutes are going to be about: “A Walk Through The Rings of Saturn.”  Patience (After Sebald) is a tour through a book rather than a visit to a place or the story of a life.  Gee does, at times, show us locations referred to by the words of the book, but, as several interviewees say, it’s foolish, really, to follow in Sebald’s footsteps.  So, like a good reader, Gee follows Sebald’s words.

Patience is a layered, often leisurely film, content to linger on images or, in one instance, plunge the screen into blackness for a few moments.  The film begins and ends with the opening and closing words of The Rings of Saturn, wonderfully read by the actor Jonathan Pryce, whose uninflected, almost monotonous voice has  the requisite underlying hints of sadness and melancholy.  Packed into the center of Patience are superbly edited interviews, scenes of East Anglia, clips from vintage documentary films (the British fishing industry, World War II, the  hatching of silkworms).  In a film equivalent of Sebald’s multi-layered text, Gee often has two, if not three distinct films superimposed : his own contemporary documentary, a vintage film, and the slow scanning of the words from Sebald’s book.  The visual tracks and the audio track act like tectonic plates, shifting underneath each other and causing momentary, almost random disruptions that jar the viewer into seeing new relationships.  The film is predominately black and white, although there are brief incursions into color film, as well as sequences when small color films are inset within the dominant black and white image.

Michael Hamburger

By visually and aurally keeping Sebald’s words first and foremost in the viewer’s attention, Gee emulates the act of attentive reading.  As the film moves through the book (always reminding us that we are focused on a book, Gee frequently notes exactly what page the film is referencing), Gee digresses to a geographic site, or permits a talking head to propose an interpretation or or explanation of Sebald’s text or insert a bit of Sebald’s biography, or, as Sebald often did in his books, simply leaves us staring at an inane, odd, but somehow fitting image.   It’s precisely how an engaged reader would move through Sebald’s meandering text, pausing briefly to wonder about an odd reference (what does the Emperor of China have to do with the bridge over the river Blythe?) or reflect on a particularly beautiful or unexpected turn of phrase.  Is there another film like this, a film that simulates “reading” a book?  I can’t think of one.

The talking heads (who, for the most part, remain offscreen talking voices) are a well-chosen lot that includes: Robert Macfarlane (writer), Christopher MacLehose (publisher), Adams Phillips (writer and psychoanalyst), Barbara Hui (creator of LitMaps), William Firebrace (architect), Rick Moody (writer), Bill Swainson (editor), Kate Mitchell (theater director), Iain Sinclair (writer), Lise Patt (editor, Searching for Sebald), Christopher Woodward (writer), Tacita Dean (artist), Jeremy Millar (artist), Michael Silverblatt (KCRW radio interviewer), Dan Gretton (writer), Marina Warner (writer), Sir Andrew Motion (poet), Arthur Lubow (journalist), and Chris Petit (writer & filmmaker).  Poet and Sebald translator Michael Hamburger appears via clips from an earlier film.  And Sebald himself is heard, talking about Virginia Woolf, Bleak House, and other topics), via Silverblatts’ great radio interview, made only eight days before Sebald’s death.  Gee elicits many great quotes, but one of my favorites comes from Macfarlane, who calls Sebald a “biographer who walks his subjects back into life or maybe he walks forward after them into death.”