Harmony in Blue and Silveuville, 1865

Some time in the dying days of last century I read a review of a new book that sounded interesting and so, on my next visit to Sydney town – I was living at Pearl Beach at the time but came in regularly to work upon a screenplay for a film that was never made, called Blue Fields – set myself to find a copy. Blue Fields was about an aging painter, an alcoholic, a teacher, who has a decisive effect upon the lives of three of his students; and its title was that of an epochal painting, the culmination of his life’s work, which he had made, and which the screenplay tried, and failed, to imagine. Sessions working upon it, either at the putative director’s house in Paddington or in various cafes, most often the Tropicana, in Darlinghurst, always left me confused and enervated, so it was a great boon when, in a small bookshop, no longer there, in Potts Point I found a copy of the 1998 Harvill edition of The Rings of Saturn. $22.95. The cover is a detail of James Whistler’s 1865 painting, Harmony in Blue and Silver (Trouville), showing a solitary figure upon a waste of sand that is ochre rather than either of the two shades mentioned in the title. I started reading it on the train back to the coast and, in a sense, have never stopped. The Rings of Saturn begins with the author in hospital, a year to the day after he embarked on a walk through the county of Suffolk, in an attempt to dispel the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work – probably, though not certainly, the book that precedes this one in the author’s oeuvre, The Emigrants. Australian writer Brian Castro somewhere recalls meeting the author, W G Sebald, at a conference in Mitteleuropa – Prague, I think – and accurately diagnosing his malady: spinal disc herniation occasioned, so Sebald explained, because when one walks around the English coastline anti-clockwise, one leg is always lower than the other. It is more of a problem for tall fellows like me than it is for you, he added. ‘Walker’ was one of Sebald’s nicknames, both a pun upon his initials as they sound in German – weegee – and a homage to his peripatetic ways. The rhythm of his prose is the rhythm of a man walking, bringing to mind the apparently disparaging remark – but really, I think, an encomium – by Frenchman Paul Valéry: poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking. After reading The Rings of Saturn I sought out Sebald’s earlier works, including Vertigo and The Emigrants, and eagerly borrowed from a friend the last one published while he was still alive, Austerlitz. I remember reading it in a tent at Seal Rocks when a storm hit and the campsite was inundated: the paperback swelled in the flooding rain towards unreadability and I had to buy a replacement copy for my friend – himself a German from Munich via Adelaide – and then another for myself. But The Rings of Saturn remained my favourite and over the years I have picked it up many times and opened it at random to read a few pages, in the same way that I often pick up Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet and read a section or two of that. Or Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Or, to take another example, a passage from my Everyman edition, a survivor of university days, of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, who was one of Sebald’s spirit guides on his Suffolk excursion. This is I suppose just a means of reminding myself of the musicalities that prose is capable of; or a way of setting the rhythms walking in my mind. Notwithstanding, I have never attempted to re-read, cover to cover, The Rings of Saturn until, a few days ago, someone told me about the recent documentary, Patience (after Sebald), by English filmmaker Grant Gee. I recently saw, on TV, Gee’s 2007 film Joy Division and liked it very much indeed. I haven’t found a copy of Patience yet, though I do have a cd of the soundtrack, by The Caretaker, of which the music seems a bit lost without the thus far absent images. I’m about half way through this re-reading of The Rings of Saturn, somewhat distressed by the fact that the binding on the book is falling apart but unwilling to purchase a replacement copy just yet – it is such a beautiful, if disintegrating, edition – but, more to the point, I realise my earlier reading of the book was, if not exactly a misreading, somehow beside the point. I read it then as a book of wonders, which it is, but failed to understand that everything in it witnesses an absence, something that cannot be written but which, nevertheless, must be written. This may sound paradoxical, and perhaps it is; but the following radio interview, conducted by one Travis Holcombe for KCRW in Santa Monica and broadcast on December 6, 2001, just a week and a day before Sebald’s death in a car accident on December 14 of that calamitous year, seems to me to make everything clear. It only takes half an hour to listen to and therein you may hear, in what cannot help but be characterised as posthumous tones, the master’s voice.

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