On May 18th, the author W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald would have turned 75. Several events commemorating the author will take place throughout the last spring month, and this week saw the opening of two separate exhibitions on Sebald, as well as two symposiums on his work organised by UEA’s British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), which Sebald founded in 1989. Sebald, who was born in Bavaria in 1944, spent most of his life in England as a lecturer, first at the University of Manchester, then at UEA from 1970 to his death in 2001.
His relationship with East Anglia is reflected in several of his books, particularly the semi-autobiographical novel The Rings of Saturn (published in German in 1995 as Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt – The Rings of Saturn: An English pilgrimage.) The book features a nameless narrator, closely resembling the author himself (so often the case in Sebald’s novels), who walks through Suffolk whilst contemplating his surroundings and memories as well as elements of history and literature. Sebald always included black-and-white photographs in his books, creating an eerie sense of both wonder and displacement within the narrative. A selection of his original photographs is now exhibited at the Norwich Castle Museum, in an exhibition entitled Lines of Sight: W. G. Sebald’s East Anglia.
The exhibition consists of a curiously eclectic mixture of Sebald’s photographs and whatever inspired him while writing The Rings of Saturn. It includes several maps of Norfolk and Suffolk, exploring the various locations that inspired the author, from Somerleyton Hall to the Ditchingham churchyard. Curator Dr Nick Warr explains how all the photographs are ones Sebald took on walks whilst writing the book: ‘It’s the places, it’s the objects he talks about, it’s the books he uses. This exhibition is the moment of his creation.’
Images were always a fundamental part of Sebald’s books: In a 2003 edition of the journal In Other Words, translator Anthea Bell wrote of how the images in Sebald’s books ‘also translate the feelings behind the words here and there.’ While only a selection of Sebald’s photographs made it into his novel, Lines of Sight features whole picture series of everything from rainy beaches to empty coastal towns and Sebald’s black Labrador Moritz. To a reader of his work, it is strange to see Sebald’s photographs in colour: Some of them have a subdued, yellow 1990s tint (Sebald used a 35mm camera that was always set to automatic), and they seem to have aged surprisingly well.
The exhibition also features paintings, books and objects that Sebald put into his novel; a painting of Thomas Browne, the Norwich-based polymath who wrote on patterns in nature and history in the 1600s; dried silk moths (in his novel Sebald draws the connection between weaving and writing); a French book in which a leaf serves as bookmark. Warr explains how ‘the other key book is the Norwich Pattern Book’, a photograph of which features in The Rings of Saturn, which ‘becomes a book about Sebald looking for patterns.’
With so many elements feeding into the writing process, it is no wonder The Rings of Saturn ended up as such a multifaceted work. In a 2001 interview with Steve Wassermann, Sebald describes the book’s ‘peculiar genesis’: He was set to write ten short pieces for the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung, but quickly realised that ‘the short pieces didn’t work. I rewrote them again and again (…) I gradually realised that they wanted to grow sideways and upwards and in all directions’.
Through this exhibition, Warr also wished to introduce the public to Sebald’s collaboration with photographer Michael Brandon-Jones: ‘All the black and white photographs you see are actually a collaborative effort: Sebald would take a photograph, and then Michael would re-photograph it and play with the contrast and make it more dramatic.’ Five years ago, Warr sat down with Brandon-Jones and went through thousands of photographs, trying to work out which ones Sebald had taken, hoping it might turn into ‘a small book of some academic interest.’ However, with the help of the Sebald estate as well as several archives in Germany, the project snowballed into what eventually became Lines of Sight.
The curator goes on to explain why East Anglia in particular appealed so forcibly to the German writer, and describes the region as ‘an odd place for meeting people who seem to come from everywhere. It’s closer to Amsterdam than London.’ (Indeed, some of the photographs in the exhibition are of travellers sleeping on benches at Schiphol Airport.) ‘You have this idea of Norwich being this outward looking, international place. It’s no coincidence that Sebald moves from one of the highest villages in Europe in the Bavarian mountains to come and live where there are no mountains. He was a man who needed to see a very long way to feel comfortable,’ Warr says.
The photographs granted Sebald’s work a unique flavour, and according to his friend and colleague Jo Catling, the author was very specific about where each image went: At the symposium Sebald – Image – Translation, Catling explains how Sebald pasted photographs into the unfinished typescripts of his books. A lot of the images in The Rings of Saturn are found images that Sebald or Brandon-Jones re-photographed from books, postcards or illustrated guidebooks. As Warr notes: ‘He is almost curating this exhibition himself.’
Lines of Sight: W. G. Sebald’s East Anglia is on at the Norwich Castle Museum from 10 May 2019 – 5 January 2020.