On the road with W.G. Sebald

Comes over one an absolute necessity to move—when reading Sebald. Sebald’s writing may be a lot of different things but whatever it is, it is definitely writing on the move. Perhaps that is one reason why he is better-known in Britain than in Germany, where travel writing is less of fixture, as is Sebald. Given a famously ambivalent attitude to his country of birth—perhaps another reason—his literature, too, was roaming in more sense than one, obviously so in The Rings of Saturn—subtitled An English Pilgrimage—though hardly less in Vertigo or Austerlitz, where both the eponymous character and the narrator are constantly on the move. Perhaps this restlessness is the flipside of a constant contemplation of death, a subconscious attempt to escape the Grim Reaper who, in Sebald’s case, caught up with him fittingly, though tragically, on the road.

Now artists are writing and walking in Sebald’s footsteps. Iain Sinclair reconstructs the nightly London walks of Jacques Austerlitz, Teju Cole makes a pilgrimage to Sebald’s grave and Grant Gee reconstructs The Rings of Saturn in his film Patience (After Sebald). Such accomplished company luckily does not deter lesser Sebald fans to seek out the places of his books, though what really is sought is harder to say. Visiting the places mentioned in his books is like visiting The Old Rectory in Poringland, where Sebald lived, or the cemetery in St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Framingham Earl where he is buried, as I did on a sunny day in September 2017: as little as this grey slab of stone tells us about the man whose name and dates of birth and death it carries, as little does walking through Suffolk or the East End bring us closer to The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz—closer than reading them, I mean.

At least this was the feeling I had when visiting Somerleyton Hall with my daughter. Unlike Sebald, we did not climb the wall (my daughter, who is very moral, would never have stood for that) but walked all the way around the estate and, after dutifully paying the entrance fee, through the front gate. From the description in Rings of Saturn, I imagined an eccentric, fairy-tale like place, forgetting that Sebald notes how it “strikes the visitor of today no longer as an oriental palace in a fairy tale“ (54). I’m not sure what I expected to feel or to find but certainly something else than just another stately home with a maze and a gift shop. Reading the passages on Somerleyton in Rings of Saturn, I imagined the place in a sepia-tinted haze, as melancholic and decaying, whereas on that day in September 2017 it was—really quite lovely.

Similarly, the Sailor’s Reading Room in Southwold which I visited four years earlier—also in September—when I stayed with two friends in a cottage not far away for a couple of days working on a collection of essays. Labouring over commas and footnotes during the days, we used the late afternoons and evenings to explore the coast. I had bought The Rings of Saturn expressly for this trip though I didn’t—on that occasion—get much further than Southwold. The Sailor’s Reading Room, however, I liked very much and I couldn’t have agreed more with Sebald that it is „better than anywhere else for reading, writing letters, following one’s thoughts, or in the long winter months simply looking out at the stormy sea as it crashes on the promenade“.

In March of this year, a friend and I met at Liverpool Street Station to retrace the footsteps of Jacques Austerlitz from the station to which he returns again and again drawn by a subliminal urge to his house in Alderney Road (Alderney Street in the book). Today a monument by Frank Meisler, who escaped Germany on one a Kindertransport and whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, commemorates the survival of almost ten thousand Jewish children, a singular bright spot in an otherwise starless night. A monument in two parts, its other half stands next to Friedrichstraße railway station in Berlin. The Ladies Waiting Room where, as a child, Austerlitz was picked up by an austere couple, a Welsh minister and his wife, does not exist anymore, but parts of the old station are still visible in what is now a W.H. Smith and a Starbucks like a Victorian painting half covered by the trappings of late capitalism.

Halfway between Liverpool Street Station and Alderney Road we stopped at the disused Jewish Cemetery on Brady Street. It is not mentioned in the book, but it is part of the long Jewish history of the East End which is probably the reason why Sebald had Austerlitz live in this part of London. Austerlitz’ own house borders on a “brick wall on the right, about fifty yards long and as tall as a man“. Behind this wall, unbeknownst to Austerlitz for many years, lies Alderney Road Cemetery, the oldest Ashkenazi Cemetery  in the United Kingdom, founded in 1697 as he tells the narrator on their last meeting.

“And I should not omit, he added,” Austerlitz says, Sebald writes, “to ring the bell at the gateway in the brick wall adjoining his house, for behind that wall, although he had never been able to see it from any of his windows, there was a plot where lime trees and lilacs grew and in which members of the Ashkenazi community had been buried ever since the eighteenth century, including Rabbi David Tevele Schiff and Rabbi Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London. He had discovered the cemetery, from which, as he now suspected, the moths used to fly into his house, said Austerlitz, only a few days before he left London, when the gate in the wall stood open for the first time in all the years he had lived in Alderney Street.”

This wall was too high for us to peer over and peering through the letter box we could only see a plot of grass and some withered grey gravestones in the back. We took a photo of the adjacent houses, the first of which is Austerlitz’ former dwelling, fortified ourselves with a half pint at the pub at the top of the street and walked on to our next stop, the former—everything on this tour seemed to be a former something—St. Clement’s Hospital. The decaying hospital, where Austerlitz finds himself after his breakdown has now been converted into (for once not luxury) flats. From one of the windows of the hospital Austerlitz was starring for hours on Tower Hamlets Cemetery below. This was our last stop. In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery as Austerlitz and the narrator did before us.

“In the twilight slowly falling over London we walked along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated, turned to stone, so it seemed to me, at the very moment when they were about to take off from the earth.”

In fact, the twilight was falling pretty briskly and I became increasingly frantic to find the statue of the white angel on the pedestal saying “Until the Day Break, and the Shadows Flee Away”, Sebald incorporated in the book. As it turned out, of course, as it always turns out, it was not far from the entrance through which we had come and we would have come across it had we, by chance, taken not the first but the second path on the left. When I chanced upon it, as I felt certain I would, shortly before giving up because it had become almost dark by now, it looked very differently from what it looks in the book. The angel, already frail-looking back then, no longer stands proudly on the pedestal but to the left of it. On its right a holly bush, absent in the original picture, has grown and threatens, in time, to overwhelm the grave. Next year it will be twenty years Austerlitz was published, will the angel still be there in another twenty? Will someone keep looking out for it?

I said that visiting the places from Sebald’s books does not bring us closer to them, that such visits necessarily lead to disappointment and, indeed, the colourful stalls on Whitechapel Road, the green of the grass on the cemeteries and the blue, red and pink of the East End front doors somehow looks strangely drained and unreal compared to the sepia-tinted images Sebald paints in his books. And yet, paradoxically, by not bringing us closer to whatever elusive goal we may have had in mind, by simply giving us a reason to get up, get out and get going and by providing opportunities for meditation and digression, such pilgrimages are, after all, nothing if not Sebaldian.

See also: John Rodgers, East End Walk following W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpEKUalZg8Q

Cite this blog post
Tobias Becker (2020, April 24). On the road with W.G. Sebald. Homesick for Yesterday. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sfnh