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Film remembers 'exceptional' author WG Sebald

Grant Gee on Walberswick coast

With a new film due to document the writing of the highly influential author WG Sebald, the Today programme's Tom Bateman followed in his footsteps in East Anglia.

The Suffolk coast in midwinter seems almost deserted.

The sounds of footsteps from a lone dog walker are carried by occasional gusts of wind that flatten the overgrown grass fields set out before the beach begins.

The village of Walberswick forms one part of the route in WG Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, a brooding work - part novel, part travel diary - drawing on the author's obsessions with history and the destructive forces of man and nature.

WG Sebald
WG Sebald died in a car accident in 2001

It is an area Sebald chose as an emblem for "continual destruction," says Grant Gee, a filmmaker who is releasing a new film based on Sebald's work .

"The coastline is so soft here and so low and so constantly abraded... it's metres per year, basically," says Gee, making his way along the route set by Sebald.

"The entropy of this coast, the inevitability of its disappearance, makes it a perfect landscape to talk about his other concerns," he adds.

The film follows Sebald's circular walk through Suffolk and contains interviews with a number of contemporary authors, who speak about his growing literary influence.

'Powerful modesty'

WG Sebald, known as Max to his family and friends, was born in Bavaria in 1944 and left his native Germany in the 1960s, later becoming a lecturer in literature at the University of East Anglia.

His work "very quickly" came to be seen as a highly original fusion of forms, according to the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

"There are a lot of things that combine to make Max's writing so exceptional," he says.

"It very subtly manages to make a very direct and powerful appeal to us, while at the same time seeming to speak quite modestly."

The Rings of Saturn follows the author along coastal paths, into deserted seaside cafes and hotels, and into historical worlds that often document events from World War II and the Holocaust.

"Landscapes which appear to be innocent turn out to be loaded with elements in their own past which bear on the preoccupations that Max already has," says Motion.

"Very often (they are) things to do with loss, tragedy even."

'Enigmatic mood'

During his lifetime WG Sebald was seen as an increasingly important literary force in Europe.

He died in a car crash in 2001, after a suspected heart attack caused him to lose control of the vehicle.

Andrew Motion

"Max's death was a tragedy," says Motion. "The pathos that that creates undoubtedly energises a curiosity about his work."

But the success of his books is far more to do with the "direct yet enigmatic mood" in which Sebald's work is written, according to the former poet laureate.

And his widening influencing has been attested to by a number of authors.

The writer Will Self has spoken of his affinity to Sebald and has given lectures on the author's impact.

In an article in the Guardian in 2009, Self wrote at length about "the intensity of Sebald's authorial voice".

Sebald's original adjectival style has given rise to a label of its own - "Sebaldian".

'Pure literary skill'

In a passage in The Rings of Saturn, he gives the reader a sense of the depth of his imagination while looking out to sea on the Suffolk coast:

"I gazed farther and farther out to sea, to where the darkness was thickest and where there extended a cloudbank of the most curious shape, which I could barely make out any longer, the rearward view, I presume, of the storm that had broken over Southwold in the late afternoon.

"For a while, the topmost summit regions of this massif, dark as ink, glistened like the icefields of the Caucasus, and as I watched the glare fade I remembered that years before, in a dream, I had once walked the entire length of a mountain range just as remote and just as unfamiliar."

For filmmaker Grant Gee, this passage demonstrates Sebald's "pure literary skill".

"He's very filmic - it's almost like a dissolve," he says.

"He's got four layers of dissolving, times, materials, all in one sentence. The paragraph... is quite extraordinary."

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