I read Tony Judt’s ‘The Memory Chalet’ this month, a collection of essays dictated as he lay dying and utterly immobilised. This is reason enough to marvel but I found less sentimental reasons for appreciating the book. His precision of expression and adroit balancing of personal, impressionistic recollection and socio-political pronouncement are a testament to the craft of writing. Each word feels carefully weighed so that nothing might be said to be superfluous (to me, perhaps the highest praise).
Such writing is the result of endeavour, and of the hard slog of detached appraisal, editing, and excision. The Memory Chalet affected me deeply. It made me reflect on the laziness of my writing, but it also inflamed that itch for expression. Over the years, many half-baked notions of what form that expression might take have flitted through my mind. Slowly, those thoughts have coalesced around the idea of poetic recollection and reflection – short pieces that might one day be stitched together to form a cohesive whole. Imagine if W.G Sebald had kept a blog and perhaps that comes close.
The Memory Chalet made me want to write and write properly – with care and undistracted attention – so that I might give form to the daily melange of impressions and experiences. So that I might know myself a little better. And so that I might become a better writer.
The above is a trailer for a documentary by Grant Gee in which he retraces W.G Sebald’s route along the Suffolk coast – the setting for his novel The Rings of Saturn. I’ve tried and failed to express the depth of my admiration for Sebald on this blog before so I won’t try again. I’m very much looking forward to tracking this down and watching it.
Details of the film’s release dates can be found here while The Guardian has several excellent articles and reviews – here, here and here.
Pitchfork has details of the soundtrack, composed by The Caretaker, whose An Empty Bliss Beyond This World is one of the most unearthly records I’ve ever purchased.
Last week I witnessed a stellar example of what, for lack of a better phrase, I am calling ‘purposeful rambling’. Matt Webb’s Reboot 11 keynote – Scope – was the highlight of the two days. In it, he touched on the nature and purpose of design, Indian martial arts, superpowers, million-mile-long tomatoes, the space race and the power of grandiose, visionary thinking to change human history.
The goal of his talk was, I think, simple: to challenge the audience to better themselves – and by extension the world around them – by devoting 100 hours of their summer to learning a new skill. While this was inspiring in itself, it was the esotericism of his references and his skill at weaving them into a coherent narrative that truly excited. It could have been a ramble, in fact he may have wanted it to appear that way, but it was most definitely a ramble with a purpose.
Maybe we can describe it as the deliberate use of a miscellany of references – often unrelated at first sight – deftly unified. That’s one kind of rambling.
Another is the literary kind employed by W.G Sebald.
From Wikipedia: “(Sebald’s novels) are notable for their curious and wide-ranging mixture of fact (or apparent fact), recollection and fiction, often punctuated by indistinct black-and-white photographs, which are set in evocative counterpoint to the narrative rather than illustrating it directly.”
And from The Guardian: “It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one “WG Sebald”, a German writer long settled in East Anglia.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a bit of a thing for Sebald and I consider his untimely death one of the single greatest losses to literature.
Anyway. For me, Sebald’s rambling is purposeless. But it is a beautiful kind of purposelessness that allows for individual serendipity. What I mean with that is Sebald’s prose is often so opaque, so misty and unstuctured, that readers are left with no choice but to react instintively, as opposed to intellectually. It is this which imbues every page with something beyond purpose: meaning.
To try and shoehorn some saliency in here, I have been thinking of the Internet as the ultimate ramble. If you use it right, the Internet is simply one big Sebald novel. Unsure of itself, but magnificent and grand in scope and endlessly meaningful.
Any post referencing Sebald would not be worth its salt without a tinge of melancholy, so here is the title sequence to BBC2’s documentary series, Arena. I can’t watch this without being filled with a welter of incoherent memories of my childhood: