Whilst I’m aware that commenting on every comment made about Egress is going to start looking pretty myopic and self-involved soon enough — if it doesn’t already — I’ve nonetheless been really intrigued by some of the more consistent comments made about it as it has settled into people’s hands and been read by strangers, particularly those who have deemed its idiosyncrasies to be flaws rather than purposeful features of the text.
Frankly, it’s hard not to use a public notebook to think about these things, even if such things aren’t typically made public, but that’s what blogging is after all — socially sanctioned over-sharing. (I’m still holding back, nonetheless: the pressure to not stick one’s head above the parapet after having pUbLiShEd A bOoK is real. Every thought had and written down feels like the crossing of some great line of professionalism but let’s not pretend like this blog has been a routine exercise in doing anything other than this so far — so suck it up.)
I want to write about these things because it has so far been a hugely constructive experience. As I work on a new manuscript that feels vastly different in terms of its style and presentation, I am very much aware that the new things I’m working on appear, to me, like a reaction to what has been said so far about this now-finished three-year project.
Most interesting to me are the blatant stylistic habits I’ve picked up from my own influences that perhaps go unacknowledged or read like bad form despite the intention very much being to present my ideas in a certain way.
For instance, similar to comments made about the book’s unfolding of Fisher’s folds, many readers have been correct in pointing out that it is a “meandering” affair; a “restless and shifting” read. In some instances, this reads like a compliment; in others, a criticism. To each their own, of course, but I’d like to affirm that the book is intentionally presented this way.
Although Mark Fisher wasn’t a fan of W.G. Sebald — something I finally understood for myself last year after travelling to Lowestoft for the first time (whilst making the final edits to the Egress manuscript no less) — I have personally always loved the style of The Rings of Saturn, as a mediation on both inner and external experience, creating a meandering sort of auto-fiction that is somewhere between the two.
That’s what it is for me: auto-fiction. To call it “psychogeographic” feels reductive and cliche considering its scope. It is a label that only helps to flatten its contours. It is about as “psychogeographic” as Proust is, but there is far more going on in these works besides a wandering through landscapes real and imaginative. It is in this sense, however, that Sebald has a lot to answer for. He was certainly guilty of flattening the contours of the landscapes on which he walked, reducing them to a shadow of his melancholic mind, but the journey he takes through history is nonetheless inspired. Often, just for fun, I will read that book’s first chapter. I won’t bother to follow the book through to its end unless I’m really in the mood. Sometimes I just want to get a quick hit of that labyrinthian wanderlust through the life of the mind-body. It is genuinely addictive; a sort of purely distilled escapism for the European misanthrope.
This is a kind of auto-fictive writing very much in vogue at the moment, which is partly the reason why I feel quite vigilant about it now. When talking about my book with Guy at Tank Magazine, for example, I mentioned the influence of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on Egress. I’d read that book two or three times in 2017 alone and the way she navigates lived experience and philosophy inspired just about everyone else who picked it up during that same time period. Of course, having read something so acclaimed does not warrant the same thing for my book, but it is interesting that the more personal parts of Egress feel far more accepted and palatable to people in The Argonauts‘ aftermath. The Argonauts made such an impact — for better or for worse — because it expanded the possibilities of life-writing for a new generation, and it no doubt quickly became a cliche when mentioned within writer’s classes now as a result.
Perhaps a nod to The Rings of Saturn is a more productive nod to make but it is also a book that has had a very similar impact on a certain generation of reader, to the point that Sebald Studies is now a somewhat dry and uncritical cottage industry surrounding a book too universally acclaimed for its own good. Indeed, to the extent it tends to replicate a classist unconscious within the mind of many a Guardian columnist to this day: a fact obvious, I think, to anyone who travels to the Suffolk coast unblinkered by a love of Sebald.
This was the flaw at the heart of Patience After Sebald — a documentary a little too high on its own supply. It is a project that is (in a sense more literal than most) hauntographic rather than hauntological. Sebald is great for the ways in which he inhabits the latter; those who make work about him reduce themselves to the former. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I wrote about this fine line here.)
As a result of all this, it is also the case that Sebaldian writing becomes defined by the landscapes through which Sebald walked rather the critical approach to European history he brought along with him. His narration in this regard — in The Rings of Saturn and in Austerlitz — is utterly addictive and compelling but I don’t think I can bring myself to read another melancholic ramble about the coast or a Macfarlanesque burrowing through the English overgrowth by anyone else who lacks the same navigational prowess. Thankfully, there are others who have not fallen victim to their own legacies. Iain Sinclair still resonates, thankfully, and is inimitable precisely because his trajectory is often so weird and wonderful rather than amounting to little more than a wistful pop-anthropology.
But I think there remains much to be said for a kind of literary journey like that — one that wanders through an author’s thoughts like a landscape, replicating and capturing the contours and non sequiturs of a developing line of flight with the flair and subtle objectivity of a cartographer and diarist. This is a rare skill, and one I can only hope to acquire as I keep writing and learning to write.
Not to downplay my own abilities but, whenever I find myself taking too sharp a critical scalpel to my own output, I have to remind myself that I have only been writing with any seriousness for the past three years. Prior attempts to be published and sustain a writing blog alongside a photography blog — between the years 2014 and 2016, quite explicitly — amounted to nought, but even then I was aware of the pratfalls that were interchangeable between the medium I was trained in — photography — and the new one I was trying on for size.
We used to agonise, as photography students, over our own influences and we would openly ridicule those posh enough to be able to afford to travel to the great photographic cities of the world. The irony of photographic travel, of course — and one later acknowledged by the guilty parties — is that when you are a trained photographer who goes to a city over-photographed like New York, Paris, London, or Tokyo, you find yourself inadvertently recreating the images etched into your art historical unconscious. It becomes increasingly difficult to be original; to meander in your own way without falling into the rhythms and footsteps of those who have come before you.
It is an interesting condition, I think, and one far more recognisable when rendered photographically. We like to meander, but only in ways that are already recognisable to us. When that is the case, how much are we really meandering?
(This was in around 2012 and much of this agonising was no doubt informed by the critical trends of the day around photography and memory, for which Sebald himself was an indirect catalyst — I still own copies of Searching for Sebald or Daniel Blaufuk’s Terezín somewhere, both of which I bought around that time…)
It’s something I find myself ruminating one far more frequently at the moment, having not left the square mile surrounding our flat for over a month. I am left with an itch to see more of this city than present circumstances allow, wanting to finally visit certain neighbourhoods precisely because they won’t be swollen with the usual traffic and crowds. In this sense, I am finding myself drawn back to the symbolic London of our collective imagination, rereading Mrs Dalloway again or, much closer to home, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Iain Sinclair’s London Overground.
Robin sent me his copy of Sinclair’s book a few months back when doing a clear out and I am incredibly grateful for it right now. As I sit in bed, facing out the front window, typing this post out, the empty corona carriages of London’s overground trains pass cleanly along the top edge of my laptop screen, still heading for New Cross station, despite the great diminution in demand for public transport. It helps to imagine Sinclair, tucked in the corner with his notebook, even under these circumstances.
If I can’t leave, I’m glad to have the wanderlust of others — as much an intellectual wonderlust as a physical one — to help me stretch my mind-legs.
If Egress is a meandering book of its own, its because it too hopes to initiate this wanderlust in the mind of the reader: to make egress as possible through reading it as reflecting on it later.
Although the subject matter will change drastically, I don’t think I’m going to relinquish this intention any time soon. I can only hope I get better at it.