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Sunday, September 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

Framing the Past: Photography in the Novels of W. G. Sebald

In the author’s photograph on the dust-jacket of his novel, The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald sits in a chair and looks down at a sheaf of handwritten pages that he holds in his hand. A slim man with short hair, wearing scholarly glasses, he appears to be reading over the dense, longhand drafts of the very work we have just finished ourselves. Coming at the end of a novel that is punctuated by photographs, we might linger a little longer than usual over this photograph of the author, scrutinizing it as an extension of this book that records the despair, isolation, and grief of four men whose lives are irrevocably altered by the Second World War and the Holocaust. Perhaps we look for traces of Sebald’s own biography in the image – from his childhood in postwar Germany, to his years as a student in Germany and Switzerland, to his immigration to and permanent residence in England. We may even scan the image for signs of his early and tragic death in an automobile accident last December. We search the image, of course, in vain.

At the time of his death, W.G. Sebald was an acclaimed writer who, though consciously working from an acknowledged literary tradition, created an original hybrid textscape of word and image. His four novels, all originally published in German and later translated into English, reflect on the nature and structure of memory and identity in the postwar ruins of the late twentieth century – from the stochastic narratives in Vertigo, to the melancholy travels described in The Rings of Saturn, to the devastated lives in The Emigrants and Austerlitz. If, however, memory is made problematic through a breadth of characters who are severed from their own past and, as a result, suffer from acute crises of self-knowledge, the transmission of these troubled narratives by a series of unnamed narrators is similarly fraught with questions. For how does one tell the story of the past, another’s past, without lapsing into sentimentality or, worse, distorting any comprehension of the past altogether? In struggling with this question, Sebald’s works become as much the story of their narrators, and the attempt to write these stories, as they are the telling of the stories themselves. In other words, they are the story of those handwritten pages in the dust-jacket photograph.

The author’s photograph, of course, combines the two media in which Sebald was so fluent: prose and photography. Sebald is photographed reading a text and sitting beneath a painting, the lower left-hand corner of which barely enters the frame. All of his novels employ the strategy of interspersing lines of prose with occasional photographs and other visual elements. As a result, his work is difficult to classify in terms of traditional genres, but is rather composed of heterogeneous aspects, hybrids of non-fiction and fiction, fact and imagination, photographs and text. Usually, when we encounter combinations of text and images, one medium is subordinate to the other, so that, for example, photographs serve to illustrate or depict a text, or words serve to describe or explain an image (as in the case of captions). In Sebald’s work, however, they are interdependent, interwoven, resulting in a work that makes use of the particular modality of each medium in order to address questions of representation more generally.

Sebald addressed the difficulty in classifying his books. “Facts are troublesome,” he said, “[t]he idea is to make it seem factual, though some of it might be invented.” Here, Sebald seemed to acknowledge the problematic position of esthetics in regard to the Holocaust. Seen in this light, one could conclude that Sebald employed photographs in his work not for their pictorial value but only for their referential character. The photos thus served as incontrovertible evidence of the past, and seemingly added that element of “factuality.” However, in The Emigrants, the narrator also includes a photograph that is a known forgery, and questions at times whether photographs can be trusted. In contrast to what we have come to know as documentary literature, Sebald both exploits and denies the documentary status of a photograph, prompting us to go beyond a simple “reading” of his photographs as mere enhancements of the text’s non-fictional elements and to ask how they might function with and against the language of the text itself in order to communicate a particular relationship to the past.

Toward the end of The Emigrants, the narrator stops writing, not because he has successfully captured the essence of his subject, an English painter sent away from Germany as a young child and subsequently orphaned, but rather out of sheer exhaustion. In other words, he questions the very possibility of representing the essential quality of his subject, at least in the medium of print alone. For how can the abstract mode of linguistic symbols communicate the specificity of this man, or the events of his life and family history, without the imaginative element that always renders that representation a distortion? And how can a photograph’s specificity communicate any intelligible meaning without recourse to cultural codes that elide this very specificity? Rather than merely illustrating the narrative, the photographs as photographs underscore its central concerns: the temporal structure of (especially traumatic) memory, the nature and recording of reality, and the relationship to death.

Both André Bazin and Susan Sontag pointed to photography’s relationship to death and mourning in their respective comparisons of photographs to death masks, as products of emanations from actual though absent and irretrievable objects. This connection is perhaps most explicitly pursued in Roland Barthes’s meditation on the ontology of photography in his short book, Camera Lucida – which, despite their obvious differences, has always seemed to me a literary antecedent of Sebald’s own work. Through his reflections on photography – first as a general examination of the medium and then, more particularly, as an attempt to speak of his mother’s death through a photograph of her – Barthes addresses both the issue of representing history and that of a photograph’s peculiar relationship to death. Two things emerge from his conception of photography: first, the manner in which a photograph serves to authenticate an existential singularity, or a non-repeatable event; and, second, the manner in which a photograph, as a singular event stripped of its cultural codes, resists our ability to talk about it in a meaningful way. In other words, the essential feature of photography complicates the very possibility of writing, or language more generally, addressing its specific referentiality. Photography’s certainty – its message without a code – results in an arrest of interpretation.

One cannot, therefore, penetrate a photograph or reveal its meaningful depths, a quality of photography that Barthes refers to as “flat death” and that, as with his mother’s passing, is a depiction of death that can never be assimilated or transcended. Likewise, in Sebald’s work, none of the dead are ever put to rest. Because of a photograph’s peculiar status in relation to its referent, the that-has-been attached to all photographs suggests an implicit trauma arising from an irretrievable “pastness, ” as well as the mourning of that loss. To the question, Is Barthes’s book about photography or his mother’s death?, one can only answer: Both. The same is true of Sebald’s work. For a photograph can provide no totalization of a life story and no means of making history (either personal or collective) intelligible. One cannot comprehend a death, insert it into a logical narrative, and continue as before. A photograph yields no meaning beyond mortality – both that of the one pictured and that of the one looking at the picture, who must recognize his or her own present as soon past.

An overgrown cemetery. A decrepit hotel. A group of schoolchildren. The page of an agenda. An empty staircase. A train station. The photographs in Sebald’s work suffuse the text with melancholy, picturing decrepitude, isolation, abandonment. They refer to a past that is both absent and irrecoverable, and directly address the legacy of the manufactured brutality of the twentieth century. One does not complete one of Sebald’s works with the sense of having read the “whole story,” for what his works show us is the impossibility of this task. The story – whether in prose or images – is obscured, both by the cultural codes by which we ascribe meaning to it and by its essential aspects, which can never be recovered. Memory is full of gaps, or what Sebald has referred to as “lagoons of oblivion.” Although the photographs in his work seem to fill in those gaps, they also give evidence of the irrecoverable nature of the past. His narrators wander the territory of the late twentieth century, gathering the stories of which our identity is provisionally constructed. With his death, we have indeed lost one of the most original and important literary voices of our time.

Stefanie Harris is assistant professor of German and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University.
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