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Issue 22. Autofiction and/in Image - Autofiction visuelle II

Image and Text, Fact and Fiction: Narrating W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants in the First Person

Author: Todd Heidt
Published: May 2008

Abstract (E): This article focuses on the ambiguous relationship between reality and fiction crafted by W. G. Sebald in his collection of short stories, The Emigrants. While scholars have traditionally focused on the use of photography in the work of Sebald, this article seeks to broaden the attention garnered by his oeuvre to include the autofictitious I-narrator he employs. Both serve as referents, which extend beyond the fiction and into reality, yet simultaneously and intentionally blur the lines they seem to draw between fact and fiction. As such, the text and images continually destabilize each other. I conclude by reading Sebald with Homi Bhabha, arguing that his post-colonial theories of time lag and the displacement of enunciatory power can be applied to the post-Holocaust writings of Sebald.

Abstract (F): Cet article propose une analyse détaillée du rapport ambigu entre réalité et fiction dans les nouvelles de W.G. Sebald réunies sous le titre The Emigrants. Tandis que les spécialistes de l’œuvre de Sebald se sont surtout intéressés à l’usage de la photographie dans ses ouvrages, le présent article cherche à élargir le champ d’investigation ouvert par l’œuvre de Sebald, notamment en soulignant le narrateur à caractère autofictionnel utilisé par l’auteur. Les deux procédures servent de référents, qui transgressent les frontières entre fiction et réalité et, de façon intentionnelle, rendent floues les lignes de démarcation entre les faits et la fiction. Ainsi, texte et image se déstabilisent l’un l’autre sans relâche. Dans la conclusion de l’article, je propose de relire Sebald à travers les idées de Homi Bhabha, en avançant l’hypothèse que les théories postcoloniales de celui-ci, concernant les notion de temporalité et de déplacement du pouvoir d’énonciation, peuvent également être appliques aux écrits d’après-Auschwitz de Sebald.

keywords: W.G. Sebald, Homi Bhabha, photography, I-narrator, post-Holocaust writing

To cite this article:

Heidt, T., Image and Text, Fact and Fiction: Narrating W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants in the First Person. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 22 (2008).
Available: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/autofiction2/heidt.htm

 

W.G. Sebald claimed until the end of his life that the photographs and documents he used were in large part "authentic"—that is to say that the people he writes about existed, and that the vast majority of his photographs are "what you would describe as authentic" and "are a direct testimony of the fact that these people did exist in that particular shape and form." (Wood: 25) This sense of "authenticity" to which Sebald lays claim involves of course the manner of his discourse as well. The implicit assumption in his statement is not only that these photographs are veracious artifacts, but also the "testimony" - one could easily also say "narrative" - is endowed with a measure of truth value. Interestingly, in attesting to their status as "authentic", Sebald already mitigates the truth value of the photographs, relativizing the claim with a careful "what you would describe as." In laying claim to the objective power of certification and proof which photography seems inherently to lend his narratives, Sebald leaves the door open to fiction, invention and ultimately uncertainty. Much in a similar fashion, though, Sebald appeals to the genre of autobiography. The Sebaldian I-narrator "suture[s] himself into the stories of others and construct[s] a sense of narrative and biographical continuity…" (Long: 137) and yet Sebald qua author openly discussed his invention and fictionalization of stories he couldn't recover (or recollect himself) from the material objects he collected, and sometimes invented. 

While the images may, at least in most cases, have been truly of the persons named in Sebald's prose, this does not mean that they were reproduced without having first been altered according to Sebald's intentional use(s). Sebald was "an exacting customer at the University of East Anglia copy shop, discussing what might be done with his images, adjusting the size and contrast." (Homberger: 20)  Such an alteration of a photograph could under most circumstances (such as use in works claiming a measure of historical accuracy) render the piece a falsification. Indeed, "if you want to attack the veracity of a photograph…you can suggest that the standard procedure was not actually followed…" (Mitchell: 30) Such an approach would certainly discount Sebald's claim to truth. He openly spoke of his work as a sort of historical project, at once literary and inventive, for he also openly admitted filling in the gaps of these stories with his own creation, passing freely from one to the other. Set into or alongside a textual account of the narrative, one wonders which is the falsification: either, none or both. Which question is the proper one to pose: To what extent does the text challenge the veracity of the photograph? Or to what extent do the photographs challenge the veracity of the text?

This paper will focus on the photographs included in W.G. Sebald's collection of four "long stories" as he puts it, The Emigrants (the English translation omitted the subtitle "Four Long Stories" and changed the name of the protagonist of the last epynomous story to "Max Aurach" rather than "Max Ferber"), as they straddle the boundary between media, history and fiction and as objects collected and inserted into the text by an autofictional I-narrator. Prototypically Sebaldian in style and structure, each of these stories contains a narrator who encounters a Jewish émigré affected by the Holocaust and then proceeds to reconstruct the lost and shattered remnants of this individual and their family and/or friends. Collapsing and blending the experience of the reader and the narrator, as well as the narrator and his characters, Sebald charts the developments in these intimate, family histories as a series of anecdotes, artifacts and photographs from the lives of the individuals affected by a Holocaust they escaped physically, but whose "trauma is precisely their absence from the experiences of deportation, detention, and murder that befell their family and friends." (Gregory-Guider: 439) In writing these stories, Sebald's multi-medial approach renders the shattered lives of these historical individuals-cum-characters in stark relief while eliding a direct confrontation with the horrors of the Holocaust itself.

 

 

Two (Three?) Kinds of Photographs

 

William J. Mitchell's discussion of the truth value of images in the post-photographic era addresses the concerns of authenticity and accuracy directly. "A really bold liar (particularly one who can exploit some mantle of authority) can simply appropriate legitimate pictures to false narratives by providing them with fake provenances—much as confidence tricksters equip themselves with fake biographies." (Mitchell: 49) Indeed, on one level, this is precisely what Sebald does. Lifting images from unknown sources, researched but not in a manner which one normally considers to be historically accurate, the photographs tell a parallel story alongside the text (see Harris: 379). They match a face with a name and a body with the psychological trauma of the narrative. However, he plays with this status as history and/or fiction, archaeology and/or constitution of these stories in the photo-text itself.

The procession of photographs in the book can basically be treated as two parallel and interrelated groups. Such divisions have provided fruitful readings before, but I do not wish to continue J.J. Long's distinction between textual or paratextual here (i.e. those photographs which receive direct mention in the text versus those which address a reader outside the text, see "History, Narrative, Photography": 118-120) The first group consists of the photographs taken by the narrators/Sebald during the process of crafting and fleshing out these stories. One is then encountered with contemporary photographs of cemeteries (3, 222-225), keys (221) and even one of the narrators (89), collected as a part of the process of putting together the pieces of these stories at the moment of textual production. This group charts the production of the text providing a set of "certificate[s] of presence" and functioning as a sort of "authentication" (Barthes: 87) of their research practices as the narrative self-consciously unfolds. It is as though Sebald's narrators, in attempting to justify the (hi)stories they are writing, document the process of writing it in images, letting the photographs tell a parallel story of reconstruction in which the "exclusion of human bias" (Mitchell: 28) normally ascribed to the objectivity of photography lends itself to both the object of study and the manner in which it is carried out.

The other group of photographs are older and have been collected by or given to the narrators. I shy from calling these photographs "historical" photographs because of the interpretive liberties to which Sebald admits; however, the temporal gap between these photographs and the contemporary photographs is certainly one of the most important considerations in investigating the nature of Sebald's use of images. For lack of a better term, I would like to call these found photographs, which often function like a family photo album, focusing primarily on people as opposed to places and things. These are often of groups: school groups (39, 47, 75), families (71, 74, 101, 217) and friends (48, 49, 81, 92) pictured together and framed as a community. With Sebald however, binary divisions yield very little; a few photographs straddle both of the categories. The images of Ambros Adelwarth's agenda (Sebald: 132, 135) are admittedly a falsification. (Angier: 13) A photograph which is contemporaneous to the textual production is being passed off as a found photograph. Sebald mixes creation with collection liberally to achieve his works, playing the role of observer and observed in his historical mode of writing. Matching the text, these two (or three) groups of photos help to establish and reinforce the ebb and flow of time in the text, sweeping from past to present and across multiple narrators, textual and visual perspectives and time frames covering a full century.

In doing so, one finds oneself returning again to Mitchell's quote above, realizing that Sebald is able to do this because of a certain "mantle of authority." It is my contention that Sebald's mantle of authority is his autofictional I-narrator. Doubling the reality effect of his prose by using photography and writing in the mode of a memoir, Sebald's image-texts reinforce and then destabilize this effect by exposing its own inconsistencies and thereby causing the reader to question where the boundaries lie between historical fact and Sebald's invention.

 

 

Blending Fact and Fiction in the First Person

 

The doubled reality effect of Sebald's prose is simultaneously a problematic and theoretically exciting obfuscation of boundaries between history and invention. The image-texts ultimately serve as a sort of springboard in the catechretical spaces between the ostensible veracity of the photograph and the genre of memoir on one hand and the accepted and acceptable fiction of prose literature on the other. In many respects, Sebald's texts are a reification of the Lacanian "answer of the real". As Slavoj Zizek describes it, "[t]he role of the Lacanian real is … radically ambiguous: true, it erupts in the form of a traumatic return, derailing the balance of our daily lives, but it also serves as a support of this very balance." (29) Thus, "[t]his 'answer of the real' is necessary for intersubjective communication to take place. There is no symbolic communication without some 'piece of the real' to serve as a kind of pawn guaranteeing its consistency." (30) Indeed, the photographs and objects Sebald collects and displays serve as this sort of pawn, extending beyond the accepted boundaries of a fictional text and penetrating reality. Sebald underscores his research and "authentic" objects of study - even charting and recording his research methods, as will be discussed below - yet freely invents where reality fails to provide the details or continue the thread of the story. These real people, verified in photographs and school house diagrams, agendas and calling cards are cast in surreal, almost magical narrative trajectories confounded by Sebald's web of chance meetings, serendipitous accidents and shared anniversaries. (on Sebald's "elective affinities", see Friedrichsmeyer's "Sebald's Elective and Other Affinities" in: Denham and McCulloh 77-90) Such juxtapositions lie at the heart of Sebald's autofiction, as he exploits the "presumption of truth-value [which] is experientially essential; it is what makes autobiography matter to autobiographers and their readers." (Eakin: 30)

Sending the reader back and forth between truth and fiction - a distinction which, when violated, can unleash grave scandals and raise serious ethical questions (as in the cases of the falsified Holocaust memoir of Binjamin Wilkomirski or, more recently, the hyperbolized account of addiction and recovery by James Frey) - text and photograph call each other into question, while also extending this doubt into the other forms of historical writing and evidence which we encounter in our daily lives: history, memoir and autobiography. Situating itself in all and no genres, Sebald's blend of "authentic" photographs and first person narration has been the subject of many a study, and yet his blatant allusions to his own autobiography - present perhaps most powerfully in The Emigrants due to its four-fold repetition, arising in each story  - has gone largely without discussion. (The connections to Sebald's biography are well charted: See Bigsby; 36-37, 56, 59, Denham and McCulloh: 22, McCulloh: xxiii-xxiv and 32)

His earlier works - Nach der Natur (After Nature) and Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo) - had been well-received critically. After Nature is a long, prose poem which achieved much of the narratological acrobatics with regard to time and history which would become a hallmark of Sebald's style. The novel Vertigo too would be a stage in Sebald's development which one cannot overlook. His segue into prose has scenes of disorientation and eruptions of past events triggered by present visions which would also be indicative of his later work. But, as Poltronieri noted in his interview with W.G. Sebald following the publication of The Emigrants, this work had become less personal than his previous works. (138) Though Sebald disagrees with his interviewer slightly, stating that the narrator always shines through the text, though it should be the author's goal to craft the narrator's opinion as discretely as possible (139), Poltronieri's observation sheds light on an important shift in Sebald's oeuvre. The Emigrants is arguably the first series of stories in which Sebald combines photography and an I-narrator who becomes so distinctly displaced from the center of the narrative by the framed stories of others. Sebald's subsequent works, including the masterful Austerlitz, are in many respects more directly the aesthetic offspring of The Emigrants than Sebald's previous works. (Although Morgan prefers a chronological division of Sebald's works into decades (leaving Austerlitz in a category of its own) others have corroborated my view of a lineage between The Emigrants and Austerlitz. See particularly Barzilai:210) This is perhaps the basis of the preferential treatment The Emigrants enjoys in the secondary literature, for far more has been published on this collection than on any other individual work by Sebald. Austerlitz is a less pure experiment with this style in some ways. Its length alone stands as perhaps the largest obstacle, and Sebald himself said that this story was more a "collation" consisting of two and a half real stories. (Bigsby: 70) On the contrary, the focused format of The Emigrants allows just such an autobiographical slant.

One of the most striking features of his style is, without question, his narrator. As mentioned above, an I-narrator always plays a role in this process of discovery and reacquisition of memory and indeed, a sort of reclaiming of biography for those persons encountered by this narrator. This is nearly always mentioned in scholarship on Sebald, though a deeper analysis is difficult to find. Eric Santner's recent study of Walter Benjamin, Rainer Maria Rilke and W.G. Sebald carefully mentions a "central narrator figure, 'W.G. Sebald'" (49), conspicuously in quotation marks. Similarly, Friedrichsmeyer interjects quickly that Sebald's stories are told through "narrators whom we all know to bear an often uncanny resemblance to their creator." (80) Sebald's former friend and colleague, Christopher Bigsby, wove together Sebald's biography with an interpretation of his work. However, the closest he comes to teasing apart the role of autofiction directly in Sebald's works is in the following statement: "The ghost [of the past] is within and hence the key to confronting it lies, as it would for Sebald, in part through autobiography, in part through fiction, in part through documented truth, in part through a re-animated history contained within a narrative of the present." (89) That Sebald's narrators are autofictional avatars of himself seems to have become a foregone conclusion in Sebald studies. (See also Furst: 220, Morgan: 87-88 and McCulloh: 10-11)
The shorter format of the short stories contained within The Emigrants lends to the volume an autofictional flexibility which Sebald's other works perhaps don't enjoy. Even the much longer piece, Max Ferber / Aurach, can be boiled down to a few brief episodes and autobiographical details of time and place. The meetings are few, the narrator's connections to Manchester and the painter Frank Auerbach can be established easily. (Santner: 100) In the other stories contained in this volume, similar such connections can be drawn directly to Sebald's life and experiences as mentioned above. If Sebald's photography hangs between the realms of historical accuracy and historically-inspired fictional narratives, the undeniable connections between Sebald and his I-narrator(s) in these stories should also be investigated.

The tacit assumption that the narrator and author are the same leads to yet another qualifying characteristic of autobiography, despite "small mismatches" which seem "accidental or beside the point" and which are often a deliberate method of "keeping the reader off balance in terms of the book's genre" as has been the case in other autofictitious memoirs (Adams: 62). Whether or not one or more I-narrators are present, or if in fact all details relating to this I-narrator parallel Sebald's own life, becomes irrelevant. It is instead the aesthetic and ethical dimension of the autofictitious effect Sebald crafts in his works which must be taken into consideration. The very uncertainty is the point of his prose and he actively challenges the reader. Sebald's game of "Is this so or isn't it so?" is most often discussed in relation to his photography. He himself plainly states that he employs photography for a reality effect, calling photography "wonderfully useful" in this regard. (Sebald and Turner: 27) Sebald not only wants the reader to ask these questions of where reality leaves off and fiction begins, he wants us to assume that he is - at least in part, but certainly not in toto - telling the truth in his own I-narrative.

He does this in myriad other manners as well. Not only his photography, but his detailed descriptions of real physical spaces have also proven important to his prose (Furst: 220). Even his photographs of tickets and keys, for example, serve a documentary drive to catalogue the veracity of the narrative construction (Sebald 2002a: 221, 226). Each of these is tethered to an irrepressible "I" of narrative authority, which becomes a grammatical affidavit of authenticity. J.J. Long has noted that Sebald's narrators imbricate themselves in the stories they are telling by using the metaphor of suturing. (137) The historical reference points, photos and autobiographical elements contribute further to this technique. For it is not just the narrator but an historical subject, W.G. Sebald, who seems to be suturing himself into these stories. Furthermore, this is bridged with the reader by means of the ubiquitous "I" of human experience. Sebald's autofiction brings questions of autobiography to his treatment of the tumultuous twentieth century, but implicates the reader as well in this process of mourning and remembering as we ask "questions about our selves and our life stories indirectly by observing others as they struggle to find answers." (Eakin: 14). No longer relegated to the closed system of signification rendered both uncanny and safe for its ability to replicate reality within fantasy, the security of fiction fades as the reality of the autobiographical thread in Sebald's work comes to the fore.

Sebald's sometimes dizzying stylistic maneuverings blend his I-narrators together, rooting the story in the reality of the I-narrator which is Sebald (or at least his autofictional double he leads us to believe it is) and extending into the story, into other characters and obscuring the fictional qualities of the book by staining it with the potential of truth. McCulloh has noted that "a major theme in Sebald's work is the heightened or intensified reality created by fiction." (7) While this is certainly true, the nature of the interplay between reality and fiction is what crafts this dynamic. Not simply transgressing the boundaries between reality and fiction, Sebald sends his characters - and his readers - between the two until one is no longer certain where one ends and another begins. By writing from the autofictional perspective which has become his hallmark, Sebald utilizes the universalizing "I" of his prose as a sort of referent in the real world. Much as his photographs "confirm a detail of appearance or (…) 'document' an event," (7) his I-narrators exploit the "presumption of truth-value" Eakin underscores. (Eakin 1992: 30). This serves as a double-anchor in the real world, infusing his prose with the ethical demands posed by any confrontation - either direct or indirect - with the Holocaust, and particularly in the form of Holocaust memoir, for as Ephraim Sicher has proclaimed, "nowhere is the distinction between fiction and nonfiction so problematic as in Holocaust literature." (xvi) By continually underscoring the ostensibly factual basis to his narratives, while simultaneously questioning recollection, Sebald's prose brings to light not just a group of Holocaust memoirs in particular, rather the problematic status of representation for Holocaust memoir in general.

 

 

Sebald's reality effect

 

Sebald's photographs are in need of being read in conjunction with the text, but more specifically in conjunction with the style of narration. The autofictional I-narrator who looms in the wings brings the reader back to questions of truth and fiction in new registers. As Heinrich Detering notes, the thinly veiled autobiographical narrator W.G. Sebald effects a heightened focus on the truth-value of the photographs and other found objects. Having really encountered these characters - so Detering assumes - Sebald has meticulously listened to their stories, traveled the stations of their lives and preserved the material objects (photographs, calling cards, and so forth) which they have left behind as a means of "certify[ing] the unbelievable truths" of these stories (85, my trans.). In order to secure these narratives in a truth of some kind or other, the stories pass through the photographs and back to Sebald himself playing the role of an I-narrator of an autoficitonal world rendered precisely to cast doubt upon the boundaries between truth and fiction, while reaffirming the ethical imperative to continue to bear witness to the traumatic twentieth century.  This is perhaps the sort of dynamic between fiction and reality McCulloh suggests lies at the heart of Sebald's work when he speaks of Sebald's "heightened or intensified reality created by fiction…" (7)
 
Sebald's ability to augment the referential power of a photograph by taking it out of its historical context and creating a narrative around such an "accurate" referent of the world is hereby reaffirmed. The photographic record of the I-narrator's collection and writing of these life stories becomes its own certificate of presence for a set of methodological approaches. The autofictional I-narrator is also an autofictional I-photographer. Sebald's reorganization of the referential nature of his found photographs folds back upon the narrative in the fictionalization of his research and collection methods. Perhaps the most glaring instance of the intersection of fiction and photography are the images of Ambros' agenda (Sebald 2002 a: 132, 135) which Sebald admits are a falsification. (Angier: 13) This photograph is in some sense even more dubious than the faked photo of the Nazi book burning in "Max Ferber" (184) since it is contemporary photograph meant to serve as proof of the narrator's own research methods. Sebald mixes creation with collection liberally to achieve his works, playing the role of observer and observed in his historical mode of writing. In this fictionalization of the real world it is the I-narrator whom we, as readers, are inclined to believe. This meta-narrative of the writing of the story as the story unfolds blends temporal boundaries, but also serves as a parallel autofiction to the life stories Sebald collects.

 

 

Bhabha and Sebald: Post-Colonial and Post-Holocaust?

 

While the postcolonial literary critic Homi Bhabha may seem thematically far removed from Sebald's post-Holocaust writings, his analysis of trends in international postcolonial literature and his theories laid out in The Location of Culture may also be useful in understanding Sebald's multimedial texts.

In referring to the process of writing itself throughout the stories, Sebald narrates the passage of time in narration. In one particular case near the end of "Max Ferber", Sebald updates the reader on the progress of the final piece of writing which the reader is currently engaging, stating: "During the winter of 1990/91, in the little free time I had…I was working on the account of Max Ferber given above. […] Often I could not get on for hours and days at a time, and not infrequently I unraveled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me." (230) The multiple time frames and passage of time within the text as Sebald jumps from generation to generation and across decades to reconstruct a story, are also present in the structure of narration itself. Sebald here combines yet another time frame: that of the plot (his journey to Bad Kissingen) has been interrupted by the present of narration, reflecting on the earlier process of creating the narrative in the winter of 1990/91, which is then consumed by a reader in a new present. This experience of time becomes both a textual and meta-textual element which Sebald brings to the reader's attention time and again.

This structure of time lag is precisely what Bhabha describes in his treatment of postcolonial literature and culture. The chasm of time between the event and its narration becomes itself an important negotiation in meaning and intentionality in retrospect (Bhabha: 183). In the case of Sebald, this retrospective position becomes radically redefined as this process of event and enunciation - already separated by time - becomes divided between multiple I-narrators and various pasts and presents in the text just as in the necessarily diachronic experience of viewing a photograph. At times, these subjects even seem to compete with one another for the position of enunciation as Sebald imbricates and blends first person narrators and primary documents directly into the present narrative mode (such as Mme Landau's extended monologue in "Paul Bereyter" or the passages from the journal in "Ambros Adelwarth").

Sebald is able to thereby reclaim discourse for the marginalized by reenacting this time lag and its inherent displacement of the position of enunciation from one person to another. As Bhabha says in his discussion of Barthes' "writing aloud", "[i]t is the art of guiding one's body into discourse, in such a way that the subject's accession to, and erasure in, the signifier as individuated is paradoxically accompanied by its remainder, an afterbirth, a double." (184) In the case of Sebald, one sees a literalized double of the subject, materialized and captured in the form of a photograph; a double bound both to the irretrievable past-ness of these lost persons and to the unique conditions of time and space which brought about the photograph, matching an individual with a particular historical moment. It would seem that the inclusion of photographs would help to pin down and reinforce (if not enforce) the identity of the subject in the form of the signifier. One should therefore be able to order the subject into a larger web of meaning, given details and images which support a set of historical circumstances linked by the evidence furnished by photography. However, Sebald's characters are anything but localized, delimited and uncryptic signifiers, and the medial doubling between image and text is a doubled failure, leaving two remainders, two afterbirths. Similarly, the narrative doubling between Sebald's characters and his autofictional I-narrators spawn even more remainders left unresolved.

It is the "completed yet paradoxically open-ended experience" of reading Sebald's texts in which "everything is interrelated by some secret orderliness, but even the author isn't certain precisely how" (McCulloh: 24, 22) that forces a deterioration of traditionally temporally dependent models of narration. Instead, these narratives opt for an image-text and a sort of associative shuffling of years and lives mediated by another subject, the I-narrator, to achieve at once a "direction and contingent closure but no teleology or holism." (Bhabha 185) The Sebaldian I-narrator specifically eschews the totalization of a teleological recapitulation of events, extending in a logical format from beginning to end or as a flashback which erupts at a meaningful moment or in reference to a meaningful photograph. In some ways, the very avoidance of these sorts of emotional hooks in the narrative stands as a strategy which sidesteps a saccharine sentimentality. Whereas traditional photographic theory depends upon the natural human response to photography's status as proof, here Sebald problematizes that seemingly essential characteristic. Similarly, one is reminded of Eakin's statement above concerning the inherent faith readers have in I-narrators (Eakin 1992: 30) and the comparable certification of proof the genre of autobiography normally commands. 
Yet, instead of crafting a meaningful relationship between the autofictional text and reality, in which photographs function as the proof binding the two together in a sort of grammar of signification, the text causes the reader to question the photographs and vice versa. In obvious cases, as with the reproduction of the faked photograph of the Nazi book burning (184), our sense of photography as a certificate of reality is questioned. In more subtle manners - as in Sebald's lack of captions, unnamed subjects and sometimes purposefully confusing positioning - there are breaks with the traditional strategies of representation. The photographs stand as objects obscured in meaning by the texts: Who are the other people in the car in this photograph of Paul's father? (53) The narrator tells us he is in one schoolhouse photo, but which child is he? (47) Where and when and with whom was the family photo of Max Ferber's mother taken? (217) And in turn, the texts create a field of meanings and associations which affect our reading of the photographs. In light of such use, the nature of photography as a certificate of presence fades as it becomes a narrative in its own right. Photographs do not merely trap a moment in time; rather one reads the faces and places photographed, investigating catechreses of meaning between text and image looking for that which neither could intimate alone. It is neither the case that the photographs serve the text or that the text serves the photograph, but both are in a dialogue which actively alters the perception of the other.

Thus, texts somewhere between reality and fiction are accompanied by photographs repositioned within this duplicitous field of meaning, but which are themselves the objects of cropping, cutting, contrast manipulations and other techniques which open up the possibility to attack their veracity. (Mitchell: 30) While he ardently maintained his "authenticity" in interviews, Sebald "invites doubt in his telling" (Zwart: 245) and in his showing.

Bhabha's arguments concerning the hope for a hybridity to counteract the time lagged imaginary historical construct of a postcolonial condition which supports racism culminate in his claim that "[i]t is precisely such unresolved, transitional moments within the disjunctive present of modernity that are then projected into a time of historical retroversion or an inassimilable place outside history." (Bhabha: 250) In crafting a text which at once grounds itself in post-Holocaust topics, yet chooses to focus on decidedly quotidian individuals at such a remove from the normal constellation of events one normally thinks of under the rubric of the Holocaust, Sebald carefully approaches and simultaneously avoids the large-scale historical event of the Holocaust. In doing so, he provides a new enunciatory space for its victims in those inassimilable places outside history. Constructed somewhere between literature and history, fact and fiction, his images and texts could in some ways be seen as contributing to a sort of non-history in the sense of Bhabha's "neither modern nor anti-modern but non-modern." (251)
 
It is in this manner that Sebald makes a significant contribution to theories and ideas concerning media as history and media as memory. As George Kouvaros notes, "Sebald's writings are both a means of communicating with the dead and crucial to the way he writes the dilemma of memory other than as a process of conscious remembrance." (174) In this analysis, Kouvaros brings to light the very slippery nature of Sebald's use of photography which makes it problematic as history, and yet so central to his narration. Sebald's narrative style is dependent upon the process of recovery and the structure of remembering, bringing stories and photos to bear upon the narrative not from a logical, retrospective and teleological perspective of hindsight, but as they become available and allow the reader to share in both their discovery, curiosity and obscurity.

The reader shares in the narrative - sutured to the "I" of Sebald's autofictitious perspective - and also in Sebald's narrating of the narrative process, therefore doubly implicated in the identification with and mourning over these lost souls. Sebald aligns the reader with the act of recovery and mourning itself, modeling as it were the very process of mourning in the structure of his texts and images. Sebald's insistence on non-conventional structures and means of creating this experience, his almost subversive use of photographs and text in conjunction with each other can be said to "confuse the continuity of historical temporalities, confound the ordering of cultural symbols, [and] traumatize tradition" in such a way as to "contest the sententious 'conclusion' of the discipline of cultural history." (Bhabha: 179) Carefully created as a haphazard document (Zwart: see esp. 243 and 154), photographs which seem to have slipped beyond the control of the narrator appear in some cases pages away from their textual referent (as in the case of Ambros in Turkish traditional costume). At other times photos are included, but not cited, there to spark the beginnings of memory, not to mark its completion and significatory endpoint brought under the reigns of an historical explanation or traditional narrative resolution. It is the unresolved nature of these characters and Sebald's modus operandi in presenting them which moves beyond traditional means of representing the effects of the Holocaust, yet stands as a call for continued attempts at representing, remembering and memorializing. Sebald engages a "[c]ontemporary Western society [which] represents…a world in which people have learned to separate painlessly from everything, where what has been lost leaves no scars, no traces, in the psyches and physiognomies of the survivors." (Santner 1990: 67) However, he chooses to underscore—and perhaps to attempt an alternative model against—the how of our painless separation in his style of narration of remembrance as well as the what of our separation from these objects of "spectral materiality" (see Santner 2006: 152-157 for a discussion of spectral materiality and Sebald's photography) and the lives to which they bear witness. In the unresolved nature of this act of narration and remembrance, the photographs render the relationships between signifier and signified, between representation and reality, between narrators and readers ambiguous, leaving more open than closed, more to investigate and more to mourn rather than presenting a conveniently packaged emotional catharsis which allows the reader to move beyond the traumas of the twentieth century.

 


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Having studied and taught in Chicago, Salzburg and Vienna, Todd Heidt is currently a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Cincinnati, USA. His interests lie in the intersections of multi-medial representation and narration. His dissertation focuses on narrative strategies and means of rendering reality in film and literature during the Weimar Republic. His is also serving as editor-in-chief for the journal Focus on German Studies for the 2007-2008 academic year.

   
 

 

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