Photosensitive

W. G. Sebald's use of Language

Shortly after the publication of the English translation of The Rings of Saturn (1998), in which W. G. Sebald's narrator - in one of the book's customarily lucid and hallucinatory digressions - reconstructs the life of the British diplomat, Irish nationalist and anti-imperialist agitator Roger Casement, a friend of mine found himself in Dublin's Museum of Natural History, staring in amazement at a display of butterflies which included a specimen discovered by Casement in the Amazon jungle. Butterflies provide a recurring metaphor in Sebald's works, and so my friend wrote immediately to him, outlining the provenance of his fragile discovery, and then cursing the oversight of not having sent a photograph. Sebald, however, responded to my friend's 'intriguing note', as he called it, with an image of his own: a postcard depicting a Zeppelin over Berlin in the 1930s.

There is something almost comically overdetermined - something too 'Sebaldian' to be true - in this brief exchange of motifs: the deceased but extant beauty of the insect versus the sinister grandeur of the airship and a city about to undergo a monstrous transformation. I want to situate this story straight away in some fantasized text of Sebald's, an episode in which, no doubt, the novelist knows that his photographic reply will be a cherished memento, a modest document in his own biography (as is now sadly the case, since Sebald's death in December 2001). But most of all, the story reminds us of the intimate link in Sebald's work between fiction and photography, between the labyrinthine wanderings of his text and its eerie, enigmatic and often comic punctuation by images.

The photographs in Sebald's novels are not illustrations; they suggest instead a ceaseless shuttling of meaning between word and image. As in the emblem books that flourished in early modern Europe, everything happens as if poised between picture and text. If there is a mystery here (for characters and readers alike), it is how to reconcile the two, how to make sense of a world split between harrowed monologue and the snapshots of memory and revelation it tries to grasp. Many of the photographs in Sebald's books come from his forages through the junk-shops of East Anglia (where he lived and worked after emigrating from Germany in 1970): pictures of lost lives, nameless places and moments never to be recovered except through his rigorous imagination, and which eventually 'got the better of him'.

Everything starts here: with the image of Sebald poring over his photographic collection, retiring to his workshop to 'potter about'. The private logic of the collector is obvious in the passion for arrangement that animates his books: an edifice of idiosyncratic correspondences, an intuitive taxonomy of spectres. Sebald's use of photographs would be nothing without this 'pottering about'; no other writer since Walter Benjamin has conveyed so vividly the pleasure and pain of research: the endless and ruminative contemplation of materials that defy interpretation.

Sebald's complex visual choreography, the dance of images both real and imaginary, can make for unexpected intrusions. In The Emigrants (1996), a book obsessed by the visual remains of lives lost to Europe's 20th-century convulsions, the narrator, after coming to Britain in the 1960s, is strangely comforted by an object his landlady brings him on his first morning in this peculiar new country - a Teasmade. An image of the 'weird and serviceable gadget' interrupts the text. Its squat, paltry dream of the future (an 'electrical miracle', the laconic narrator tells us) is also the ghost of pre-war luxury, Art Deco splendour crushed to comply with the meagre demands of a provincial morning ritual. It is, oddly, one of the book's most affecting photographs, just as haunting as its images of architectural decay: fading hotels falling apart from the inside, abandoned warehouses with their monochrome reminders of the vampire's hideout in F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), the expectation of a deathly presence behind their darkened windows.

In Austerlitz (2001) the eponymous central character tries to piece together the fragmentary narrative of his father's disappearance and the abduction and murder of his mother by the Nazis. Kitsch object and framing window come together in the image of an antique shop that he photographs in the fortified town to which his mother was banished. The shop window frames a 'still life' of abandoned objects (sea shells, a stuffed squirrel, flowers trapped in glass paperweights: a literal nature morte) - objects, Austerlitz reflects, 'that for reasons one could never know had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction, so that I could now see my own faint shadow image barely perceptible among them'. The picture cannot fail to bring to mind the countless possessions stolen by the Nazis, just as photographs of the town's decaying doorways suggest the entrances to more horrific spaces: the familiar images of gas chambers and crematoria.

The most suggestive of Sebald's reflections on photography concerns, paradoxically, a moving image. When Austerlitz watches a film of the ghetto, Sebald gives us two full pages of a ruinously pixelated still, half the already grainy image eaten away by what we're told is a flaw in the tape: a huge mottled expanse of abstraction which Austerlitz, in his interpretative delirium, likens to an Arctic aerial photograph or a drop of water under a microscope. At the moment when the truth ought to become clear, both Austerlitz (who, as a photographer, watches 'the shadows of reality [...] emerge out of nothing') and the reader are confronted with monstrous blurs and uncertainties. Overcome, Austerlitz mistakes a face in the crowd for that of his mother (while I register my own pressure drop of spooked recognition: she looks uncannily like my own late mother).

His mistake corrected, Austerlitz is shown a true representation (but how can he, or we, be sure?) of his mother. It is an astonishing photograph, all the more so for having been accorded a scant quarter of a page. The actual image of the mother is constricted further: half the photograph is a void, a graphic memorial like the black page that commemorates a dead character in Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67) or the emptiness looming over J. L. David's portrait of the murdered Marat (Marat assassiné, 1793). What remains bears an intolerable significance at the same time as being wholly anonymous, devoid of signifying fuss (beyond a certain line of eyebrow and jaw that suggests a particularly pre-war kind of beauty). The whole thing verges on invisibility, as if its object is about to fade back into the shadows, to abandon this brief moment of meaning, to cease commerce with the text and revert to a pure abstract texture, a blankness that is nothing less than the chasm of memory.

1. The characteristic arrangement of images in Sebald's creative works extends to his non-fiction, including the sumptuous critical work Logis in einem Landhaus (Rural Retreat, 1998) and his study of the allied bombing of Germany in World War II, Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999). The latter will be published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction by Penguin in 2003.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art. His next book, Essayism, will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June 2017.

Issue 70

First published in Issue 70

October 2002

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