Unrecounted: Text and Image in W.G. Sebald

Sebald, who would have celebrated his 70th birthday this year, didn’t publish any literary texts until he was 40. There was a novel he wrote when he was still in secondary school, but it was never published and neither were the small poems he wrote, often when travelling. Things changed in the mid-80s, when Sebald, by then professor of German at the University of East Anglia, wrote a long poem after a visit to the British Museum about the German botanist and explorer Georg Willem Steller. The poem was accepted by the Austrian magazine Manuskripte, and so were the two poems that followed, portraying the medieval painter Matthias Grünewald and the author’s own alter ego. In 1988, all three poems were published by the small Bavarian publishing house Greno under the title Nach der Natur (and as After Nature [2002] by Hamish Hamilton). The edition included six black and white photographs by the photographer Thomas Becker showing half-drowned black trees and trunks in flooded fields, beautifully printed on plates that separate the images from the text.

Becker’s skillfully composed, high-resolution photographs are in stark contrast to the images Sebald would include in his later prose fiction writings, published mostly throughout the ’90s: neither Vertigo (1990) nor The Emigrants (1992) use plates any more, and many of the reproduced photographs are now taken from newspapers, postcards or family albums found at flea markets. Other images the author took himself, many of them with a small point and shoot camera, a Canon Ixus L1, using colour negative film.1

Sebald’s literary work is exceptionally visual, and his writing from and with images demonstrates an approach to literature not in competition with (or afraid of) the visual, but in dialogue with it, knowing that for both description and photo or drawing there first needs to be careful observation and study. It is in this regard quite significant that Sebald wrote his first published literary text about a botanist who travelled with Vitus Bering’s second expedition to Kamchatka.

Born in Bavaria, Sebald studied German literature in Freiburg im Breisgau and later in Switzerland. Soon afterwards, he moved to Manchester where he received a PhD for a study on Döblin and started to pursue an academic career that brought him to Norwich. As a writer, a bit like the Arctic-explorer Steller, Sebald was drawn to unknown regions and forgotten stories, although the landscapes of his writing proved not to be too far from his home: the world of recent German and European history newly revealed to his expatriate eyes. His prose fiction writings can be described as unique and, apart from their visual component, relatively conservative: all his writings are concerned with the past, particularly the German past and the Shoah, which has been described as a centre that his writings circle around. In particular they are concerned with the broader history of modernity in its multiple, but mostly destructive aspects – imperialism and colonialism, industrialisation and exploitation.

Sebald’s writing style, at once melodic and melancholic, is oriented to 19th and early 20th century literature: he praised the work of Austrian and Swiss writers such as Keller and Stifter, and his language, even in his interviews, has something old fashioned about it (most likely due to the fact that he left southern Germany, where he grew up and studied, in the 60s, and preserved his Bavarian German though all the years he lived in southeast England). What makes Sebald’s prose unique and sets it apart from both his 19th and early 20th century patron saints and other contemporary German writers is a technique of montage, of which the included images are only the most visible expression: the extensive use of quotations and references taken from all kinds of sources, sometimes marked and exposed in the text, sometimes hidden and included like little academic riddles for intertextual research. But because Sebald’s images are the most obvious among the various montaged elements, and because they not only illustrate but influence the narrative, it makes sense to talk about ‘intermedial’ rather than ‘intertextual’ texts.

Austerlitz, Sebald’s fourth and last prose narrative, was published in 2001, 13 years after Nach der Natur. Opening the book, the reader is soon confronted with a series of cropped images of a pair of eyes that are inserted in the text in groups of two, each image filling out a couple lines. The composition clearly refers to André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja with its sequence of ‘fern eyes’ that is repeated multiple times; Sebald’s eyes are all different though, and they serve as an example of how different the sources from which the author took his visual material were. The first grouping shows the wide-open eyes of a small monkey and an owl, both taken from a printed source (an encyclopedia) – in the first one the dot matrix remains visible. The second, human grouping features Sebald’s friend the artist Jan Peter Tripp (they are taken from a portrait drawn by himself) and the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Interestingly, in the reproduction, Tripp’s (pencildrawn) eyes are not recognizable as a drawing and seem actually sharper than Wittgenstein’s, taken from a famous, but mediocrely reproduced photograph. In the text framing the images, the narrator, remembering a visit to the Nocturama in the zoo of Antwerp, compares the gaze of the nocturnal animals to that of ‘certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’.2

W. G. Sebald: Image from Austerlitz (2001). München: C. Hanser, 2001.
W. G. Sebald: Image from Austerlitz (2001). München: C. Hanser, 2001.

While the exclusive listing of these two, ‘painters and philosophers’, might seem odd without recognizing the eyes of Wittgenstein and Tripp, it is significant for Sebald’s literary composition. Image and text here build a reference to Hegel who wrote (in the preface to The Philosophy of Right) the often quoted sentence about the owl of Minerva which ‘spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk’. In Hegel’s context, ‘dusk’ or ‘darkness’ refer to the end of an era – which philosophy can no longer rejuvenate, only attempt to understand. In Sebald’s composition (or layout) of the page, this darkness can be seen as the text and its letters, reminding readers that a literary text might hide as much as it reveals, and therefore should as well be subject to the above mentioned ‘looking and thinking’. The eyes of the depicted owl, in this respect, aim through and beyond the literary text. It is no surprise that Austerlitz, the main character of the novel, is an amateur photographer himself, and towards the end of the book he entrusts the narrator with his collection of images which ‘one day would be all that was left of his life’.

Sebald’s publications include over 300 images: they accompany all of his book-length productions, and they are almost always more than mere illustration of the text: they add and alter meaning, open different ways of approaching the text and its narratives, and they often engage critically with the writing. In many respects, photographs and other collected images are essential for the text, as they serve as a point of departure to assemble a story and for the writing itself – as the above mentioned scene from Austerlitz demonstrates. In interviews, Sebald points out how he has always used images for his writings: he eventually found himself without a cogent reason to remove them for publication – it felt only natural to leave the images in the texts. In the old debate about the superiority of the art forms that the Renaissance called paragone, and that was later described by Mieke Bal as an inevitable “war of signs”, it seems clear that Sebald, as a writer, wants to negotiate between the arts, rather than to take a position for any one of them.3

However, in Sebald’s work the text still dominates the images: the text would be changed by the omission of the images, but it would still be readable; the images on their own rarely serve the narrative function. Sebald was a long-time amateur photographer, but it would be an exaggeration to call his work exceptionally ambitious. Travelling with a small film camera, many of his pictures can safely be called snapshots. As a writer though, he takes images quite seriously. His habit of collecting photographs and postcards from flea markets and charity shops inspired Tacita Dean’s fourth artist’s book, FLOH, in 2001. And while it seems remarkable that Dean composes a book exclusively out of portraits, holiday snapshots and other documents of banal occurrences, Sebald, too, is not eager to exhibit his own photographic work, but prefers to use not only different sources (the lack of clarity regarding the pictures’ origins has drawn criticism) but also different media, combined, reflected upon and given a new existence in his narratives.4

Tacita Dean: Image from FLOH (2001). Artist’s book. Made in collaboration with Martin Ridgwell. Published by Steidl, Goettingen. Image courtesy of the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London & Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris.
Tacita Dean: Image from FLOH (2001). Artist’s book. Made in collaboration with Martin Ridgwell. Published by Steidl, Goettingen. Image courtesy of the artist, Frith Street Gallery, London & Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris.

In post-war German literature there are surprisingly few writers who experimented with images. The almost-forgotten Rolf Dieter Brinkmann (1940-1975) combined text and image in his wildly collaged scrapbooks, and the renowned filmmaker and author Alexander Kluge (b.1932) has used text and image in his literary work since the ’90s to challenge discursive and narrative constructions.5 While Sebald knew of both authors and while his admiration for Kluge and his historical narratives is known, his interest in the combination of text and image or, more precisely, the principle of montage, can be traced back to his PhD thesis on Alfred Döblin. The crossing of different art forms, genres and media has always been the territory of avant- garde movements. Philippe Soupault’s La Fuite in La Révolution Surrealiste (1926) is often considered the first example of a narrative text with images included for more than just illustrative purposes. Breton’s Nadja was published in 1928, but the introduction of textual montage to the German literary tradition by Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was so revolutionary that Walter Benjamin saw it in explosive terms, blowing up the framework and style of the bourgeois novel. Döblin assembles his montaged fragments so densely, Benjamin writes, that the author underneath ‘barely gets a word in edgeways’.6 This is a pretty accurate description of Sebald’s own style of montage and the multiple voices of different narrators in his texts – the only difference being that Sebald adopted the technique of montage so that images, too, are included in the narrative assemblage.

Benjamin not only wrote about montage in Döblin’s work, but adapted its technique for his own theoretical writings. Montage, with its play of distances, transitions and intersections, its perpetually shifting contexts and ironic juxtaposition, had already become a favorite device for him before Döblin wrote his novel.7 For the Arcades Project, the unfinished major philosophical work Benjamin began in the late 1920s, he planned ‘to carry over the principle of montage into history’.8 And, interestingly, he also planned to include images. While for Sebald images are a natural part of the writing process, they are essential for Benjamin’s concept of history. For him, history is not about textbooks and grand narratives, but about images: it is only in an image, in the brief flash of a moment, that we can recognize historical truth – the rest is the long thunder of the following text. When thinking about the past is determined by images, these images merge with our understanding of the present. In other words, there can’t be an image of the past independent from our present world views, and altogether it is hard to grasp an image of the past anyway: Benjamin describes what can be grasped as a brief flash of the past that amalgamates with the present. He calls this flash-like image, preserved or frozen as a still, the dialectical image: ‘it’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.’9 ‘For while’, he goes on, ‘the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. – Only dialectical images are genuine images […] and the place where one encounters them is language.”10

By including images in his texts – paintings, photographs and reproduced receipts, diaries or diagrams – Sebald reminds his readers of this: first, that the narrative cannot be reduced to pure imagination. The included research and its documents (as well as quotations and even, though rarely, footnotes) bear witness to biographical events and therefore to historical truth. And second, that neither the text nor the images can be fully trusted, since they only create a fictional narrative ‘based on true stories’ and that the readers need to put on an ‘inquiring gaze […] to penetrate the darkness’. The inclusion of images thus not only adds visually to the text and its ‘authenticity’, but at the same time challenges the reader to question the authenticity or, more precisely, to seek further for it.

This modesty of the author is also expressed in one of Sebald’s last books, the posthumously published Unerzählt (Unrecounted): a collection of 33 Haiku-like poems combined with drawings of pairs of eyes, of renowned or less renowned people, made in a photorealistic style by Jan Peter Tripp. Both text and image here are reduced to a minimum of expression: a small section of the head, three lines, five lines of text, a few syllables per line. In a way, this can be regarded as Sebald’s approach to writing: the text begins with an image; realism is combined with invention; and in an attempt to gesture at an untold story they come together, piece by piece.

1. See the exhibition catalogue Wandernde Schatten. W. G. Sebalds Unterwelt, Marbach 2008, p.77
2. Sebald: Austerlitz, New York 2001, p. 5
3. Mieke Bal: Reading Rembrandt. Beyond theWord- Image Opposition, Cambridge 1991, p. 47.
4. The various origins of Sebald’s scanned or otherwise reproduced images are often ignored when scholars talk generally about Sebald’s ‘photo texts’ – the only purely photographic book is After Nature (Nach der Natur, 1988), where the photographs are not directly included in the text.
5. See, for example, Alexander Kluge: The Devil’s Blind Spot, translated by Martin Chalmers and Michael Hulse, 2004 (2003).
6. Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. III, Frankfurt a.M. 1991, p. 233, my translation, N.P.
7. See Translator’s Foreword, in Benjamin: Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA and London 1999, p.xi.
8. Benjamin: Arcades Project, p.461.
9. Benjamin: Arcades Project, p.462
10. Ibid.