Verbal Discourse in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants
W. G. Sebald,
whose death in November 2001 shocked the literary public, has been
hailed as one of
the most innovative German language writers of recent years. Sebald lived
in England but continued writing in German and has been established as
a major figure of the literary scene both in Great Britain and North
America through highly accomplished translations of his work. In Germany,
critics have praised his idiosyncratic depiction of history, memory,
and transgenerational transmission. The most innovative aspect of Sebald’s
works, however, is their highly original use of photographs. The majority
of Sebald’s texts include graphic reproductions of photographs,
and photographs as visual and material objects also play an important
role as plot elements. Among the central issues of Sebald’s works
is the role of photography in constructing personal, familial, and collective
historical narratives, as well as the relation between (pictorial) memory
and (verbal) narrative. Thus, Sebald’s books lend themselves to
an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to elucidate the relation between
verbal and pictorial discourse in contemporary culture, and between verbal
and pictorial media in the construction of history and memory.
During the course of the twentieth century, photographic, film, and televisual
images have played an increasingly important role in the construction and documentation
of historic events. The advent of the mass media has lead to a proliferation
of images in non-imaginative communication. But images also play a central part
in how imaginative discourses conceptualize history. W. J. T. Mitchell has coined
the term “pictorial turn” for this increasing “imageness” in
contemporary communication, taking up Richard Rorty’s argument that the
history of philosophy has progressed through a series of paradigm changes, or “turns”: “The
picture of ancient or medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy
of the seventeenth through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and
the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable
plausibility” (263). Rorty calls the last of these paradigm shifts the “linguistic
turn”—a term that has found wide acceptance among literary critics.
However, art historians like Mitchell and Gottfried Boehm have pointed out that
by the end of the twentieth century, the “linguistic turn” has been
replaced by another dominant paradigm: the “pictorial” (Mitchell)
or “iconic” (Boehm) turn. Pictures, Mitchell argues, have a status “somewhere
between . . . a ‘paradigm’ and an ‘anomaly’” in
contemporary discourse, “emerging as a central topic of discussion in the
human sciences in the way that language did: that is, as a kind of model or figure
for other things (including figuration itself), and as an unsolved problem” (13).
Thus, images are not only the paradigm in which contemporary culture must define
its unresolved issues, but they are also the medium in which these issues are
I wish to explore how literary texts respond to this paradigm shift, and how
the increasing presence of images alters the meaning production of literary texts
through a theoretically influenced reading of Sebald’s The Emigrants. This
collection of “four long stories” (subtitle) revolves around tales
of emigration, exile, and homelessness. The four protagonists, whose names form
the story headings, are personally known to the first-person narrator; their
life stories, which make up the bulk of the narrative, are relayed to the narrator
partly by themselves, partly by relatives, and partly by acquaintances. The highly
credible form of oral life narrative receives further authentication through
the presence of photographic and written material, which is (at least partly)
reproduced in the book. The narrator, and thus the reader, is shown family albums
and postcards sent by the protagonists, as well as given access to the protagonists’ diaries
and quotes from them.
Because Sebald consciously combines verbal and pictorial discourse, his texts
raise questions about the function of images in contemporary culture. One aspect
that needs to be addressed when discussing the relative functions of photography
and text in The Emigrants concerns the suggestion of authenticity: because the
camera captures and preserves the reflection of light at a certain time, in a
certain place, photographs are often conceived of as “direct” material
traces of the photographed people and objects. In Roland Barthes’s words, “The
photograph is literally an emanation of the referent . . . light, though impalpable,
is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed” (Camera
Lucida 80-81). In semiotic terms, Barthes would be said to argue for the indexical
nature of photographs. According to Charles Sanders Peirce’s definition,
there are three kinds of signs: conic signs, which stand in a relation of similarity
to their referent; indexical signs, which have a relation of cause and effect;
and symbolic signs, which stand in a purely conventional, arbitrary relation
to their referents. A (non-abstract) painting, for example, is an iconic sign
because it resembles that which it depicts; a footprint is an indexical sign
because it has been produced by a foot (although it is also iconic, since it
closely resembles the shape of the foot); and linguistic signs are symbolic because
words stand in an arbitrary, conventional relation to their referents.
As Ernst van Alphen has pointed out, photographs are both iconic and indexical
signs: “Photographs are perfect icons because of the high similarity between
the image and the object being referred to; but they are often seen as the exemplary
index as well because of the existential relation of touch between the light
the object reflects or emits and the sensitive layer of film on which the light
fell” (133). One of the problems with photographs is that the two kinds
of reference are often confused. However, iconicity is not an indicator of indexicality;
on the contrary, I propose that it is frequently the opposite. The iconicity
of photographs is highlighted by critics who question the distinction between
the documentary and the aesthetic, stressing the imaginative tendencies inherent
in all pictorial discourse. Christina von Braun, for example, argues that because
the photograph inserts itself like a protective barrier between us and the real,
its powers of representation are diminished. Instead, von Braun continues, the
photograph is reduced to transforming horror into the aesthetic, thus becoming
what she terms a “photo morgana” (116). Indeed, I would agree that
the authenticity suggested by the indexical reference of photographs is deceptive.
It is well known that photographs can be manipulated, and not just since the
introduction of digital photography. A retouched photo features in the final
story of The Emigrants: the photo supposedly showing the Nazi burning of books
in Würzburg must be manipulated because the book burning took place at night,
when it was too dark to take photos (274). Photos can “lie” (Jaubert)
in different ways; they can be touched up, i.e. visually altered, but they can
also be wrongly contextualized, since the interpretation of photos depends on
narrative frames. Because of their association with discourses of history and
memory, however, the photos in The Emigrants are more then mere “photo
morganas.” They retain the visual power to expose and therefore transcend
arbitrary distinctions between documentary and imaginative discourse.
Photographs can also have symbolic properties because a single, isolated photograph
can hint at a larger context with which it stands in a conventional relation.
For instance, a black-and-white photograph of a bombed city is conventionally
taken to refer to the second World War and the allied bombing of Germany. Photographs
of the selection ramp at Auschwitz, frequently reproduced in history books, are
symbolic of the Holocaust as a whole. Because of this symbolic property, photographs
share certain aspects with linguistic signs, which are also symbolic. Recent
theories of photography have highlighted the constructedness of images within
language. Because “the interpretation of images is, for the most part,
conducted in various forms of verbal discourse” (Mitchell 209), photography
is often understood to be absorbed by language in actual usage. After all, Marianne
Hirsch argues, “[p]hotographs are fragments of stories, never stories in
themselves” (83). This is obvious in the case of family photographs—Hirsch’s
object of study—where narrative frames take concrete shape through such
verbal additions as the captions in family albums. The family album itself functions
as a narrative frame since it is defined by conventionalized assumptions: that
the photographs depict one and the same family, that of the album owner; that
they are arranged chronologically; and that they represent the major stages in
that family’s life. In fact, family photographs acquire meaning only if
and when they are placed within narrative frames; an isolated family photograph,
showing people unknown to the viewer, does not have any meaning. Hirsch illustrates
this with an anecdote from her own family: her cousin, whose parents have died
young, has inherited many unknown family pictures. Since she cannot identify
the photographed relatives, the photos mean nothing to her. In fact, Hirsch’s
cousin has let her husband throw them away. For Hirsch, however, these photos
would have had a special meaning since she would have been able to identify the
women in the pictures as her grandmother and aunt. Hirsch concludes: “[I]mages
that to my cousin were anonymous, meaningless, and even funny, because she could
not identify them, to me would have been integral pieces of a life story, full
of meaning and resonance” (xii).
Narrative frames, although they usually remain unspoken, are frequently thought
of as verbal in nature. Some theorists of photography have gone on to argue that
every photograph is linguistically framed. This view is articulated by Victor
Burgin when he states that “even the uncaptioned ‘art’ photograph
is invaded by language in the very moment it is looked at: in memory, in association,
snatches of words and images continually intermingle and exchange one for the
other” (51). Photography, Burgin concludes, is not a purely visual medium
but “a complex of exchanges between the verbal and the visual” (58).
Because photographs “depend on . . . a narrative act of adoption that transforms
rectangular pieces of cardboard into telling details connecting lives and stories
across continents and generations” (Hirsch xii), their reception mirrors
that of texts; hence, the reception process of photographs is often called “reading.”
In The Emigrants, the graphically reproduced photographs are framed by the surrounding
verbal narrative in ways that are typical of the usage of family photographs.
The photos are placed in narratives of familial history and memory: frequently,
the text directly below them is printed in a manner that imitates the captions
in family albums. Sometimes, the narrator actually reproduces the captions he
has read in albums (83). However, this can be deceptive: although the line “Die
Theres, der Kasimir und ich” is printed like a caption (108), no mention
is made of the photograph in the narrative. Thus, the reader is led to assume
that this is a photograph of the speaker (the narrator’s aunt Fini) and
her two siblings simply because of the way the text is arranged around the photograph.
Since there is no indication in the text that this is the case, the photograph
can be seen to influence the narrative frame just as much as the narrative frame
shapes the meaning of the photograph. Thus, the photograph does not only add
to the text, it alters the textual meaning. This is generally true of photography:
family photographs are not inserted into ready-made narrative frames, they produce
and shape these frames. In fact, as Hirsch has pointed out, by the second half
of the twentieth century the narrative of familial history has become an effect
of photographic practices: “The family photo both displays the cohesion
of the family and is an instrument of its togetherness; it both chronicles family
rituals and constitutes a prime objective of those rituals” (7).
Thus, we need to consider textual narrative and the visual media as complementary
rather than conflicting aspects within intermedial texts, taking up Mieke Bal’s
suggestion “to make discourse a partner, rather than dominant opponent,
of visuality” (Reading “Rembrandt” 288). I do not agree with
the view that verbality is a dominant medium that somehow “absorbs” visuality;
rather, I would like to propose that both verbal and visual media are ambivalent:
while visual media have narrative aspects, narrative in its own turn has visual
aspects because it causes the reader to visualize scenes. Mitchell has offered
a reception-oriented description of the visuality inherent in verbal narrative
by pointing out that “although images and pictures can only be conjured
up ‘figuratively’ in verbal discourse,” this “does not
mean that the conjuring fails to occur or that the reader/listener ‘sees’ nothing” (96).
Thus, Mitchell argues that “the visual representations appropriate to a
discourse need not be imported: they are already immanent in the words, in the
fabric of description, narrative ‘vision,’ represented objects and
places, metaphors, formal arrangements, and distinctions of textual functions” (99).
Bal’s “quotation” is a useful concept for understanding how
the reproduction of photographs adds to the meaning of The Emigrants. Bal situates
quotation “at the intersection of iconography and intertextuality,” emphasizing “the
active participation of visual images in cultural dialogue” (Quoting Caravaggio
8-9). Thus, the term “quotation” conceptually combines intertextual
and pictorial strategies, suggesting that images have the same source value in
imaginative discourse as texts. Such intermedial quotations serve three functions
within imaginative discourse. First, the “literal” quotation of words
or images authenticates the surrounding fiction. Second, since quotations are
regarded as fragments of reality, they become the “product of a manipulation.” Third,
quotation serves a mimetic impulse (10). All three functions can be seen at work
in The Emigrants. Because the photographs in The Emigrants are framed within
imaginative narrative, they cannot function as a marker of reality. Their indexicality
is diminished since their referents are part of imaginative discourse, hence
not real. What the photos do instead is performatively suggest reality and authenticity
to the reader. This reality invoked by the showing of photographs is a literary,
and therefore constructed, reality: not “real” reality at all, but
a reality effect which is not mimetic, but poietic, and therefore the exact opposite
of realism (The Rustle of Language). In van Alphen’s words, the photographs
in The Emigrants do not constitute “facts,” they adopt a “rhetoric
of fact” which “does not claim that what it represents was real;
rather, it creates a sense that what it represents was real” (21). The
constructed nature of this rhetoric needs to be kept in mind when trying to understand
the function of photography within imaginative discourse.
One obvious marker of the rhetoricity of fact lies in the arrangement of narrative
and photography in The Emigrants, which is based on aesthetic principles. The
spatial arrangement of photographs within The Emigrants is therefore predicated
upon the second function of intermedial quotation: manipulation. The aesthetic
quality of this arrangement is foregrounded by the way the very first photograph
in The Emigrants is placed within the narrative. It is set after the title of
the first story, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” but before the first sentence
of the verbal narrative. The photo shows a huge oak tree with wide branches spreading
out over what appears to be an old neglected cemetery. The tombstones look weathered,
some are leaning over. The lawn between the graves is untended, there are no
flowers anywhere. There is no mention of such a cemetery in the story. But because
the cemetery in the photograph is old and untended, and because it is somewhat
reminiscent of Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, it could be taken for a Jewish
cemetery. The story, after all, has a Jewish protagonist. The photograph can
therefore be interpreted as symbolic of the condition of Jews in post-Holocaust
Europe. This seems fitting because there are many other indirect references to
the Holocaust in The Emigrants. On the other hand, two of the grave markers in
the background of the photograph, right by the horizon, seem to be crosses, which
suggests a Christian cemetery. But maybe that is just another part of the cemetery—we
cannot know. Thus, before the reader has read even one sentence of the story,
she is already faced with expectations of what the story will be about: death,
forgetting, loneliness, and perhaps the Holocaust. At the same time, it has become
obvious that these expectations, which take the structure of narrative frames
(not to be confused with the actual verbal narrative), are based on the reader’s
associations. The reality effect of photography therefore has a strongly performative
quality that needs to be addressed within a reception-oriented approach.
Before I discuss the special relation of photography and death, which is important,
let me explain how the photograph interacts with the text of the story, because
it is this interaction that distinguishes the photographs in The Emigrants from
real, material photos. When I talk about “interaction” here, I mean
to indicate a process that happens at the reception stage, but that is also based
on certain objective factors, of which the spatial organization of photography
and text is the principal one. Between the title “Dr. Henry Selwyn” and
the graveyard photograph there are two lines of text, right at the bottom of
the title page of the story, printed like two lines of a poem or a distich (although
the syllable count does not match): “Zerstöret das Letzte / die Erinnerung
nicht” (5). This two-liner is difficult to translate into English because
the English language does not allow the splitting up of a verb and its negation,
which requires the reader to read through the whole statement before she realizes
that the two lines are not an exhortation to destroy, but NOT to destroy memory.
Another problem is that in English, it is not possible to substantiate “last” so
as to avoid using a noun that would clarify what kind of last thing memory is.
The motto (for that appears to be the function of these two lines) sounds as
familiar as a well-known quotation, but I have not been able to verify its source.
It might be something by Hannah Arendt, but most likely it is just a paraphrase
of one of the most familiar notions in the German debate on memory, remembrance,
and the Holocaust: the need to remember, because memory is all that is left.
Because of the use of the imperative, the motto appears to directly address the
reader; it can therefore be read as an instruction for the reception of the whole
The other stories are preceded by similar quotes, two of which have verifiable
sources. The motto introducing the second story, “Paul Bereyter,” is
a quotation from Jean Paul’s “Vorschule der Ästhetik,” a
compendium of classicist aesthetics and poetics. Jean Paul writes about the hermetic
German philosopher, Hamann: “Thus, the great Hamann is a deep sky full
of telescopic stars, and some nebulae cannot be pierced by the eye” (14).
As a motto in The Emigrants, this has been shortened to “Manche Nebelflecken
/ löset kein Auge auf” (39). Jean Paul’s quotation, which is
part of an argument about the incomprehensibility of philosophical discourse,
and in prose, is here made to look like a two-liner from a poem. Read within
the context of The Emigrants, it may be interpreted as an epistemological argument
about the general impossibility of knowing the Other. The German “Nebelflecken” has
a double meaning: it refers to an astronomical phenomenon, the nebula, as well
as to a condition of the eye, known as clouding. In the source, the context is
clearly astronomical. In The Emigrants, however, this context has been elided,
making the reference ambiguous. In fact, since the motto mentions looking and
the eye, it will probably be taken to refer to the eye condition of clouding.
This uncanny sense of an eye looking at an eye is not present in Jean Paul.
The third story, “Ambros Adelwarth,” is again preceded by a motto,
this time in English: “My field of corn is / but a crop of tears” (95).
When looked up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, this turns out to be
an inaccurate quotation from “Tichborne’s Elegy,” a work by
the little-known British poet Chidiock Tichborne (1558-1586). The original quote
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain:
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done. (611, emphasis added)
The way it is stated in “Tichborne’s Elegy,” the line is
somewhat arcane: what exactly is a “field of tares”? Tares, or
bearded darnel, are an oriental plant mentioned in the parable of the tares
among the wheat in Matthew 13: 25-30. As Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary
explains, “It is the Lolium temulentum, a species of rye-grass, the seeds
of which are a strong soporific poison. It bears the closest resemblance to
wheat till the ear appears, and only then the difference is discovered. It
grows plentifully in Syria and Palestine” (654). Tichborne thus identifies
the crop of corn, promising wealth and nourishment, with a field of obscure,
poisonous plants. In the same manner, each of the poem’s lines combines
two paradoxical statements. The speaker is in the prime of his youth, yet at
the same time he has the “frost of cares” emblematic of old age;
a “feast of joy” is simultaneously “a dish of pain,” and
so on. Sebald, however, exchanges the nouns “crop” and “field,” and
thereby turns a paradoxical statement into a logical one about the nature of
time, which will destroy everything so that the “field of corn,” with
its promise of a rich crop, in fact only leads to a “crop of tears.” In “Tichborne’s
Elegy,” it is not possible to interpret the line chronologically because
the crop is mentioned before the field. Sebald has also exchanged the noun “tares,” with
its arcane biblical reference, for the more conventionally poetic “tears.”
The motto of the fourth story is not verifiable, although it sounds familiar
enough: “They come at dusk / and seek life” (217). This quote resembles
various gothic poems about vampirism, and can thus be connected with the motif
of the living dead, which plays an important role in The Emigrants. Two techniques
are characteristic of Sebald’s use of mottoes: invention and recontextualization.
The mottoes are made to look like quotes: because that is the conventional
expectation of mottoes, but also because they are printed like bits of poetry.
They have the appearance of something that can be authenticated. But on closer
examination, two of the four mottoes turn out to have no textual basis (even
if they did, this would not significantly change my argument). Hence, their
authenticity is manufactured. The other two mottoes are indeed quotations,
but they are taken out of context so as to alter their meaning, and in one
case even the actual words are changed. The mottoes are also influenced through
their combination with the following narrative, which replaces their original
frame of reference and adds new layers of meaning to the mottoes.
Like the mottoes, the photographs reproduced in The Emigrants are informed
by the narrative context. I have already discussed the first photograph—the
cemetery. It is placed before the first sentence of the narrative, on the first
page of the story, which is preceded by the page with the title and motto.
By placing the title, motto, photograph, and narrative in this order, Sebald
reproduces a conventional aesthetic structure: that of the baroque emblem with
its combination of motto, picture, and subscription. Thus, the distribution
of text and image conveys a special meaning to the cemetery photo: if it is
viewed as part of a tripartite emblematic structure, the photo functions as
an illustration of the motto that will be further explicated in the subscription.
The function of pictures within emblematic structures is pedagogic. The picture
illustrates the motto in a memorable manner; the reader of emblem books is
meant to memorize the pictures as a way to internalizing the expressed moral
values. Emblematic pictures are symbolic signs because their reference is conventionalized
and arbitrary. The cemetery photo is quite obviously not iconic (there is no
cemetery in the story), but symbolic. Following the exhortation to remember,
the photo symbolizes that which the reader is asked to remember: the dead.
And indeed the following narrative tells of a dead friend whose body turns
up again under unexpected circumstances. The protagonist of the story, Dr.
Henry Selwyn, has told the first-person narrator about this friend, the Swiss
mountain guide Johannes Naegeli, who disappeared in the Swiss Alps in 1914.
In 1986, the narrator stumbles across a Swiss newspaper carrying a notice that
the remains of Johannes Naegeli’s body have been discovered inside the
Oberaar glacier. “So this is how they return, the dead,” the narrator
Thus, the introductory photograph can be read as part of the narrative, using
the technique known as the “hermeneutic circle.” This circle consists
of two steps, which are then repeated. In a first step, the details of a narrative
determine the reader’s expectation of what the whole narrative will be
like; in a second step, the reader then adapts his understanding of the details
to his interpretation of the whole. This process is set into motion within
the emblematic structure of “Dr. Henry Selwyn.” The motto, with
its exhortation to remember, raises the expectation that the story will be
about memory. The graveyard photograph then suggests that it is the dead, already
half-forgotten since nobody is tending their graves, who are in need of remembrance.
This interpretation gains high plausibility through the ensuing plot, which
forms the subscription or third part of the emblem and which reconfirms the
interpretation of the photo as showing that which needs to be remembered. At
the same time, the subscription offers several concrete examples of deceased
people in need of remembrance. There is Johannes Naegeli, who is still present
in the tales of his friend Henry Selwyn. There is Dr. Selwyn himself, whom
the narrator is presenting to the readers. Most of all, it is the half-forgotten
world of pre-Holocaust Jewish life that is kept alive in the life story of
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the former Hersch Seweryn, and in the other The Emigrants
stories—especially in the diary of Luisa Lanzberg included in the fourth
Photography is particularly suited to preserving the memory of the dead because
of its function as index, trace, or fetish. While Barthes insists that “the
photograph does not call up the past” (Camera Lucida 82), and Marguerite
Duras has gone even further in claiming that “photographs promote forgetting
. . . . It’s a confirmation of death” (89), Hirsch has convincingly
argued for photography’s unique ability to bring the past back to life: “Photography’s
relation to loss and death is not to mediate the process of individual and
collective memory but to bring the past back in the form of a ghostly revenant,
emphasizing, at the same time, its immutable and irreversible pastness and
irretrievability” (20). This ambiguity is characteristic of the photos
in The Emigrants. The graveyard photo introducing the first story creates a
strong sense of presence, while at the same time putting that which is presented
at a distance. The dead are both irrevocably dead and past, and uncannily present,
in the cemetery. This sense of an absent presence, or a presented absence,
is quite strong in the numerous photographic portraits in The Emigrants. In
the “Paul Bereyter” story, Madame Landau refers to this when she
remarks that “looking at the pictures in [Paul Bereyter’s family
album], it has actually seemed to me—and it still seems that way—as
if the dead were returning or as if we ourselves were about to go to them” (69).
The sense of presence is not solely a property of the photographs, since it
is deliberately evoked by the narrative frame. The interplay of verbal and
pictorial discourse here artfully guides the reader’s reactions by pointing
her towards certain frames of reference.
At the same time, there are strong indications that the photographs are not
to be mistaken for authentic documents. One clue lies in the way verbal sources
are altered and forged throughout the stories. I have already discussed the
manipulation of original quotations in the mottoes. The same irreverence towards
sources is characteristic of the narrator’s use of written documents.
In the second story, the narrator is given a set of exercise books belonging
to Paul Bereyter which, the narrator claims, contain excerpts from Bereyter’s
favorite authors: Altenberg, Trakl, Wittgenstein, and others (86). Into this
passage, the author has inserted photographs or photocopies of two pages of
handwritten notes on ruled paper. However, these notes do not contain any reference
to the mentioned authors. Instead, they describe two relatives, Aunt Olga and
Aunt Lula. If the reader wants to make sense of this contradiction, she is
faced with two possible solutions. First, she might assume that the narrator
is highly unreliable, since his description of the exercise books is not supported
by the reproduced material. Second, she could also conclude that the reprinted
pages are not taken from the exercise books the narrator describes. In this
case, the author would be purposefully misleading the reader by presenting
her with false visual clues. Since the narrator, however, is not a real person
but a function of the text, we must assume that Sebald means to deliberately
mislead the reader.
This also draws the reliability of photographic evidence into doubt. Again,
there are clues in the text pointing at this unreliability. The most obvious
of these concerns the case of the disappeared and rediscovered mountain guide
Johannes Naegeli. To prove the authenticity of this story, the author has reproduced
the newspaper cutting containing the item about Naegeli’s rediscovered
body. But instead of substantiating this claim to authenticity, the reproduction
refutes it. The narrator has relayed how he discovered the news item, by chance,
in a paper which he had bought in Zürich. A close look at the reproduction,
however, reveals that the newspaper in this photo is taken from an archive.
The top of the paper bears a date stamp of the kind used for archival purposes,
and directly below the top line someone has scrawled the following filing information: “CH/FD/Morts
suspectes” (37). Thus, the newspaper cannot have been bought by chance:
it has been searched for in an archive. Again, the gesture of showing that
motivates the reproduction of the newspaper page involves the three contradictory
functions of intermedial quotation: authentication, manipulation, and mimetic
Since the reproduced images in The Emigrants contain information separate from
that conveyed by the verbal narrative, can they be understood to have narrative
properties in and by themselves? Some critics would say yes, although this
is deeply contested territory and most literary critics would like to restrict
narrativity to verbal discourse. Bal, however, has persuasively argued for
the narrative dimension of images, which she situates on the level of reception
or “the way the story of reading the images happens” (Double Exposures
222). Another argument in favor of the narrativity of images that Bal uses
is the presence of point of view or focalizer (as it is now commonly called)
in images. Because of their visuality, images—and photographs in particular—possess
an element of perspective. Hence, they can be analyzed under narratological
terms: “Narrative comprises the processing of a motivation. This motivation
can be analyzed through the narratological question of the focalizer. This
agent is the bearer of the vision which informs and colors the image in time” (222).
Because the act of “reading” pictures occurs in time, and is colored
by the focalizer’s perspective, Bal argues that even “static images
narrate” (222). I have already pointed out that photographs have narrative
properties because of the performative aspect inherent in their presentation.
This becomes even more obvious if we consider showing the photographs as a
discursive act or gesture of the author/narrator. Thus, the semiology of photographs
does not differ significantly from that of the printed text. However, the fictional
and imaginative aspects of photography are masked in The Emigrants because
of the historical and autobiographical content of the narrative.
Our understanding of photographs is predicated on the trope of witness, which
is central to the function of images in historiographic writing. As van Alphen
has pointed out, “[rhetorically] the photograph operates at the same
level as autobiography. It is a ‘trope of witness,’ it persuades
the viewer of its testimonial and factual authority in ways that are unavailable
to narrative” (22). This trope of witness inherent in photography is
reinforced in The Emigrants through the use of autobiographical references
within the verbal narrative. The narrator of The Emigrants (perhaps I should
say the narrators) bears a close resemblance to the author. In “Dr. Henry
Selwyn,” we encounter the narrator as he is looking for an apartment
in the vicinity of Norwich, England, where he has just accepted a position
and where Sebald himself worked as a university lecturer. The narrator of the
second story, “Paul Bereyter,” informs us that he was born in a
South German village which he abbreviates as “W” (45); readers
aware of Sebald’s biography will be tempted to identify this with Wertach,
where the author spent his childhood years. A lot has been made of these autobiographical
traces, and many reviewers have (naively) assumed that the four narrators in
The Emigrants must be the same person and identified that person with the author.
Some have even gone so far as to conclude that the protagonists’ life
stories must be “authentic” and that the characters are therefore “real
people Sebald has met” (Detering 74). This touches upon a number of issues
recent autobiographic theory has tried to come to terms with: Who or what is
the subject of autobiography? Are the perspectives and experiences communicated
true or created? Is autobiography an effort to define or recapture the self?
In “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” often cited as a seminal
text of autobiographic theory, French critic Georges Gusdorf defines autobiography
as the reconstruction of the “unity of a life across time” (37),
presupposing a self that is sure of himself (this self is invariably male)
and an unproblematic relation between the writing and the reflected self. However,
Gusdorf acknowledges that there is a moment of self-invention present in autobiography. “To
create and in creating to be created,” he insists, “ought to be
the motto of autobiography” (44). This creation process is conceived
of as a constructive process that is not distinct from the narrative process
inherent in all self-creation. After all, we all need narrative to make sense
of our world. As Bal states, “Narrative is one of the most pervasive
modes of meaning production. By means of narrative, members of a given culture
represent and convey happenings, ideas, arguments, experiences, imagined states
of the world, and mythical theories of origin” (“Narrative and
the Visual and Literary Arts” 328). Thus, narrative practice is essential
to the construction of a self, even prior to literary presentations (Holstein
and Gubrium 104). Jerome Bruner, among others, reminds us that any narration
of a life story is going to proceed along the lines of some sort of narrative
plot that guides the writer’s selection process. This emplotment creates
a sense of unity and coherence: “[A]utobiography wraps up the interrupted
and fragmentary discourses of identity . . . and presents them as persons themselves” (Gilmore
17). Autobiography is the result of a delicate negotiation between a historical
and a textual self. According to this view, independently of whether the described
events are “true” or not, autobiography has certain fictional aspects
because of its constructive function.
The notion of constructivism has been radicalized by poststructuralist thinkers
like Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, who have argued that the self is no more
than an effect of language, a textual construction, and that there is no “true” self
prior to narrative presentations. This view is supported by recent findings
in the neurosciences, which have concluded that experience and memory are mediated
by narrative frames that are formulated in the present, yet guide our perception
of the past: “[What] we recall is not what we actually experienced, but
rather a reconstruction of what we experienced that is consistent with our
current goals and our knowledge of the world” (Schacter and Scarry 19).
Thus, constructions of identity are predicated not on an elusive past “truth” but
upon the present needs of the subject: “Memory [is] not only literally
essential to the constitution of identity, but also crucial in the sense that
it is constantly revising and editing the remembered past to square with the
needs and requirements of the self we have become in any present” (Schacter
and Scarry 293). As van Alphen has pointed out, experience itself is already
a representation of events, hence mediated and dependent upon narrative frames: “The
notion of experience . . . implies a certain distance from the event. Hence
the experience of an event is already a representation; it is not the event
Leigh Gilmore calls the study of autobiography “autobiographics” in
order to describe the elements of self-invention, self-discovery, and self-representation.
In classical autobiographies, this self-invention remains hidden and unacknowledged.
In postmodern autobiographical texts, however, the constructed aspects of autobiography
can be highlighted. Another factor to take into account when interpreting autobiographic
narratives is the close interplay of generic expectations on the one hand and
the variety of postmodern autobiographical texts on the other hand. Paul John
Eakin has concluded that “even the most superficial acquaintance with
the diversity of works customarily received as autobiographies should lead
us to recognize that ‘there is no intrinsically autobiographical form’” (20).
Postmodern autobiographies that foreground the constructedness of the autobiographic
self frequently cross the border between fiction and non-fiction. Recent autobiographic
theories have coined a number of terms to account for the variety of forms
in new autobiographical writing. While terms such as “ego-documents,” “life-writing
texts,” and “testimony” stress the non-fictional aspects
of autobiographic documents, postmodern autobiographies that include fictional
elements have been called “nouvelle autobiographie,” “autofiction,” or “fictobiography.”
The concept of fictobiography, with its conscious mixture of documentary and
imaginative aspects, can be used as a generic description of The Emigrants.
On the one hand, the The Emigrants stories contain autobiographic references;
on the other hand, the arrangement of verbal and pictorial discourse is too
contrived to be authentic. The frames of representation in The Emigrants are
arranged according to aesthetic principles and form a spatial structure. The
inclusion of textual sources—the journals of Paul Bereyter, Luisa Lanzberg,
and Ambros Adelwarth—creates a chinese-box narrative structure. This
is supported by the quotation of images, which also evokes a visual structuring.
The narrative structure is thus highly aesthetic and inauthentic. And yet,
there is a testimonial aspect to the narrative. This close interplay of imaginative
and documentary aspects raises the question of reliability and credibility.
The unreliability of imaginative narrative is discussed in the story of Ambros
Adelwarth. Uncle Ambros, the narrator is told by his Aunt Fini, may have suffered
from a mental disease called “Korsakow’s syndrome,” where
the loss of memory is compensated by the invention of highly incredible stories
(149). Because the uncle had “an infallible memory,” but no corresponding “ability
to remember,” Aunt Fini explains, his phantastic tales were for him “a
torture and at the same time an attempt to free himself” (146). Aunt
Fini distinguishes between two functions of memory: storage and retrieval.
The uncle’s “infallible memory” has faithfully stored his
past experiences; however, he is not able to retrieve these memories in a manner
that would endow them with a sense for the present. This has to do with the
interplay of narrative and visual memory. The connection between visibility
and memory has been the object of much recent research. Findings in the neurosciences
suggest that individual memories are stored in the brain in the form of mental
images (Pöppel). An individual will have, on average, a thousand of these
images, which are static and without color; in photographic jargon, we would
say they are black and white. Thus, images of memory share central properties
with family photographs. It is therefore not surprising that photography is
often used as a metaphor for memory.
While neuroscientific research stresses the visual nature of memory, I would
like to argue that mental images need to be integrated with narrative frames
in order to make sense to the subject. Memory as a whole therefore has a narrative
structure, relying on conventional narrative frames. After all, language is
still the dominant mode of our interaction with the world. Recent trends in
psychotherapy stress that we are able to construct our own realities through
language (Freedman and Combs); hence, we are able to “story” our
existence (White and Epston). It is this narrative faculty that Uncle Ambros
lacks. Because the uncle was unable to adequately frame his memories, Aunt
Fini now takes recourse to a different kind of narrative frame: she shows the
narrator the photographs in the family album. Like the family album, with its
reliance on narrative frames, memory itself is structured like an imagetext,
as Hirsch has suggested: “The spatiality of memory mapped onto its temporality,
its visual combined with its verbal dimension, makes memory . . . in itself
an ‘imagetext’” (22).
I wish to suggest that the possibilities of different media to represent memory
and history are foregrounded in Sebald’s texts because these deal, directly
and indirectly, with a traumatic historical experience that has been notoriously
difficult to represent: the Holocaust. This may seem surprising since quantitatively,
the Holocaust plays a comparatively small part in The Emigrants. It makes a
brief appearance in the second story, “Paul Bereyter,” where the
protagonist is dismissed from his position as a schoolteacher because he is
one-fourth Jewish according to the anti-Semitic Nuremberg race laws, and where
a minor character, Paul’s friend Helen Hollaender, is presumed to have
been deported—“probably at first to Theresienstadt” (73).
The Holocaust is largely absent from the first and third stories, although
the central characters, Dr. Henry Selwyn and Cosmo Salomon, are Jewish emigrants.
It is most apparent in the fourth story, “Max Aurach” (“Max
Ferber” in the English translation). Aurach has survived the Holocaust
in an English boarding school, but his parents have been killed in the death
camps. Central to all four stories is the characters’ preoccupation with
remembrance and forgetting, and here the Holocaust does play a central role.
In the second story, Madame Landau, Paul Bereyter’s neighbor, reminds
the narrator of “the thoroughness with which these people [the Germans]
. . . have withheld, concealed and, as it sometimes seems to me, actually forgotten
everything” (74). In the fourth story, the narrator’s attempt to
visit the places of Aurach’s mother’s childhood is thwarted by
the “spiritual impoverishedness and lack of memory of the Germans” (338).
Sebald also uses leitmotifs that indirectly hint at the Holocaust. Paul Bereyter’s
obsession with railway trains and schedules, for instance, is an oblique allusion
to the Nazis’ use of railway trains in deporting Jews to the death camps.
For Bereyter, his neighbor tells the narrator, “the railway . . . had
a deeper meaning. It probably always seemed to him as if it was leading to
death” (90). Like the first story, the one about Bereyter is introduced
by an emblematic composition of motto, picture, and subscription. Here, the
meaning of the photograph and its relation to the following narrative is much
easier to comprehend than in “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” while the relation
of photograph to motto is more enigmatic. The photo shows a set of railway
tracks running off into the middle distance of a deserted woody landscape.
The first sentence of the subscription informs the reader that Bereyter committed
suicide by throwing himself under a railway train “at the spot where
the railway tracks curve out of the little willow copse into the open field” (41).
This could well be a description of the railway tracks in the photograph. In
fact, because the initial sentence is printed directly below the photograph,
readers will probably take it that way. The relation between picture and subscription,
then, seems simple enough. What about the motto, though? It is the Paul quote
mentioned above: “Some nebulae / cannot be pierced by the eye.” The
idea expressed here, that the clouded part of the eye is inaccessible to vision,
must be read metaphorically as a hint at our inability to comprehend the Other.
If the photograph is read as an emblematic picture, it therefore acquires symbolic
undertones which are linked with the question (unanswered in the narrative)
of why Bereyter chose to commit suicide in such a way.
Railway tracks are one of the most pervasive symbols for the Holocaust. No
film about the Holocaust, whether fictional or documentary, can do without
images of railways or railway tracks. The Holocaust, difficult as it is to
conceptualize, has become identified with a standard repertory of highly symbolic
(hence arbitrary) images, the most powerful of which is the selection ramp
at Auschwitz with its double set of railway tracks. In a volume about images
of the Holocaust, Willi Goetschel has argued that images acquire meaning through
the act of circulation, and that circulation has charged Holocaust pictures
in particular with a symbolic meaning that far outreaches their visual content
(134). Goetschel’s assessment of this symbolic potential of images, which
is also noticeable in the railway track photograph in The Emigrants, is critical.
He sees the symbolic Holocaust picture as exemplary of the contradictory trends
to place Holocaust representations under taboo and to try to come to terms
with the Holocaust through the use of images which are necessarily reductive.
The same kind of criticism is inherent in the exclusion of any kind of visual
memory from Claude Lantzmann’s film Shoah.
Recent publications within Holocaust studies have highlighted the problematic
aspects of imaginative representations of the Holocaust. Ever since Adorno
proclaimed that the Holocaust must not be figured in aesthetic discourse because “it
is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz” (87), discussion
has centered on the question of genre, most critics agreeing that only non-fictional
ego-documents can appropriately represent the Holocaust. There are technical
as well as ethical reasons for this view. Lawrence Langer has argued that Holocaust
literature differs from other meta-historical narratives because it does not
have the same artistic freedom:
When the Holocaust is the theme, history imposes limitations on the supposed
flexibility of artistic license. We are confronted by the perplexing challenge
of the reversal of normal creative procedure: instead of Holocaust fictions
liberating the facts and expanding the range of their implications, Holocaust
facts enclose the fictions, draw the reader into an ever narrower area of association,
where history and art stand guard over their respective territories, wary of
abuses that either may commit upon the other. (117)
Thus, it is seen as morally reprehensible to alter or manipulate
the historical facts, as imaginative discourse is invariably bound to do.
On the other hand,
Robert Scholes has rightly pointed out that “[a]ll writing, all composition,
is construction. We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it” (7).
Historiographic as well as imaginative representations of the Holocaust are
therefore necessarily manipulative and reductive. As James Young has argued,
even the experience of history is dependent upon cultural and narrative frames.
If such frames do not exist, historic events remain inaccessible to experience
and hence to representation. Narrative frames or meta-narratives therefore
do not distort history but allow it to be experienced and witnessed.
I would like to take up van Alphen’s suggestion that it is the lack of
conventional narrative frames that makes the Holocaust so difficult to represent.
Because there are no conventional narrative frames that fit the Holocaust,
survivors were not able to experience the historic events and hence they could
not talk about the events later on. This makes the Holocaust an “untellable
story”: “Untellable stories include those narratives that enfold
the inarticulable parts of our lives. Untold or told, these stories seem to
lack stability, coherency and sense in the ways we customarily evaluate stories
and narratives” (Hyland-Russell 100). Van Alphen discusses a number of
media and genres, both imaginative and documentary (historical autobiography,
Holocaust testimonies, movies, and art installations) and comes to the conclusion
that imaginative discourse is most suited to representing the Holocaust, because
unlike documentary evidence, which can never show the horror of the Holocaust
in its all-encompassing reality, imaginative discourse is able to create “Holocaust
effects.” “When I use the term Holocaust effect,” van Alphen
I do so to emphasize a contrast with the term Holocaust representation. A
representation is by definition mediated. It is an objectified account. The
Holocaust is made present in the representation of it by means of reference
to it. When I call something a Holocaust effect, I mean to say that we are
not confronted with a representation of the Holocaust, but that we, as viewers
or readers, experience directly a certain aspect of the Holocaust or of Nazism
. . . . In such moments the Holocaust is not re-presented, but rather presented
or re-enacted. (10)
Like the reality effect evoked by photography, the Holocaust effect is a performative
rather than a constative act; it does not seek to reproduce the horror of the
Holocaust, but provokes a reaction analogous to that experienced by Holocaust
The effect created by The Emigrants is slightly different from van Alphen’s
Holocaust effect. What is evoked in The Emigrants is not the experience of
Holocaust victims, but that of Holocaust survivors. Since the stories describe
not the Holocaust itself, but the difficulty of remembering and framing it,
The Emigrants creates a meta-poietic discourse. Perched between remembering
and forgetting, highlighting the comparative difficulties in verbal and pictorial
systems of memory storage, the imagetext of The Emigrants becomes itself a
site of remembrance. Memory and remembrance are the topics of the concluding
paragraphs of The Emigrants. After his final visit to the sick Max Aurach,
the narrator sits alone in his hotel room in Manchester when he is suddenly
visited by a set of memories. This sudden and uncontrollable mémoire
involontaire has both aural and pictorial aspects. It seems to the narrator
that he is hearing a music hall singer from the 1960s, a strange dwarf-like
creature by the name of Siegfried (352). This obscure aural presence is accompanied
by a set of images that appear on the backdrop of Siegfried’s imaginary
stage. The narrator then describes these mental images, which turn out to be
memories of an exhibition showing photographs taken in 1940 in the ghetto of
Lodz or Litzmannstadt (as it was then called).
These documentary photos, which come closer to representing the Holocaust than
anything else in The Emigrants, are not reproduced. We only see them with the
mental eye of the narrator, framed by the narrator’s associations. While
the emblematic pictures introducing the first two stories guide the reception
process by opening up an associative subspace, the concluding passage demonstrates
this evocative power of images through the narrator’s deeply personal
reaction. Thus, the reader is shown how a successful narrative framing of Holocaust
photos might work. In the narrator’s memory, the ghetto photographs become
laden with symbolic meaning. One photo in particular is singled out in his
imagination: the picture of the three carpet weavers. “I consider what
the names of these three women may have been,” the narrator reflects: “Roza,
Luisa and Leah or Nona, Decuma and Morta, daughters of the night, with spindle
and yarn and scissors” (355). In the narrative frame provided here, three
anonymous women in the Lodz ghetto are transformed into the mythological Fates,
staring straight at the spectator and determining the length of his life with
their scissors. This may seem ironic, since it was the fate of these women
which was cruelly determined at the Wannsee conference. But if we read this
evocative description together with the emblematic structure introducing The
Emigrants, we will understand that the narrator refers to the power the dead
hold over us, and the debt we owe them.
Adorno, Theodor W. “Engagement.” Notes to Literature.
Trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press,
1992. 2: 776-794.
Bal, Mieke. Double Exposures: The Subject of Cultural Analysis. New York: Routledge,
. “Narrative and the Visual and Literary Arts.” Aesthetics. Ed.
Michael Kelly. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 328-331.
— . Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999.
. Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Barthes, Roland. The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill
and Wang, 1986.
. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York:
Hill & Wang, 1981.
Boehm, Gottfried, ed. Was ist ein Bild? München: Fink, 1994.
Bruner, Jerome. “The Autobiographical Process.” Current Sociology
43.2-3 (1995): 161-177.
Burgin, Victor. The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Post-Modernity. Atlantic
Highlands: Humanities Press, 1986.
Detering, Heinrich. “Große Literatur für kleine Zeiten. Ein
Meisterwerk: W. G. Sebalds Die Ausgewanderten.” FAZ 17 Nov. 1992. Rpt.
in Far from Home: W. G. Sebald. Ed. Franz Loquai. Bamberg: Fussnoten zur Literatur,
Duras, Marguerite. Practicalities: Marguerite Duras Speaks to Michel Beaujour.
Trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.
Eakin, Paul John. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Easton, M. G. Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Thomas Nelson,
Freedman, Jill, and Gene Combs. Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction
of Preferred Realities. New York: Norton, 1996.
Gilmore, Leigh. Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Women’s Self-Representation.
New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Goetschel, Willi. “Zur Sprachlosigkeit von Bildern.” Bilder des
Holocaust: Literatur—Film—Bildende Kunst. Ed. Manuel Köppen
and Klaus Scherpe. Köln/Weimar/Wien: Böhlau, 1997. 131-144.
Gusdorf, Georges. “The Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” Autobiography:
Essays Theoretical and Critical. Ed. James Olney. Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1980. 28-48.
Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1997.
Holstein, James A., and Jaber F. Gubrium. The Self We Live By: Narrative Identity
in a Postmodern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hyland-Russell, Tara Diane. “The Storied Nautilus: Life Writing, Narrative
Therapy and Women’s Self-Storying.” Diss. University of Calgary,
Jaubert, Alain. Fotos, die lügen: Politik mit gefälschten Bildern.
Trans. Wolfgang Geiger and Silvia Hissen. Frankfurt: Athenäum, 1989.
Jean Paul. “Vorschule der Ästhetik.” Werke. Ed. Norbert Miller.
Vol.5. München: Hanser, 1960. 6 vols.
Langer, Lawrence L. “Fictional Facts and Factual Fictions.” Reflections
of the Holocaust in Art and Literature. Ed. Randolph L. Braham. New York: Institute
for Holocaust Studies, 1990. 117-130.
Lantzmann, Claude, dir. Shoah. Les Films Aleph and Historia Films, 1985.
Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Pöppel, Ernst. “Drei Welten des Wissens—Koordinaten einer
Wissenswelt.” Weltwissen—Wissenswelt. Ed. Christa Maar et al. Köln:
DuMont, 2000. 21-39.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University
Schacter, Daniel, and Elaine Scarry, eds. Memory, Brain and Belief. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2000.
Scholes, Robert. Structural Fabulation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame
Sebald, W. G. Die Ausgewanderten. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1994.
Tichborne, Chidiock. “Tichborne’s Elegy.” The Oxford Anthology
of English Literature. Ed. Frank Kermode and John Hollander. 2 vols. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1973. 1: 611.
van Alphen, Ernst. Caught by History. Stanford: Stanford University Press,
von Braun, Christina. Die schamlose Schönheit des Vergangenen: Zum Verhältnis
von Geschlecht und Geschichte. Frankfurt: Neue Kritik, 1989.
White, Michael, and David Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New
York: Norton, 1990.
Young, James. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences
of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.