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What Counts As True? Pictures and Fiction in W.G. Sebald
Paper Delivered at the European Summer School, Copenhagen, October 2004

First: Austerlitz is told at a constant remove. the book is told by an unnamed narrator, who carries no apparent content of its own. The narrator is merely a conduit. The book, tells the story of Jacques Austerlitz, the young son of Czech Jews, smuggled to Wales aboard one of the kinder transports which removed children from beneath the enormous fist hovering in the skies of Nazi Europe. The narrator recounts very long stories told to him by Austerlitz, sometimes told to Austerlitz by other characters, hearsay upon hearsay. The narrator, himself, is not a "player," in any of the novel’s episodes; but merely a medium through which Austerlitz’s story reaches us. Why not straight from the horse’s mouth? Why not from Austerlitz himself? Standing at a remove from the action, the narrator objectifies – that is, the narrator makes objective – not only the narration, but also the ability to narrate, to pick and to choose, to judge. Testimonies, contaminated by the subjectivities which convey them, are converted into narrative. The narrator – mediator and censor of testimony, of histories with a small h – becomes the creator of History with a capital H.

Second: Memory in Austerlitz is always corroborated or documented or contained in air-tight, vessel-like minds of by-standers and witnesses too innocent to doubt. When Austerlitz returns to his native, but forgotten Prague, seeking traces of his family name, he discovers in the city records, six Prague families during the war named Austerlitz. A visit to the first of those six addresses instantly and effortlessly (this is not Kafka) reunites him with his mother’s best friend (the nanny of his youth), whose picture-perfect memory is abetted by a heartbrokenness which places her memories beyond any suspicion of self-service or manipulation. In Austerlitz, when the characters’ memories fail, there is invariably a video tape or a written record. The impression is created that history’s memory is never lost, never inaccurate. Memory, in Austerlitz, acts like a steel cable upon which the funicular of our consciousness is suspended. The cable stretches from the terminus of time – which is the present moment – back to the truth which got us here, back to reality. Memory, the cable connecting origin to outcome, does not add or subtract cargo from the funicular; it does not alter or interpret the contents on their way from a to b. The cable is an objective facilitator: a taut, straight, line, bereft of subjective bending, fraying, or going astray.

Third: There is a funny kind of reliance placed on the photographs with which Sebald peppers not just Austerlitz, but all his texts. It is as if these photographs, or at least this funny kind of reliance has been shipped in from a previous time, perhaps aboard the funicular suspended from Sebald’s memorious cable, packed in ice so as to arrive freshly naïve, unspoilt by the cynicism which has turned so much of our contemporary sensibility; curdled our looking, poisoned our thinking. The meaning of each individual picture is negligible. It is the meaning of the pictures’ collective presence, which is crucial to the functioning of Sebald’s books. The photographs say that the narrator, the writer, (whoever), isn’t just making this stuff up. It’s out there in the world. The meaning of the photographs is that the objects in them are photographable: the buildings, the landscapes, the planes, the monuments, the trees, even the occasional person, exist. These photographs are admissible as evidence.

Perhaps it is the writer’s peculiar affliction to see the photograph as objective. Or perhaps it is just the writer who suffers this affliction most acutely. Where words struggle to identify the particular, the photograph effortlessly indicates a particularness that stands in metonymically for the universal. Every photographed object is particular essentially and essentially particular. The writer feels the objects which constitute the photograph’s objectivity. As Roland Barthes would have it in Camera Lucida, the photograph "is the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, matte and somehow stupid, the This." (Camera Lucida 4) Barthes relates the photograph to a "child pointing a finger at something and saying: that, there it is, lo!" (Camera Lucida 5) Should the reader begin to wonder about Sebald’s narrator’s motives or the author’s license with the narration: lo! there it is: a photograph to anchor the testimony to truth, the fiction to fact.

How does one justify the high judgment of Weiss’ work based on its objective dual identification with victim and perpetrator, placing it beyond the literature of those who identified themselves as victims alone? This strikes me as a self-serving judgment; one that assuages the conscience of the perpetrators themselves and of those most closely implicated: the sons and daughters of the perpetrators. Greater moral and aesthetic value lives in the works of writers like Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Tadeucz Borowski: the list, unfortunately, goes on. Writers, who – perhaps naively – refused to imagine the telos of the transformations of European society. Human beings who, innocently, at each juncture, each invasion, each successive erosion of civil rights; who, at each step toward the gas chamber, believed – because anything else was beyond belief – that this was as far as it would go. It is to their innocence – an innocence which rejects objectivity as literally incredible – that judgment – both artistic and philosophical – owes its allegiance.


Works Cited
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage, 2000.
Critchley, Simon. Very Little…Almost Nothing. London: Routledge, 1997
Derrida, Jacques. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.
Jaggi, Maya. "Recovered Memories." The Guardian, September 22, 2001. (,3605,555861,00.html 040821)
Levi, Carlo. Crist Stopped at Eboli. London: Penguin, 2000. (Originally published 1947.)
Lubow, Arthur. from "A Symposium on W.G. Sebald." 040821
Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Staurn. London: Vintage, 2002.
--- Austerlitz. London: Penguin, 2002.
---On The Natural History of Destruction. London: Penguin, 2004.

© 2004 Seth Kim-Cohen