A Bridge in Blythe, a Panorama in Waterloo and a Vortex in Time: Photography in the Novels of W.G. Sebald


Published in an abridged version in New York Arts 2005




Initially I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison.

Vladimir Nabokov - Speak Memory


There is in every photograph: the return of the dead. 

Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida


W. G. Sebald died in December of 2001 in a car accident in Norwich, England during a particularly bad winter when the roads had turned to ice. He suffered a brain aneurysm while driving with his daughter as a passenger, and he drifted off the road. Fortunately she survived the accident but Sebald never regained consciousness. He had said in an interview earlier that year: “I don’t think you can write from a compromised moral position.”[1] It’s a position that would put him at odds with much of the contemporary publishing industry. This helps explain, in part, why his early work in the 1980’s was shown in a fine art context in galleries and alternative spaces. There’s a certain logic to this unusual circumstance as that period was ripe with text and image work throughout Europe and the US, at least within the limited scope of the art world. While Sebald’s work can be fitted to measure within the general definition of text/image art, his poetics and sensibility were of a very different order, far removed from the turgid, parochial, conceits of conceptual art that dominated much of the art world in this period.

As one example of the general approach to Sebald during his own time here is the English-American literary critic James Wood: "...even the sad photographs, the most elegiac ones, have a kind of cheekiness, an amusing impertinence, as they sit there in their careful novelty on the page, quietly ensuring that Sebald's work can belong to no known literary genre." Woods' criticism generally expresses the perplexed response of the academy and the contemporary world of belles-lettres. That is, Woods is assuming that Sebald used photographs in order to make it impossible to classify his work - a typical strategy of post-modern artists - but the density of his multi-layered text makes this line of reasoning difficult to accept at face value - but still Woods refers to Sebald's presumed "amusing impertinence." Sebald's use of photography was not, as Mr. Woods seemed to believe, an attempt to efface the existing categories by which we might try to understand or place his work, but rather to create a new polyphonic approach to text that was already conscious of existing as literature within the fluid world of electronic media, meta-texts, photographs, collage, journals, histories, and most insistently, memoirs - in effect erasing the boundaries between these within the fictional space of his books. The text/image works that Sebald created were a literary response to that complex, contemporary, reality, not an artist's response to text/image conventions. Since he never once mentioned such rules in his work it is safe to assume they were of no interest to him. In his lifetime he published four novels that were translated into English: The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz; he also published a handful of poems in small journals; his only non-fiction work was, significantly, a book titled On the Natural History of Destruction - a study of the psychological effects on the civilian population of the allied bombing of Germany and the erasure of the memory of this catastrophic slaughter.


The Emigrants

The Emigrants

Sebald always seemed able to scrupulously capture some sense of emotional dislocation linked to personal experience in the midst of shifting historical realities. His characters always come to a crisis related to a past trauma that, through a chance encounter, comes again to the surface. They experience an overpowering emotion that they can’t fully grasp, despite the large amounts of history and philosophy they’ve studied and carefully erected as a foundation to their sense of reality – in effect their own erudition becomes a defense mechanism that takes over the organism that it means to protect. The past is not so much coexisting with the present in his books, but is a fully formed universe far more vast and profound than the thin veneer that we call the present; a sudden surprising opening to the past inevitably proves to be emotionally overwhelming – often devastating – to his characters. In his novels, a character’s delicate psyche is always rubbing up against bruising histories, both personal and historical. His characters are usually very openly rational, serious, reflective, self-contained. Many of the characters are obsessively involved in some investigation or field of study that is taking up all of their time and energy. These characters often have emotional difficulties coping with the photographs and ephemera – that is often a part of their study - that conjures the past in ways that insistently haunt the present in a traumatic way. There is an intuitive sense of the organic coexistence of all things, along with a strong sense of the relation between chance and historical determinism. In short, Sebald’s art is rooted in paradox. 

Winfried Georg Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau, Germany in 1944. In 1966 he became an assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester, settling permanently in this working class, industrial English city until his death in 2001. For most of that time he was a professor of German, and European Literature. His novels often feature a transplanted German emigrant living in England, yet the autobiographical nature of the narratives was ambiguous. Sentences often run on in his work, and the narrative voices are sometimes superimposed, similar to Joseph Conrad, but without the exotic associations with the primitive that run through Conrad’s work. They are elliptical and episodic to the extreme, and as conscious of the European literary tradition in their careful construction as Vladimir Nabokov (who inhabits the narrative of The Emigrants at different stages of his life). Their apparent open structure belied a highly formal architecture, a counterpoint of narrative strategies taking freely from such disparate elements as travel literature and classical history with no qualms about categorical imperatives. For a professor Sebald seems to have been profoundly non-academic in his indifference to the rules of the game. The first person narrator always seemed to come from another level of consciousness divorced from human concerns, beyond anger, lust, or death. It appeared that the vortex of history had swallowed the narrator up and that he (always a man) spoke from its depths as haunted as any character in Edgar Allan Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. Susan Sontag called Sebald a “militant elegist,”[2] which is a wonderful description of his central passion.


Air War and Literature

Air War and Literature

The Emigrants opens with a photograph of a large tree surrounded by an old graveyard. The text thereafter consists of four narratives – this is how it begins: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.”[3] The book opens with a paradox. The photograph of the tree in the graveyard can’t help but suggest both death and the endless, organic recycling of life in various forms. The work opens with the laconic first person “I” searching for new beginnings – a house with Clara – in search of “somewhere to live.” This would be the search of all the narrators in The Emigrants and in a sense of all of the narrators in every book Sebald wrote. In that beginning, the paradoxes of factual matter (gravestones under a tree) and narrative movement (searching for a home) come into play, setting the stage for the dramas that follow.

The works often use the familiar language of travel literature from magazines devoted to it, but there would then occur sudden shifts to academic historical narratives whose authenticity was, despite the seemingly serious tone, questionable. Readers sometimes wrote to him explaining mistakes in the novels. From The Rings of Saturn, we get a good idea of Sebald’s themes and his dry - one could say British - sense of humor: “Not far from the coast, between Southwold and Walberswick, a narrow iron bridge crosses the river Blyth where a long time ago ships heavily laden with wool made their way seaward…According to local historians, the train that ran on it had originally been built for the Emperor of China. Precisely which emperor had given this commission I have not succeeded in finding out, despite lengthy research; nor have I been able to discover why the order was never delivered or why this diminutive imperial train, which may have been intended to connect the Palace in Peking, then still surrounded by pinewoods, to one of the summer residences, ended up in service on a branch line of the Great Eastern Railway. The only thing the uncertain sources agree on is that the outlines of the imperial heraldic dragon, complete with a tail and somewhat clouded over by its own breath, could clearly be made out beneath the black paintwork of the carriages, which were used mainly by seaside holidaymakers and traveled at a maximum speed of sixteen miles per hour.”[4] A train meant for an unknown emperor in China – for reasons that clearly will remain a mystery – now services commuters on holiday in the suburbs of England. The heraldic dragon still on the side of the train becomes a comic metaphor of a history that has been almost obliterated; yet the original design comes through as in a palimpsest. So it is with histories writ large and small. The transplanted dragon in exile fades slowly in the workaday world of quotidian British tourism. This metaphoric use of the dragon, aside from the humor, gives us a good idea of Sebald’s relation to images and the ways in which he makes use of them in his novels.


The Rings of Saturn

The Rings of Saturn

From Austerlitz:  “Whenever I go out at Liverpool Street station on my way back to the East End, said Austerlitz… and feeling that constant wrenching inside me, a kind of heartache which I was beginning to sense, was caused by the vortex of past time… as I sometimes thought when I felt a cold breath of air on my forehead as we pass through them on our way through the station. I knew that on the site where the station stood marshy meadows had once extended to the city walls, meadows which froze over for months on end in the cold winters of the so-called Little Ice Age.” Like Nabokov Sebald believed that all of matter is organically related so in a sense objects and places share the emotional history of humans and perhaps retain their own memories. In literature this synesthesia is Nabokovian at heart and Sebald owes a debt, including the use of photographs, to Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory.  But in Nabokov’s work the photographs illustrate the text whereas in Sebald they compound the mystery of the text by using photographs, already loaded with narrative possibilities of their own, that then react to the narrative, and, as in a chemistry experiment, create a new compound narrative, or meta-narrative. These narratives then bounce off each other as in a hall of mirrors where ambiguity reaches a breaking point. Linear continuity is shattered and in its place there are episodic passages that touch each other (in every sense). 

Neither Sebald nor Nabokov was the first to use photography in their literary work. While photographs have been used as illustration since the beginning of the medium, starting with Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844) the use of pictures placed throughout a text enigmatically or poetically was first conceived, produced, and distributed by the artists of the early 20th century in collaboration with writers in an effort to create a new radical poetics that transformed the multilayered experience of the city into art. It was the Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, and Surrealists who sought ways of slowing down reading and looking by creating psychologically powerful enigmas in the confluence of text and image that would inspire curiosity, give pleasure, and take the work to a new level of meaning, or many meanings, simultaneously. The rationalism of images illustrating text in a straightforward manner was not simply avoided, but consciously derided and ridiculed - the most beautiful example of this is arguably Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte (A Week of Kindness). Other examples of unrestrained brilliance in this early period would be the photographs of Alexander Rodchenko in his collaboration with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in About This (1923), Richard Huelsenbeck and Hannah Hoch’s various collaborations with members of the Dada group, and Andre Breton’s collaboration with photographers such as J.A. Boiffard in Najda (1928). These examples of the confluence between literature and photography produced a new kind of distinctly seriocomic, urban poetics - one that had a profound influence on contemporary graphic design, film and literature.




In Austerlitz we see a photograph of a pretty girl, about twelve years old, holding a dog on her lap with some dolls at her feet. The photograph has rounded edges that are associated with photo albums from the early 20th century. Accompanying this image the narrator explains that a damn had been built where the village of Llandwddyn once stood submerging “at least forty houses and farms, together with the church of St. John of Jerusalem, three chapels and three pubs, all of them drowned when the dam was finished in the autumn of 1888.”[5] Austerlitz then ruminates on “...this notion of mine about the subaquatic existence of the people of Llanwddyn that also had something to do with the album which Elias first showed me on our return home that evening containing several photographs of his birthplace, now sunk beneath the water.” In the photograph of the little girl, the strange large shrub behind her does look like an underwater plant undulating with the movement of water. Austerlitz lets his imagination lead him:  “…the little girl sitting in a chair in the garden with her little dog on her lap, became as familiar to me as if I were living with them down at the bottom of the lake. At night before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water.”[6] The effect Sebald describes here of looking at pictures– more specifically pictures of people who are dead – is very close to Roland Barthes’ punctum when looking at the “Winter Garden” photograph of his dead mother. But as Austerlitz never met the girl in the picture his emotional attachment is purely his own creation. Barthes sums up his feelings toward that photograph in a justly celebrated piece of writing: “All the world’s photographs formed a Labyrinth. I knew that at the center of this Labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche’s prophecy: A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne. The Winter Garden Photograph was my Ariadne, not because it would help me discover a sacred thing (monster or treasure), but because it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward Photography." [7] Roland Barthes here gets to the heart of Sebald’s emotional need to enter photography – that is to find his family – the past - intact. The Photograph is the key that unlocks the imaginative universe that was for Austerlitz lost in time.

One sees that same emotional need at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), where the main character, an old professor, imagines he remembers his parents as young, fully and deliriously in the moment, swimming in a lake, and inviting him into the water to come and play and join in the fun. Bergman shows it in a medium long shot – as if it were from a point-of-view. Is the image a dream or a memory? We don’t know. But it’s an image of reconciliation and acceptance that for the professor in Bergman’s film links him to an earthly past that calls to him as part of a fragile chain of being – as it does Barthes in the imaginative presence of the Winter Garden Photograph, and in turn Austerlitz in the picture of the girl in front of a house holding the treasures from her childhood for a fraction of a second while a snapshot is taken.

Wild Strawberries  Ingmar Bergman - The past and the the present occupy the same space.

Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman - The past and the the present occupy the same space.


The photograph in this sense is a window into the world of the past from which the viewer is both invited and excluded – but of course the metaphor of the window in photography is one that Barthes carefully avoided since when he wrote Camera Lucida it was considered academic sacrilege of the most insipid and bourgeois sort. Barthes knew where all the mines and booby traps were hidden and masterfully navigated around all of them with his usual French elegance. Formalist and post-structuralist critics, such as John Tagg in The Burden of Representation, pounced with boring predictability on Barthes’ emotionally loaded text and attempted to discredit his ideas by insisting that photographs are exclusively another form of text. Nevertheless most non-academics were more open to the idea of the very powerful, sometimes chilling effects, that photography can induce whether we like it or not – effects that are still little understood, despite the amount of attention that the subject has received. The arguments about photography – especially when articulated by academics such as Tagg - tend toward a superficial one-dimensionality that misses the point. Intelligent people have been thinking about photographs for a long time. One of the most acute was Susan Sontag who explains Virginia Woolf's overly simple definition of photography that mirror's Taggs sophistry: “Photographs Woolf claims, ‘are not an argument; they are simply a crude statement of fact addressed to the eye.’ The truth is they are not “simply” anything, and certainly not regarded just as facts, by Woolf or anyone else." For, as she adds, "the eye is connected with the brain; the brain with the nervous system. That system sends its messages in a flash through every past memory and present feeling. This sleight of hand allows photographs to be both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality – a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense.”[8] Sontag, in five clearly written sentences, explains why photography is neither a statement nor a fact, but a complex image construction that is received not only by the eyes, but by the body. In effect every image, by this definition, is a meta-image. The photographs in Sebald’s work takes narrative fiction to another level of complexity not seen since the early days of Modernism with Joyce, Breton and Eliot. He in effect resurrected Modernism and brought it, as if on cue, to close out the 20th century. It is interesting that Sebald had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of photography but scrupulously avoided well known images, choosing primarily anonymous snapshots that were suggestive but impenetrable. 

In chapter five of The Rings of Saturn the ambiguous first person narrator informs us that he once took a holiday to Waterloo where "there were no visitors about on that leaden-grey day shortly before Christmas, but as if they had come to people this deserted state, a squad of characters in Napoleonic costume suddenly appeared tramping up and down the few streets, beating drums and blowing fifes; and bringing up the rear was a slatternly, garishly made-up woman pulling a curious hand-cart with a goose shut up in a cage.”[9] Once again we see Sebald’s familiar and comical juxtapositions of grand “heroic-history” with quotidian life that seem to be irreconcilable realities – but are they?



What the character in The Rings of Saturn is seeing is the recreation, performed every year, of the battle between the combined British and Russian forces against the French at Waterloo in 1815. It is, of course, a recreation that is meant to be both entertaining and instructive -  but is really more akin to a picnic during a high school play outdoors. Nevertheless Sebald makes us feel the seemingly limitless density of time between that event and the actors in costume in the late 20th century. If we follow Sebald’s thought we find ourselves thinking about time in a different way. History can easily appear as vast stretches of time with a few famous but emotionally distant names and dates to act as markers. Sebald first makes us aware of these gaps – these stretches of time in which thousands of people lived and died, and then proceeds to show the various ways the main character has failed in the attempt to reach out to the past – in this case the battle of Waterloo - and connect with it or comprehend it despite the sincere efforts of the state, and the popular culture that mediates such efforts, via a recreation of the battle of Waterloo in costume. 

But then he goes further and shows the process by which the character himself comes to the realization of his own failure. The narrator, after his experience with the staged battle, walks into the Waterloo Panorama “housed in an immense domed rotunda, where from a raised platform in the middle one can view the battle – a favorite subject with panorama artists - in every direction – it is like being at the center of events.”[10] Sebald here has some fun with realist artists for he has them use their rendering skills in perspective to present a false perspective – that is one in which we can see “everything” - in effect becoming gods – by using multiple vanishing points across a surface that is larger than the normal field of vision. This is an established (and establishment) form of rendering that is the backbone of realist art, tableau photography, and commercial cinema.

The narrator elaborates on his emotional response to this realism and he comes to some startling conclusions: “Across this horrific three dimensional scene, on which the cold dust of time has settled one’s gaze is drawn to the horizon, to the enormous mural, one hundred and ten yards by twelve, painted in 1912 by the French marine artist Louis Dumontin on the inner wall of the circus-like structure.”[11] One can’t let slip Sebald’s subtle references to the “circus-like structure” that suggests that the attempt to re-create history in this instance is more a circus act than any kind of documentary; and secondly that the artist painted it in 1912 – that is on the eve of World War I – a catastrophic war that would far surpass Waterloo in savagery, technological sophistication and numbers of people killed. The narrator sums up: “This then, I thought, as I looked around about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was. The desolate field extends all around where once fifty thousand soldiers and ten thousand horses met their end within a few hours. The night after the battle, the air must have been filled with death rattles and groans. Now there is nothing but the silent brown soil. Whatever became of the corpses and mortal remains? Are they buried under the memorial? Are we standing on a mountain of death? Is that our ultimate vantage point? Does one really have the much-vaunted historical overview from such a position?”[12] These are the central questions at the heart of Sebald’s writing - and the central argument - that is, that the past is fundamentally closed to us, except perhaps through imaginative intervention. That palpable sense of moral disgust that the narrator shares with the reader regarding the traditional realist approach - the Panorama - is Sebald’s epithet to a failed, insipid and facile art that never understood the complex, horrifying realities lying, in this case quite literally, under its very feet. 

We get closer to the essence of Sebald’s photographic inquiry when Austerlitz is shown a photograph of himself as a five year old dressed as a pageboy. It is the picture that is on the cover of the British and American editions of the book. He reflects that it is “as if the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us, remembered the roles that we, the survivors, and those no longer among us had played in our former lives.”[13] Later, he claims to have examined the photograph in great detail with a magnifying glass “without once finding the slightest clue. And is doing so I always felt the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the gray light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.”[14] Walter Benjamin articulated a very similar sentiment succinctly in his famous passage from his study of Baudelaire: “To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.”[15] Immediately after this scene the character significantly recalls a dream: “I dreamed of returning to the flat in Prague after a long absence. All the furniture is in its proper place. I know that my parents will soon be back from their holiday, and there is something important I must give them. I am not aware that they have been dead for years. I simply think that they must be very old, around ninety or a hundred, as indeed they would be if they were still alive. But when at last they come through the door they are in their mid-thirties at most.”[16] The link to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is most acute in this scene.



In the following page Sebald sums up his reflections on photography and the past this way: “It seems to me Austerlitz added, that we do not understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between the living and the dead…”[17] Stereometry is the measurement of volumes, such as a sphere or a cylinder, using geometry.  Austerlitz is still searching for a coherent system (is there a more rational one than geometry?) that will answer the riddle of time. That he went searching for answers in a photograph is logical, since photography does in a literal sense combine geometry and time. But what he found was that the picture looked back at him across an abyss. In the symbolic dream with his parents Austerlitz had something important to give them - surely that thing was himself – his love - and the photograph is a trace of the need for that crucial exchange which in reality probably never occurred, but it does within the sphere of creative imagination – or what is sometimes called art.

The detritus of everyday life that we see throughout Sebald’s text, such as discarded railway tickets, hotel invoices, and most conspicuously snapshots, take on a powerful role in the narratives as evidence of a life that once was and is no more. As in Tolstoy, personal histories parallel the larger historical parts of the narrative, but unlike the Russian master, never in a one to one relationship; there is always some attenuation, some digression that links up with other obscure facts that make each situation unique, eccentric and ultimately unknowable. Every moment of the present in Sebald is singularly banal and mysterious - an intersection of possibilities in which thousands of years of planned and chance encounters have come down to a certain moment in time/space. This makes each of these moments – what we mere mortals call now - a window of opportunity and a stage on which chance and fate play their respective parts. This evanescent “now” then vanishes into the past along with everything else irredeemably lost to us. But unlike the Viennese iconoclast Thomas Bernhard, who was an influence on Sebald’s writing, for whom this state of affairs was an intolerable black comedy, Sebald takes a more balanced approach that looks beyond the horror of time as merely a short road to oblivion. Sebald’s work, like James Joyce’s, another major influence, gets the nuances, the treasures, to be found in the small moments – such as the lifting of a pint in a pub after work – and is able to connect it with the various larger realities to which this gesture belongs. Such a sensibility cannot help but see comedy and tragedy, pivotal historical moments and everyday life, as an organic whole. In a sense this viewpoint makes every moment precious since it is preordained that it must, like everything else, pass into oblivion or into some cosmological sense of time that we can perhaps never understand.  We can only infer and see glimpses – or write novels. Sebald was an artist fascinated by the complex, organic minutiae of the quotidian at the expense of any theory that might explain reality by fitting it into an organized system of knowledge. Ironically this puts him completely at odds with the conceptual art to which he was originally associated due to his work’s superficial relationship to the fine art of his own time.

Sebald’s work described the present better than anyone at the end of a century that saw more people die violently or go into exile than any before it. Considering human history in even a perfunctory way, this is a considerable record.  The only way to convey the seriousness of these themes for him was with the full weight of history felt in every page. Only then could he achieve the overall effect that his work produces - that is, we sense that we have seen the past in the form of the tip of an iceberg the size of a continent. The glimpse into this “vortex of time," as he called it, is dizzying when we intuit what might be under that tip. The author describes coexistent multiplicities perceived by a consciousness that is able to – if only for a moment – see itself in relation to its own different interlocking pasts: personal, historical, anthropological, geological, and cosmological. 

This vast multifaceted world acts like an assortment of atoms of various densities in a controlled experiment whose final aim seems to be the elucidation of a soul pressed upon by history. Yet for Sebald in a sense there was no “History” and there was no “Humanity.” There were only specific individuals caught in specific places and times. “History” and “Humanity” are only concepts, marble statues that resemble us in some tidy, generic form but lack all depth, all awkwardness, all humor, all reality. Sebald in his novels returns this mongrel reality to us in fragments, contingent and unresolved, broken to bits and filtered through various conventions and non-sequiturs because that is how we find it - piecemeal and incomplete. That’s us. In his work, the voices we hear and the fragments of lives that we see in the text and in the photographs many of the dead who never found their way into History finally find a voice and, not surprisingly, they have much to tell us.  


The Emigrants

The Emigrants

Porcari ©2005

[1] Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. The Emergence of Memory: Conversations With W.G. Sebald. Seven Stories Press, 2007

[2] Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others Picador 2002

[3] W.G. Sebald, The Emmigrants. New Directions, 1997

[4] W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn

[5] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz.

[6] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz.

[7] Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida. Hill and Wang, 1981.

[8] Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others Picador 2002

[9] W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn

[10] W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn

[11] W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn

[12] W.G. Sebald The Rings of Saturn

[13] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

[14] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

[15] Walter Benjamin. On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.

[16] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

[17] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz