I have studied the photograph many times since, the bare, level field where I am standing, although I cannot think where it was. . . . I examined every detail under a magnifying glass without once finding the slightest clue. And in 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.
Thursday, June 15, 2017
June 5 & 12, 2017 Issue
Hooray! James Wood is back. He has an excellent piece in this week’s issue. Titled “The Other Side of Silence,” it’s a consideration of W. G. Sebald’s fiction. It focuses on an unlikely topic – Sebald’s comedy. As Wood notes in his piece, comedy isn’t usually associated with Sebald. When I think of Sebald’s novels, I think of death. But in “The Other Side of Silence,” Wood suggests that Sebald’s fiction has “an eccentric playfulness.” He provides several examples, including one from The Emigrants involving a “teas-maid,” which Wood describes as “an ungainly machine, popular at the time, that contained a clock and an electric kettle; it could wake you up with morning tea.” Wood writes, “Sebald approaches this cozy English object with mock-solemn gingerliness, as if he were an anthropologist presenting one of his exhibits.” I’d completely forgotten about this scene. But now that Wood has drawn my attention to it, I can see a mild, eccentric sort of humor in it. The same applies to his other examples of Sebald’s comedy.
I like the way Wood segues from Sebald’s comedy to Sebald’s use of photographs. He says, “The playful side of Sebald’s originality made him a consumingly interesting and unpredictable artificer.” This leads into a fascinating discussion of the way Sebald uses photographs in his novels. Wood says,
Few writers have used photographs in quite the way Sebald does, scattering them, without captions, throughout the text, so that the reader can’t be sure, exactly, how the writing and the photographs relate to each other, or, indeed, whether the photographs disclose what they purport to.
Brilliantly, Wood connects Sebald’s Austerlitz photos with what he says is Austerlitz’s central theme – retrieval. He writes that the effort of retrieval can be felt “whenever we stare at one of Sebald’s dusky, uncaptioned photographs, and it is not coincidental that photography plays the largest role in the two Sebald books that deal centrally with the Holocaust, The Emigrants and Austerlitz.”
Referring to Austerlitz, Wood writes,
What does it mean to stare at a photograph of a little boy who is “supposed” to be Jacques Austerlitz, when “Jacques Austerlitz” is nothing more than a fictional character invented by W. G. Sebald? Who is the actual boy who stares at us from the cover of this novel? We will probably never know. It is indeed an eerie photograph, and Sebald makes Austerlitz say of it:
The boy does seem to be demanding something from us, and I imagine that this is why, when Sebald came across the photograph, he chose it. Presumably, he found it in a box of old postcards and snapshots, in one of the antique shops he enjoyed rummaging through. In 2011, while working on an introduction to “Austerlitz,” I had a chance to examine the Sebald archive—manuscripts, old photographs, letters, and the like—at the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, in Marbach am Neckar, and there I found the postcard that bears the boy’s image. Eager for a “clue,” I turned it over. On the reverse side, there was nothing more than the name of an English town and a price, written in ink: “Stockport: 30p.”
Amazing! The origin of Austerlitz is sourced in the image on this found postcard. In the novel, Jacques Austerlitz is rescued by the Kindertransport; he averts the misfortune lying ahead of him. Of Sebald’s writing, Wood says, “What animates his project is the task of saving the dead, retrieving them through representation.” I value this observation immensely. For me, it’s one of art’s raisons d'être.