"Again and again, from front to back and from back to front, I leafed through the album that afternoon, and since then I have returned to it time and again, because, looking at the pictures, in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them."
The above quote is from The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, a novel that I’ve been reading about several German Jewish Emigrants which includes photographs interspersed throughout its narrative.
While reading I wonder, where did these pictures come from? Several purport to show characters or ancestors of characters in the book. Does that mean these characters are real, and this is a researched historical work? How did the author come across these pictures? Did he stage some? Did he take any of them himself or were they all found or given to him? No answer is apparent.
The photographs are included at various points throughout the book. Not on every page, but on more than a few. Sometimes they are directly referenced in the text: their origin is told to us, they are described, the circumstances of their capture are elucidated, the narrator gives his opinion of them or tells us how they make him feel. Other times there is no commentary, only the photo or a group of photos that add to the story in a less defined way.
The Emigrants is a wonderful book whose power sets in slowly as you progress through it, even though it is rather short. The story itself is divided into four parts, each pertaining to a particular exile whom the narrator either meets or learns about secondhand. Comprehensive biographies are laid out for us but the tragedy of the Holocaust–the characters all lose something, be it family, their homes, their jobs–looms large. Sebald writes thorough, occasionally heartbreaking accounts of lives caught up in the sweeping drifts of history. His is an earnest, even sense of tragedy which is all the more profound for its relegation to the margins of the stories. Human beings are fleshed out for us, even when there are gaps in the information, who are profoundly impacted by the events of a particular period but who existed at other times as well and so cannot be reduced to flat victims. There is humor and hope. Sorrow is a dark foil peaking through the mundane moments that make up days and years passing by.
I think a big part of what makes Sebald’s writing so effective is his use of precise details, especially when rendering scenes in memories that are removed from the framing narrator’s own experience or personal timeline. This is a snippet from a memoir written by the mother of one of emigrants with whom the narrator spends the most time, and who gives him the document to keep and read:
"The next day, the green shutters of the window remain shut, and when we children are eating our sandwiches down in the playground we wonder what can be going on in there. And then, every Thursday morning mama draws a fish on the waxed paper she wraps the sandwiches in, so that we won't forget to buy half a dozen barbels from the fish man on our way home from the kindergarten."
This is interesting to me because photographs are similarly precise in the way that they capture all of the details of a scene at once and do not leave out small elements, so long as they are in the frame, in the way that natural recollections always might, intentionally or by accident. However, what the photographs with their “complete” information add to Sebald’s accounts is actually more ambiguity. The words recount stories and observations in certain terms, while the images break the flow of the text and induce us to pause and consider the contents of the frame in a less directed way. Thus, our response to them may be even more subjective and personal than to the text itself, though of course the consumption of any art elicits and individually informed response. The pictures in Sebald’s book contribute to the literary experience of reading the work in a way which is outside of language but also complementary to it. They are a surprising, moving addition to a special text.
Even though photographic truth is becoming a less widely accepted notion, photographs are still often freighted with a particular authority as proof or evidence. I find it fascinating that alongside Sebald’s descriptions, which afford us such particular, nuanced, real-seeming views of his subjects, the images are far less informative than the text. Is this so different from pictures we see in the news, which speak to us first archetypally–this is war, poverty, politics, sport–and are then resolved into the events of the day with the help of headers and captions?