W. G. Sebald: Writing Pictures

Rick Poynor on W. G. Sebald's use of photography and archival imagery
A spread from W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz.
Rick Poynor of Design Observer discusses the role and importance of imagery in the work of the late experimental novelist, W. G. Sebald:
Sebald is brilliantly visual. He makes you realize with some discomfort that you often fail to look attentively enough at what you see. Another novelist referred to the “phenomenal configuration” of the author’s mind and what astonishes and delights in Sebald’s sentences, superbly rendered by his translators, is his ability to convey not just the detail of so many things hitting the senses in a rain of fleeting simultaneous impressions, but the precise emotional shading and personal import of each of these moments. His eye records with photographic accuracy and then these perceptions are recovered from memory and reconstituted as fictional experience with the same exhilaratingly scrupulous fidelity. The complication in Sebald’s writing, which he apparently intended, lies in our uncertainty about how much of what he describes derives from his own experiences (seemingly a lot) and how much of it is largely or entirely imagined. Based on a reading of the books alone, the narrators show every sign of being Sebald himself, but we know from what he has said elsewhere that these melancholy figures are fictionalized versions of the author.

Another striking aspect of the books is the use Sebald makes of photographs and other visual material, such as architectural plans, engravings, paintings and restaurant bills. He drops these uncaptioned images into the text, providing an additional level of documentary “evidence,” and you become convinced that Sebald really must have undertaken the walk or visited the building that his narrator describes. Literary reviewers usually note the presence of these images, acknowledging that they add to the books’ unique flavor, but their role in the composition of the texts and the exact ways in which text and images relate to each other have received little attention. [Read more]

Also at A Piece of Monologue