Pairing image with text in a narrative is contradictory: the flowing voice of the narrator with the frozen, almost totemic, images, is a strange combination. The experience of the novel is oddly anti-nostalgic. The recounting of memory, of four different German expatriates, in Sebald’s The Emigrants, the text reads like a journal entry, as if the reader has stumbled upon a found notebook, scribbled with memories, and affixed with images, almost as if, negating the idea of a novel. The images gesture toward a heuristic, as if they are supposed to add meaning to the text.
For example, the image of a train track, with a copse of trees in the background is coupled with “In January 1984 news reached me … that on the evening of the 30th of December … Paul Beryter, who had been my teacher at primary school, had put an end to his life” (27). Floating above the narrative voice stands the image of a train track, taken at ground level as if the photographer were lying on his stomach on top of the rails. The track curves a little to the right and vanishes out of view where the school teacher, apparently, “had lain himself down in front of a train” (27). The “photographer” is the character, a stolen shot, of his own death. Looking at the image, the punctum is the shot of the skewed line punctuated with the narrator’s voice. The meaning of the passage is inextricably linked with the image itself. Removed from the pastiche of story, the image is not a referent to the story; it could be inserted into any other narrative of train tracks in the woods, and take on another meaning, altogether.
But, here, as if purposely placed to evoke expression, like the drawing of Beyaert’s classroom (33) coupled with the expression in the text of recognition of another classmate who schooled with the narrator under Bereyter’s instruction. The two, “immediately recognized each other,” both separately reading in the British Museum, coincidentally looking up and noticing one another “despite the quarter-century that had passed” (33). The drawing of the classroom seating plan somehow is supposed to evoke the chance meeting of the two students, and their discussion of their dead professor.
The plan of the classroom, assigned by Bereyter as a classroom assignment, apparently an exercise in drawing space to scale, becomes a memento of both the student’s meeting together by chance in the British Museum, and also, an object representing their shared time in the same classroom in 1946. The images are not seemingly “pictures” of the past. They are rather representations. For example, the photographs of the school children seem to be archival, meaning that they are not autobiographical. The narrator says, about the pictures, apart from his own shared experiences (not pictured) that he was “scarcely distinguishable from those pictured here, a class that included myself” (47). But, you are not supposed to point him out. Nor is the stern teacher in the background supposed to be Beyert. It is as if the history is lost but the images remain.
Book Review: The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
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