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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Camera Obscura

I have said that, in Emigrants, Max Sebald relied for content on the stories of real people, including an unnamed narrator who was similar to the real author, Max Sebald. However, although the stories were accounts of peoples’ lives, he added fictional elements to the narrative.

I’m going to say that this creative process is similar to the process a painter uses in creating a painting.

Recently, I visited the Frick Collection and reveled in the experience of standing close (not too close!) to Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Whistlers (among others.)

(whiny voice: How pretentious.)

Vermeer created lovely images, usually of people indoors, people who were engaged in something. You get the sense looking at these paintings that you’re seeing a story, that along with the painting’s title, you can make meaning of what the “people” in the painting are doing. So that, in Mistress and Maid, a well-dressed young woman is seated at a table, and an older woman, perhaps a servant by her attire, emerges from the shadows to hand the seated woman a letter. The imagination can run wild with this. It’s possibly a love letter, entrusted to the servant to deliver in secrecy. The painting picks out this moment, removing the sense of time, making it eternal. It organizes the figures in a certain way, shows them in a certain way, as far as the color of their clothes, the tones of their skin, their posture. The background of the painting is in deep shadow, so that the eye focuses on the foreground where there is a play of light. The faces of the woman and the servant are full of expression: expectant, surprised, excited. Were these “real” people observed by Vermeer? We don’t really know. They do not seem to be particular, named individuals whom Vermeer was hired to portray. Perhaps they were models showing a certain scene or transaction the artist found of interest.

In Emigrants, Sebald employs a similar method, albeit in a different medium. His models were “real” people whose stories he embellished with various fictional instead of painterly techniques (more on this below), in order to create a work of art, not a biography or history. He chose a particular focus, picking out a “story” from the randomness of real life, a story centering on the experience of emigrants, of loss and despair.

Here’s a further comparison with painting, best beloved.

(Must we? And I'm not your best beloved).

In the Frick in its current home at the Breuer in NYC, you can experience a room full of the finest in eighteenth century English portraiture, Reynolds, Romney, Beechey (yes, Beechey). These are mimetic images of particular people. If you knew these folks, you would recognize that the paintings were of them. They were famous and/or wealthy enough to commission the paintings. They’re beautifully done, and with the passage of time, have become more “art” than portrait—as we contemporary humans don’t always know who the subjects were.

Then in the next room there are four paintings by Whistler that I think are much closer in spirit to Emigrants. They are of particular people, perhaps commissioned (I don’t know), but their titles are things like “Arrangement in Brown and Black,” and clearly focus less on the people depicted and more on the arrangement of color, the form, the look of the clothes and faces. They seem more posed—not in an artificial way, but artistic. They create a mood and show people who seem familiar, beautiful and provocative.

Like Emigrants, best beloved.

So what fictional techniques does Sebald use?

One is a completely reliable, assured and intelligent narrator, who is able to draw on a wealth of literary and cultural knowledge to present the stories. When the narrator of Emigrants relates that he and “Clara” drove out from Norwich to rent an apartment, the reader has no reason to doubt its accuracy. However, some digging reveals that Sebald’s wife was not named Clara, and that the real house “they” rented was in a different town. “Real” people are not infallible; they distort the stories they describe, and are rarely (some say never) the narrator beasties encountered in fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with this “fictionalization”—unless the author is writing biography and/or history—or gives no warning that she/he is making stuff up for the sake of a good story (for the sake of art). If one writes a text that is classified as “fiction” the reader assumes that some artistic license has been taken, even in the most realist of books. Real life is not story-like; real life has a lot of coincidence, and is not neatly contained by story-arcs and plots that resolve.

Real life doesn’t really resolve. (Maybe that’s why fiction is so enjoyable).

Repetition and mirroring is another “Sebaldian” fictional device. There is an eerie mirroring among the stories of Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, Max Ferber and the narrator. In Max Ferber in particular, the narrator’s story blends with Ferber’s to such a degree it’s hard to distinguish them at times. The author of Emigrants has selected four stories that show something about his theme—the plight of the dispossessed, what the emigrant has lost.

The style of Emigrants is another technique, beautiful and digressive prose that captures more of the associations and meanderings of human consciousness than the imposed order of historical writing. And the evocative photographs which often appear to show particular elements of the narrative. Thus, as the narrator describes reading the journal of Ambros Adelwarth, there is a photograph of an old journal. It might or might not be Ambros’ “real” journal.

‘Kay. A great experience to read. Next week, a new book, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Till then, my friends.

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald

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