Austerlitz

W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz is, at first sight, a normal novel. OK, it doesn't have paragraphs but there is a fairly conventional narrator who recounts the story of a man called Austerlitz. The strange thing about the book is the photographs. They don't have any captions and appear seemingly at random through the text. Sometimes they relate directly to the story – a passage about a glass dome includes a photograph of a dome – at other times they appear without comment or elucidation. In many cases the pictures seem to provide a documentary anchor point. The story may be 'made up' but this dome, this fortress, this dysfunctional Palace of Justice, they must be real, look at the photographs!

The pictures range in style from informal snapshots to what look like old press photos or postcards. In many cases they're not very good (dark, poorly reproduced) but they are always intriguing. As we read the story – in which the central character tries to uncover his past – the photographs are part of the enigma, both for Austerlitz and the reader. They feel like fragments of evidence that can help us understand the book and point to things in the real world that we can see for ourselves.

At a public reading Sebald explained that the picture on the cover of the book (which we learn shows Austerlitz as a young boy) had been the 'point of departure' for the book, and that the photographs 'formed an intimate part of my working process'. Sebald's work has inspired many other writers including some who have also incorporated photographs in their own books. Since we first reviewed the novel Sebald has become an example for many people of the closer relationship between literature and photography and the changing way in which we think about photographs. I hope this film gives some indication why.

 

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