THE AUTHOR IS NOT DEAD: W.G. SEBALD AND BRUNO SCHULZ
THE ROLE OF THE SELF IN NOVELS
AN ARTICLE SERIES
THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR (AND THE USE OF PHOTOGRAPHS IN WRITING)
THE W.G. SEBALD & BRUNO SCHULZ EXAMPLE
We are all unreliable narrators. We record our lives and share with others. We tell them about our fears and dreams, leaving out the most incriminating or embarrassing parts. We brag about our achievements, trying not to sound too proud. We lie. Oh, how we lie! To them, to you, to ourselves. Our past and history are littered with unreliable storylines and made-up facts in service of some convenient truth or another.
In the modern history of literature, autobiography has been the pillar of authentic writing, where the reader seems to have an inherent faith in the I-narrator and expects that the truth will not be ambiguous or be blurred by fiction; belonging to another genre. The author simply tells us the real story of their life, as they experienced it, so how can this not be true?
I am sitting on the small balcony of my summer house, on the island of Evia, which is largely ignored by tourists, at least the foreign kind, and highly underestimated, which benefits me, as I am not too eager to be surrounded by people, when I have a chance to escape the city buzz and come here to relax.
This is where my upcoming novel is set, the one I have been writing on for the past couple of years, and I have spent a lot of time studying the landscape and its variations, especially focusing on the colours and smells, the subtle scents and fragrances of salt and thyme always present, and the continuous play of contrasts created by wind and clouds, waves and currents; and the sun, arching slowly across the sky as it directs the daily movements of every living thing below.
I have been taking a lot of photos these past two years, both the actual kind and the ones only stored in my memory, on my many road trips, and walks, trying to capture the mystical essence of this place that keeps eluding me, although I can feel it inside whenever I close my eyes and think back on a specific place I have paused to take in.
Because I find it hard to recognise that essence in the present tense, if you will, the here and now, where I rest my eyes on the mountain peak in the distance, or the wave-beaten rock in the bay, where a solitary great black cormorant sits like an iron statue, curving its neck as in prayer, or meditation; so sorrowful is its presence, that I feel a need to get to know it; to connect with this ancient creature somehow.
So I prefer to write in the past tense, and I will jump in time and space as it pleases me. Because that is how I am able to connect and disconnect with the various parts of my memory-brain, which is filled with emotional little creatures, that seem to be most active when I create little games for them to play, like with children, when we allow them to question everything and to discover their surroundings without the hampering influence of an adult. As I have been doing right now.
And I might have forgotten to tell you that I am in fact not sitting on the balcony of my summer house on the Evia island, but in my local coffee-shop in the middle of suburban Athens, sipping the last drops of a black brew, now cold and tasteless, and with the view of a dirty street in front of me, with worn down apartment buildings and some bleak green trees, standing scattered along gum-stained pavements and in pitiful gardens. There are no scent of thyme and salt water here, only a smell of slow-burning cigarettes and human sweat, with a tint of exhaust fumes seeping in every time the door opens and closes.
You see, I need distance to interpret and understand. And I need to create a story that will allow my subjective experience to be remoulded into an objective form; to fictionalise my experience, so that my many layers of obstruction can be bypassed and grant me access to the well of universal knowledge flowing somewhere deep within.
There are many ways to reach this space, but I have found that playfulness and unreliability are especially effective, and are not used with the purpose to trick the reader for the fun of it, but to trigger the reader’s mind to disconnect and open up to the same mode of discovery that I, the narrator, experience when writing my story.
There are two specific authors who come to mind when I think of playfulness and unreliability in writing: W.G. Sebald, the German-born writer and academic who only had time to write four brilliant novels before he tragically died in a car accident, and Bruno Schulz, who only had time to publish two short-story collections, and suffered an even worse fate of a Nazi officer’s bullet to the head. There are also other interesting parallels between these two authors: One experiencing the holocaust first hand, and one devoting his life to writing about it. But we have to leave that for another time, because I want to first of all focus on their unreliable I-narrators and the unreliability of memory that they both explore.
Starting with Sebald, you could say that he who wrote about history in a larger scope than Schultz. The latter derived his fantastical prose from his adolescence family-life experience in the small town of Drohobych, where he spent most of his life “…looking inward and close to home rather than to the world at large.” Sebald also differs from Schultz by the active use of photographs and other visual documentation in his stories, although Schultz stories also feature drawings (his own), which you could argue influence the reader in a similar way to question and connect with the real life of the author/narrator, but not as effectively.
I find it difficult to speak about W.G. Sebald, because he is as elusive as his fiction, and at times it seems that he was toying with us, the readers, jumping in and out of fiction and reality, sometimes adding photographs or other documentation, either directly linked to story, or seemingly randomly placed, making us guess why on earth he put it there.
The main theme of his novels is the unreliability of memory and historical memory. This becomes apparent already in the first chapter of his debut novel Vertigo: “… for in reality, as we know, everything is always quite different… even when the images supplied by memory are true to life one can place little confidence in them,” the narrator explains to us, as he unfolds the story and experiences of the seventeen-year-old Napoleon soldier Marie Henri Beyle.
At the same time, already on the third page, he serves us what he calls “eloquent proof” by referring to the later written notes of 53-year-old Beyle “attempting to relive the tribulations of those days” and then explains to us that Beyle himself questions the reliability of his own memory: “It seemed to him that his impressions had been erased by the very violence of their impact.”
The narrator even explains that Beyle advises not to rely on reproduced images (“engravings of fine views and prospects”) of scenes that have made a strong impression on you in real life, because “…before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.” He thereby sets us up, the readers, to question the reliability of the narrator’s (or Sebald himself) recollection and his selection of sketches and images he has chosen to “verify” the existence and history of this French teenager.
It is the beginning of a novel which I believe is meant to confuse and intrigue your mind into some kind of (voluntary) submission that will give you access to Sebald’s own inner world. And he keeps up this game, not meant to trick but to treat, throughout the stories, pulling you with him into this dream-like, unsettling universe which turns out to provide invaluable gems of knowledge and personal experiences, with sudden deep-felt realizations springing on you out of nowhere after pages upon pages of subtle buildup and hints. It is simply impossible not to be affected.
With his innovative style, influenced by the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard, but still very unique, Sebald forces us to question the presented facts about his characters’ and narrator’s life and history, and most importantly, question ourselves and the layers of fiction tainting the perceived facts of our own memories.
In Part 6 we'll dive even deeper into the work of Sebald and his use of photographs. What's the use of a photograph in a work of writing, how does it inform the memory process we've discussed, and how does the reader perceive this visual element?
Evers, Stuart. “Do pictures add to a writer's vision?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 23 May 2008, www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/may/23/imagesinbooks.
Heidt, Todd. “Image and Text, Fact and Fiction: Narrating W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants in the First Person.” Image and Narrative, May 2008, www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/autofiction2/heidt.html.
The "Self" article series is a hunt for authenticity and true artistic output. It investigates the thin line between fiction and non-fiction in contemporary and modern literature, from Bruno Schultz to Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors who poured their own life history into their novels without compromise, in search for the authentic voice within themselves that resonates so clearly with their readers willing to listen.
Comment below to let me know what you think!
A life balance artist with a determination to get the best out of both worlds while refusing to accept limitation of time and demanding social obligations. He has been a regular contributor on the magazine and his short story "The Weight of Those Flies" was published by Kingston University Press in 2016. He is currently working on his debut novel.