Several critics have liked J.J. Long’s book W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity more than I did, and that’s fine. Scott Esposito’s s recent post at Conversational Reading, How Sebald Explains Modernity, does justice to Long’s complex and dense book and also gives me a chance to prolong the conversation a bit.
Conversational Reader writes “I found all [Long’s] cultural studies-type information to be valuable context for understanding Sebald; however, if you do not share my favor for this kind of contextual information and prefer criticism that sticks more to the text [and here he links to my post on Long’s book here on Vertigo], this book is probably not for you.” As I tried to say elsewhere, my unease with Long’s methodology is not that he is providing “context” for Sebald, but that I feel Long doesn’t draw a clear line between when he is providing his own “context” and when he is teasing out Sebald’s “text”. I know there is no black and white answer here, that this is a question of where one falls on a spectrum, but trying to negotiate this demarcation throughout Long’s book made me queasy.
There is one place that I would disagree with Conversational Reading‘s reading of Long and that has to do with Long’s “reading of Sebald’s photographs,” which comes in for very high praise. I’ll just throw down the gauntlet here and now and say that “reading” photographs is a parlor game not unlike interpreting dreams; it’s not a suitable academic exercise. Long’s “readings” of some of the photographs embedded in Sebald’s books amount to wish-fulfillment on his part. As perhaps the most egregious example, I would send readers to pages 55-61 of Long’s book where he attempts to tell us what one particular photograph from Vertigo means. As Long notes, Sebald is “strangely inconclusive” about any meaning for this photograph (is Sebald ever “conclusive” about what any photograph means?). So Long proceeds to do two things more or less simultaneously. He places the photograph within a larger historical context (no problem there). And, inappropriately, to my mind, he minutely analyzes the photograph as if it had a clear and fixed meaning.
By coincidence, Brian Oard at Mindful Pleasures has just posted some thoughts upon rereading Austerlitz. Some of his concluding remarks seem relevant.
At the end of the book, we the readers, the narrator and his protagonist are left reading the signs that history has left us, even as they are being erased…And interestingly,the ending might suggest that the written sign, a text in a book, is among the most durable of all. Buildings, as Sebald shows us, can be obliterated. Towns like Terezin can change utterly. But the witness of writing is more tenacious.