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Austerlitz and the Failure to Recover the Past

In the wake of the Holocaust, memory, or the lack thereof, becomes associated with narratives of survival and demise.  The perishing of memory, here, is tantamount to the death of an individual.

I have literally plunged right into the middle of my newly received copy of The Future of Text and Image (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), edited by Ofra Amihay and Lauren Walsh.  I decided to begin with Walsh’s own essay “The Madeleine Revisualized: Proustian Memory and Sebaldian Visuality,” which is part of the section called Text and Image in the Novel.  For an anthology dedicated to the relationship between different types of images and texts, Walsh heads off in an unexpected, almost contrarian direction in her study of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  She’s most interest in “what Sebald is doing in moments where photographs are not reproduced – specifically, moments of Proustian-like involuntary memory.” In Austerlitz, episodes involving involuntary recall play an important part as Jacques Austerlitz attempts to learn the true story of his parentage.  But curiously, Sebald, famous for inserting photographs directly into his narratives, doesn’t use photographs at these key moments.  Even more curiously, Sebald instead describes these moments as if he were describing a photograph, which Walsh terms “photo-textual memories.”

For example, Austerlitz’s “madeleine” moment occurs when he finds himself in London’s Liverpool Street station and realizes that this is where he arrived in England and was taken in by his adoptive parents when he was barely four years old.   In this suddenly-recovered memory of himself, Austerlitz describes himself in the third-person, as if looking upon an image of himself within a photograph:

Perhaps that is why, in the gloomy light of the waiting room, I also saw two middle-aged people dressed in the style of the thirties, a woman in a light gabardine coat with a hat at an angle on her head, and a thin man beside her wearing a dark suit and a dog collar.  And I not only saw the minister and his wife, said Austerlitz, I also saw the boy they had come to meet.  He was sitting on a bench by himself over to one side.  His legs, in white knee-length socks, did not reach the floor, and but for the small rucksack he was holding on his lap I don’t think I would have known him, said Austerlitz.  As it was, I recognized him by that rucksack of his, and for the first time in as far back as I can remember I recollected myself as a small child, at the moment when I realized that it must have been to this same waiting room that I had come on my arrival in England over half a century ago.

In another crucial episode, Austerlitz visits the theater in Prague where, as a small boy, he once saw his real mother perform on stage.  The visit leads to another important involuntary memory for Austerlitz.  Once again, significantly it would appear, Sebald does not insert a photograph into the text in spite of noting that Austerlitz used his camera to photograph the theater.  Instead of inserting Austerlitz’s photograph, Sebald provides the reader with a “photo-textual memory.”

Walsh ultimately concludes that Sebald’s work is a modern, post-Holocaust revision of Proust.  “Sebald offers no such promise of recapture [through memory].  In fact, to believe the past is recoverable in a re-experiential way is, he suggests, dangerous in settings where the stakes have risen so high – in the post-Holocaust setting.  Memory…is always a limited representation, not a true past regained.”  In fact, Walsh believes Sebald is suggesting that photographs work to block the act of memory and that he set out to challenge the “very belief in a documentary authority” for photographs.

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