The most compelling motive for including a photograph in a fiction is to discount it. There are forty-four plates in André Breton’s Nadja and not one of them clarifies a thing. The snaps from Koos Prinsloo’s family album seem more unreal, more obviously made up than his fictions. In Sebald, the images are cut down to size and drained of authority. They are always less than or more than illustrative; they do not live up to the text or they carry an excess that demands an explanation. Their purpose is less to define than to disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of the prose. They are pebbles and weirs.
So writes Ivan Vladislavić in his book The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories (Seagull Books, 2012). It’s a fragment from his notebooks, written in 2003. Vladislavić is right. Photographs (and here, I imagine,we can safely substitute the term “images”) that are placed within a literary text – even those images that are essentially illustrative – disrupt our flow and force the reading brain to process, puzzle, recalibrate, accommodate. But don’t these terms also describe how we read most literary texts even thought they are purely textual? We all know texts in which every chapter, every paragraph, sometimes every sentence forces us to essentially rethink the entire book up to that point. In fact, I think it can be argued that one aspect of literature – perhaps especially of poetry – is that the text continually disrupts itself. So the real question, it seems to me, is whether images disrupt texts differently. Read more