W. G. Sebald’s Deepfakes: On “Shadows of Reality”

By Adam SobseyJanuary 24, 2024

W. G. Sebald’s Deepfakes: On “Shadows of Reality”

Shadows of Reality: A Catalogue of W. G. Sebald’s Photographic Materials by W. G. Sebald

ONE OF THE oddest things about novelist and essayist W. G. Sebald’s use of photographs in his work is how easy he made it to ignore them. “They must not stand out,” he insisted, but must be as “leaden” as the text, and he went out of his way to degrade their quality and remove any aesthetic interest they might have. A stock-looking photo of a moth during a discussion of moths, or a blurry picture of the place where the narrative is unfolding: images like these, scattered throughout his books, are often at once redundant and vague. They disrupt and distract, confuse and bore.

We might find more interest, and feel ourselves on firmer footing, when we see, for instance, a picture of the person we’re reading about. But then we remember that we’re reading fiction: there is no person we’re reading about, and our footing slips. We might also notice, as writer and translator Amanda Hopkinson points out, that at least one of the landscape pictures Sebald includes is not an image of the place we are reading about at all. He seems to enjoy faking us out with ringers and forgeries, or as he once put it, to use photographs to play what he called “complex games of hide-and-seek with the reader.” Hide-and-seek is exactly what it feels like when Sebald occasionally pops up in his own pages, like Hitchcock in his films (or Nabokov in each chapter of Sebald’s 1992 book The Emigrants). It is as if he’s winking at us from behind his camera (or pen): don’t fall for this trick or its performer—what Sebald called, in his posthumously published Corsican travelogue Campo Santo (2003), photography’s “dubious magic.”

Nick Warr, in his introduction to Shadows of Reality: A Catalogue of W. G. Sebald’s Photographic Materials (2023), calls this dubious magic Sebald’s “epistemological misalignment of the images and the prose.” That misalignment was essential to creating Sebald’s vertiginous balance between fiction and nonfiction—paradoxically, by performing an ingenious unbalancing act in which the photos play an indispensable role. One of Shadows of Reality’s essayists, Angela Breidbach, goes so far as to argue that the images, far from interfering with the authority (and our enjoyment) of the text or merely operating on a parallel but independent track, are in fact “the primary medium of the books,” while “the running texts surrounding them appear both as extended legends […] and as their spacers.” Sebald himself said that the photos were often the starting point of his writing—prose ekphrasis of a sort. If you disregard them, you are ignoring the mainspring of Sebald’s work. Without the images, no books.

If such claims might seem a bit of a stretch, they nonetheless emphasize, as co-editor Warr writes, that Sebald’s photographs “are significant because […] they represent a different genus of thinking.” Shadows of Reality collects and considers that genus of thinking, compiling writings that include heady scholarly studies, an ardent personal essay, and a nuts-and-bolts conversation between the book’s co-editor and Sebald’s photographic collaborator. Most substantially, Shadows of Reality gives us 300 pages of photos that Sebald both took and acquired, most of them subsequently included in the four canonical books that made him “the most revered twentieth-century German writer in the world,” as Carole Angier claims in her biography, Speak, Silence: In Search of W. G. Sebald (2021).

Shadows of Reality is thus a much more important resource than it might at first appear. The book is a project of Boiler House Press, the publishing arm of the University of East Anglia (UEA), where Sebald was on faculty for most of his adult life and which houses much of his extensive photographic archive. Although primarily a keepsake for lovers of Sebald’s work, it is “not a reliquary of the ‘cult of Sebald,’” the editors insist (and he definitely has one). And it is much more than a piece of literary arcana of the sort that often crops up around famous dead writers, especially writers like Sebald, whose enigmatic work and character make it tempting to ransack his leavings for context and clues.

Sebald was notoriously elusive and deceptive about his sources and how he used them—fine, he was a liar and a plagiarist and a thief who looted lives, books, journals, and images, out of which he built and published what his friend, the poet Michael Hamburger, called “essayistic semi-fictions.” Sebald gave no attributions or acknowledgments, or he gave false ones. “The models for his fictions […] were all furious,” Angier writes. In other words, he was a novelist—perhaps more brazen and less shrewd than most, and also more devious.

He included photos “as tokens to the reader that the story that is being told is based in truth and not purely invented,” he once said, “[b]ecause we are credulous and we tend to believe photographs more than any other form of evidence.” The narratives themselves abet the photos by giving us signpost after signpost that the accounts are nonfictional. Sebald ingeniously reverses the expected relationship of image to text: instead of the photos verifying the story, the story seems to authenticate the photos. As his admirer Teju Cole says, “[I]t must all be true, we think, but we know it can’t all be true.” In fact, most of it isn’t.

“[A]t this point something strange happens,” Angier writes. “If the characters are fictions, who are the photographs of?” The italics are hers, emphasizing what Cole calls “the uncanny, destabilizing mood of [Sebald’s] books.” We are suspended, impossibly—and for lovers of Sebald’s work, blissfully—between fact and fiction, reality and shadow, between the seafloor and surface of Sebald’s “periscopic” world, as he described it. It’s a marvelously dizzying and seductive technique, like the cinematic effect of zooming in while tracking back. Angier correctly credits Sebald with inventing a new genre of writing. But the reason for his greatness is that he invented a new experience of reading.

He also committed an offense so grave—far graver than the fiction writer’s usual business of stealing from individual people—that it arguably cancels his greatness. The husband of the granddaughter of the model for one of Sebald’s characters, Henry Selwyn of The Emigrants, identifies it. “[T]he real problem,” he tells Angier, “is the photographs. They’re all fakes, aren’t they? They can’t be of the people they say they are. That’s the last thing anyone should suggest about the Holocaust, isn’t it—that anything about it could be fake?”

The Shoah was Sebald’s abiding subject. It forms the narrative basis of two of his novels and figures importantly in a third. He was not Jewish, and neither were some of the real people he turned into Jews in his books, like the Englishman who became Henry Selwyn, whom Sebald kills off via suicide. He also plundered the memories of real Jews. For the title character of Austerlitz (2001), he used the story of Susi Bechhöfer, who had escaped the Nazis via the Kindertransport. Sebald, who on at least one occasion encouraged younger writers to “steal as much as you can” because “[n]o one will ever notice,” stole from both a documentary about Bechhöfer and her own memoir. After Austerlitz was published, she noticed. Sebald put off her request for public acknowledgment long enough to die before he could honor it.

This is not a complex game of hide-and-seek. It is an insoluble problem and an unforgivable error that repeats the Nazis’ killing and looting from Jews based on a programmatic fabrication of deepfakes. No matter that, as Alex Harvey writes for LARB, in The Emigrants “Sebald emphasizes his reasons” for deceptively using and tampering with photographs “when he makes Ferber’s Uncle Leo point out how the Nazi photograph of the book-burning was faked.” No matter that Sebald tried to justify his use of photos on the grounds that “[t]hey represent a sense of otherness” and give off “emanations of the dead,” as perhaps Jews also did for him. No matter that Sebald’s identification was always, in every circumstance, with those “others,” that is, with victims: from the haunted, dispossessed, slaughtered, and self-slaughtering Jews he invented in order to identify with them—an archetypal surrogate for his own despair—to enslaved Africans to extinguished silkworms (which are his metaphor for slaughtered Jews). No matter that people in photos “stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something,” he said, and perhaps his books can thus be read as his noble efforts to let them speak.

Yet Sebald doesn’t let them speak: just as he assigns false images to his fictional characters, so he puts his own words into their mouths, bearing false witness. Born in 1944 in war-ravaged Southern Germany, almost literally under the cloud of the Shoah, he came of age determined to understand his country’s horrific past and hold Germany accountable, especially in the form of his father, who served in the Luftwaffe—and whom he hated. There is immense boiling rage behind Sebald’s deceptively measured prose. This was all very personal to him, and that doesn’t matter either. There is no comfortable way to resolve his counterfeiting, his tampering, his pillaging, or his lies, and his evasions about all of it.

None of this diminishes (in fact, it increases) the strange beauty, richness, and originality of Sebald’s overarching project—because ultimately it is not a Shoah project. What Sebald was really about, it seems to me, was the deep and dramatized study of the problems of memory and time, and of the distortions and even destructions of identity that result from the images we make—they turn us all into deepfakes. He announced this theme right at the beginning of his first major book, Vertigo (1990), in which he cites Stendhal to the effect that images of things and places not only are mismatched to our memories but also can wind up replacing them altogether; therefore, we should avoid collecting images in our travels, because those images will overtake and erase our identity. (Sebald made a career of violating this prime directive. He was an inveterate taker and collector of photos.)

Two books later, in the opening pages of The Rings of Saturn (1995), he points out that “the much-admired verisimilitude of Rembrandt’s picture [The Anatomy Lesson] proves on closer examination to be more apparent than real […] a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning.” Sebald’s narrator observes “the violence that has been done” to the cadaver on the table, by both the depicted physician and by Rembrandt’s deliberate misrepresentation of the body, and insists that “it is with him, the victim, […] that the painter identifies.” A page later, Sebald has moved from Rembrandt to the English polymath Thomas Browne, to whose writing he ascribes precisely the qualities that we find in that of Sebald himself, such as “a parlous loftiness in his language […] a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, [and] labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages.” (One of Sebald’s sentences in Austerlitz would extend to more than seven.) And he projects onto Browne his own way of perceiving and working: Browne “saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond”—a shadow of reality, we might say, which to Sebald’s eyes is precisely what a photograph is.

The photographs in Shadows of Reality comprise the vast bulk of the book’s nearly 500 pages and include groupings of Sebald’s negatives. Each of the images that appear in Sebald’s books is accompanied by the most relevant corresponding passage. This pairing has the captioning effect Sebald made sure to avoid, although his fans, not to say cult, might nod in recognition and connection. In this setting, however, the prose and the image no longer interact, and despite the photos’ higher-quality reproduction than what we find in Sebald’s books—it is jarring to see them in color—they become somewhat inert and lose their “emanations of the dead.”

As the images accumulate, however, the catalog takes on unexpected shape and heft: it becomes an alternative biography of W. G. Sebald. Much attention has been paid to his widow’s refusal to cooperate with Angier for Speak, Silence. She did not agree to be interviewed (nor did Sebald’s daughter), denied access to Sebald’s letters and other privately held materials, and severely limited Angier’s ability to quote from his work. (In response, and perhaps reprisal, Angier all but omits both women from her book.) If Speak, Silence is a write-around, then Shadows of Reality is a see-through. Unable as we are to get a clear picture of Sebald—notwithstanding that his books are heavily autobiographical, and that they even include pictures of him—Shadows of Reality allows us to perceive his world through his eyes. It is a catalogue raisonné of his life.

We see the bleak landscapes, grimy or decaying building facades, lifeless urban or village scenery, ugly industrial installations, and a surfeit of Sebald’s photos of cemeteries. There’s the shot of the hearse that appears in The Rings of Saturn, but what we see in Shadows of Reality is Sebald’s original photo bearing his cropping marks before he gave it to UEA photographer Michael Brandon-Jones to rephotograph, as he had Brandon-Jones do with all of his images. (It’s a reminder that Sebald tampered not only with people’s lives but also with the images he used to visualize them for his readers.) The cropping marks excise a passing truck that contains its living driver within and displays on its side the partial name and phone number of a business. All Sebald wanted was the hearse. Signs of life were anathema to him. There are almost never people in his pictures, even in the uncropped originals. When there are, they tend not to appear in pictures he took himself but in old photos he collected—the black-and-white emanations of the dead that always haunted him and were often transmuted into portraits of the invented characters in his books.

Sebald had a keen eye for Cornell box–like gatherings of fetishistic little objects he espied in shop windows, on shelves, in reading rooms, and so on. Even the catalog’s reprints of his strips of negatives, those thumbnail records of a day’s sightseeing, help suggest a man with a tender “predilection for small things and worlds in miniature,” in the words of Jo Catling, who translated Sebald’s posthumous collection of literary essays, A Place in the Country (2013). The character who took these appealing photos doesn’t seem like the gloomy, death-obsessed, sluggish Sebald who narrates his books and appears in Speak, Silence. He is someone connected to the loved artifacts of the lives we live. It is easy to imagine him as a charismatic but not overweening fellow, sanguine and sociable in small gatherings, a wryly affable raconteur and drinking buddy, an intrepid traveler, and as generous with certain parcels of his time as he was protective of the weeks he blocked off for his solo wanderings and of the seasons he spent confined to rooms laboring over his pages. That guy might have lived a much longer life, eventually writing himself away from the Shoah and moving on to other means of reckoning with memory and time.

If Sebald liked the complex games of hide-and-seek he could play with photographs, he also liked their game of stop and start: photos “hold up the flow of the discourse,” he observed. Just as the genre he invented resists the fiction-nonfiction binary, it also resists what Sebald called the traditional “negative gradient” of storytelling—that is, narrative’s tendency to be “inclined toward the end” (perhaps “declined toward the end” would be more apt). There is no such thing as racing through Sebald’s books: the serpentine syntax, dense skeins of thought, narrations embedded within narrations, and page after page without a paragraph break are all further impeded by the photos, which “act like barriers or weirs,” he said. You emerge from stints of reading him with a sense that you have been enveloped in his shadows for a much longer time than you have in reality.

“[D]isasters happen in time,” said the 20th century’s last great chronicler of its greatest disaster. Sebald’s life was shadowed by foreknowledge of his own disaster. At his father’s funeral, only two years before his own, Sebald predicted that his death would be the family’s next, and he wrote his will not long before he died aged just 57. It “is in a sense a form of redemption, if you can release yourself from the passage of time,” he said. “[P]hotographs can also do this.” But not for him.

LARB Contributor

Adam Sobsey’s new book, A Jewish Appendix, is forthcoming this year from Spuyten Duyvil Publishing. He is the author of Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography (University of Texas Press, 2017) and co-author of Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark (Daylight Books, 2014).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!