Sebald’s Anatomy Lesson: About Three Images-Documents from On the Natural History of Destruction, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz
(Translated from French by Laura Winn in conjunction with the author)
W. G. Sebald's work endorses the use of archives: notably image-documents, which are widely used in his narratives as well as in his essays. The author is figured as the observer who records witness accounts (Erzählen/Berichten) and reconstructs them through montage. Sebald did not begin his career as a writer until his university career had reached maturity. He was first and foremost a researcher, and this is how he always presents himself in his narratives: inevitably their primal scene is that during some research he comes across some document whose particularity attracts his attention. As researcher and writer, Sebald is a man of the archives. His narratives encounter the fugitive and sublime shadows of the past in documents, images and texts found during his research. They are invaded by all sorts of documents that lend them an atmosphere of Unheimlichkeit, the angel of the bizarre crossing familiar space. In the work of Sebald, however, the quest for traces does not lead to historical fables. Quite on the contrary, the author's goal is to reinstate reality as it has been, to find a language through which the beings whose memory is confined to the archives can survive: "One does not resuscitate the lives that have ended up in the archives. It is not a reason for making them die a second time. The space is narrow in which a narrative can be built that does not cancel or dissolve them, that keeps them available so that one day, and elsewhere, another narration can be made from their enigmatic presence. ... To have a taste for archives is visibly to wander through the words of others, to seek a language which preserves their pertinence." What is this language in the work of Sebald? How legitimate is the literature in which it is elaborated?