The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

W. G. Sebald’s Borrowed Jewish Characters, with Respect to their Visual-Textual Strategies

My proposal addresses two kinds of encounters in W.G. Sebald’s prose and its images. One concerns the narrator’s respective encounters with famous Jewish personalities, the other the aesthetic transfer between the textile fabric and the textual topic. The active concept is one of transparency, of layering and conjunction, and refers to both the interpersonal discourse and the intermedial representation.

One subject of my paper is Sebald’s long narrative Max Ferber in The Emigrants, where the narrator encounters a figure borrowed from the painter Frank Auerbach, who had been a child of the Kindertransport. Ferber’s material painting process is connected to his being a Jew in mourning of the lost, because he is said to “work under the chimneys”, one metaphor that touches the Holocaust, though never explicitly.

Another literary subject is Austerlitz, where the protagonist is supposed to remind one of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who has experimented with images at one time of his life. Lines of this comparison connect to Wittgenstein’s topos of family resemblance, others to Darwin’s studies of origin or to the wish of being affiliated, again to the lost kinsmen.

Composite photographs play a role as well as composite textiles, like patchwork quilts and duvet covers. A connective motif is the meeting between the writer and the unknown weaver in The Rings of Saturn. Layering and interweaving not only refer to techne, but to relation and belonging. Here I come back to the question of borrowed Jewish identities that leads me to my thesis that the texts as well as their workmanship embody respect, reverence and encounter in every meaning of the word.