Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Copy-Editor Looks at Austerlitz

The most peculiar thing about the inclusion of photographs, diagrams, and other images among the pages of Austerlitz is the haphazardness of their placement on the page. In most cases, the images are obviously pertinent to something on the page or on the preceding page, but in many cases, they are not positioned in such a way to make meaning out of the displacement of text their inclusion creates.

That is, line-endings, word-wraps, and the general shape of the (very long) paragraphs on or across pages seems to have little bearing on the precise positioning of the images. Many if not most (non-full-page) images interrupt sentences with little or no regard to the point of interruption—an attempt to find meaning in which words get separated will probably come up with a handful of "meaningful" line breaks, but overall there seems to be no effort to break lines on or in words that have more than average meaning in the larger context of the book. More generally, there seems to be only intermittent effort given to laying out the individual pages of the book with attention to these small details; there are some pages which are laid out very pleasingly, but many others are laid out relatively unimaginatively, even rather unaesthetically.

(taken from Vertigo)

If we can think of the long paragraphs as a way of quickening (or lulling) the eye, the images' precise positions on the page come to acquire a great deal of significance, as they do redirect and possibly refocus the eye, and therefore the attention and the mental process of the reader. Because there are precious few paragraph breaks in Austerlitz, the interruptions of these images are made more noticeable, and begin to assume (at least in the way I was reading) the role of paragraph breaks—suitable nodes within the flow of thoughts, appropriate pausing points for a moment of reflection on the preceding words. One would think that this additional semantic role would mean that the images' position would be more obviously finessed, managed, or at least considered—there would be more of an obvious effort to arrange the page in a way that maximized the semantic meaning of the image placement. But this isn't the case.

Now, the obvious comment to be made here is that I was reading in English, and Sebald was writing in a language that often differs in syntactical structure, so hanging too much on the placement of the images is a fairly tenuous and tendentious proposition. Yet from what I've read, Sebald was quite active in the process of translation, and I wouldn't think he'd just forget to mention something like "Oh yeah, and watch where you stick those pictures."

If it can be assumed, then, that the ostensible haphazardness of image placement is intentional, or at least that there is no overriding intention that determines placement precisely, what must the logic behind this disorder be?

In a sense, the images' haphazardness is a stronger sense of "embedding"—although it seems as if they could be moved up or down a few lines without a loss of any specific meaning, this small amount of indifference also fortifies the images' significance to the narrative: these are not mere illustrations, tucked into pleasing corners of the page. They "interact" with the text in a manner very different from the way one expects them to: their ostensibly indifferent placement means that they are always a little belated or even a little premature in relation to the text which they most likely "illustrate"—they come just before or just after the position on the page where we might expect to find "Figure 1.1 Breendonk."

The images therefore become dislocated in a very real sense, although also in a sense that redefines "dislocated." It is defined not as something that needs to be put back into place in order to function properly (as a joint can be dislocated), but rather as something which has become accessible from another position, one unexpected perhaps, which has slipped or been pushed, but which remains visible.

The possible accessibility of lost time is one of those themes which has been dissertated to death, whether it comes in a discussion of Proust, Sebald, or Wordsworth, but Sebald's sense of lost or dislocated time is, I think, a little more agnostic on the desire to set time aright in order to regain access to it. The dislocation of time is not in itself a command to relocate it: the images do not need to move to a "proper" position in order to activate their meaning. Dislocation may still be functional, Sebald seems to say. He seems to urge, in fact, that we attempt to function within our dislocations, that it is more important to do so than to try to stand athwart time to get it to stop long enough to re-set our joints. This admonition, I feel, is quite different, and quite, quite powerful.


R. Kolewe said...

There's a fascinating essay by Lise Patt in a book called "Searching for Sebald: photography after W.G. Sebald" that discusses the layout of the various editions of Sebald's books, and how words, images and layout play against other. Well worth the read.

LML said...

I think you're on target here, and would add that there's an element of wit, to my eye, in the interaction of text and photos in all of S's books. Sometimes the photos illuminate what is being described, sometimes they seem to function as proof ("See, I'm not making this up"), and sometimes they seem to be almost entirely superfluous. The latter two cases suggest that the documentary impulse is vulnerable to obsession and can easily reach absurd lengths.

Non-photographic support for this idea is everywhere in the texts, too. One moment that comes to mind is in Vertigo, when the narrator, on a bus, asks the parents of twin boys if he can take their photo, explaining that they look exactly like Franz Kafka did as a boy and he is working on a project about Franz Kafka. The parents assume, reasonably, that he is a pederast.

Anyway, your thoughts about the placement of images corresponds with the above, I think. The haphazardness of the placement is yet another way in which Sebald subtly undermines the authority of what is being represented. He is always concerned with what can honorably be represented, yet he makes clear that the standards he sets for himself can't be met. There's always an element of manipulation, of untruthfulness, in any prose narrative.