Wood on Austerlitz

Sebald’s photographs of humans in this book can be said to be fictional twice over: they
are photographs of invented characters; and they are often photographs of actual
people who once lived but who are now lost to history. Take the photograph of the
rugby team, with Austerlitz supposedly sitting on the front row, at the far right. Who
are these young men? Where did Sebald get hold of this faded group portrait? And is it
likely that any of them are still alive? What is certain is that they have passed into
obscurity. We don’t look at the portrait and say to ourselves: ‘There’s the young
Winston Churchill, in the middle row.’ The faces are unknown, forgotten. They are,
precisely, not Wittgenstein’s famous eyes. The photograph of the little boy in his cape is
even more poignant. I have read reviews of this book that suggest it is a photograph of
the young Sebald – such is our desire, I suppose, not to let the little boy pass into
orphaned anonymity. But the photograph is not of the young Sebald; I came across it in
Sebald’s literary archive at Marbach, outside Stuttgart, and discovered just an ordinary
photographic postcard, with, on the reverse side, ‘Stockport: 30p’ written in ink.
(Sebald once told me, in an interview, that about 30 per cent of the photographs in The
Emigrants had an entirely fictitious relationship to their supposed subjects.)

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