W.G. Sebald is a unique writer, largely because his style of discourse pushes the boundaries of genre to the very limit. By using photography as a narrative device, Sebald proves that even one of the strongest authenticating tools in modern times can be manipulated to the individual’s desired representation. Because the many historical events referred to in the text are legitimate, the effect is that the character’s stories also seem real. This documentary style of narrative has a powerful effect on the reader, because it induces an importance and a sense of tragedy that could not be achieved in a fictional world.
In light of the personal influences Sebald has used to portray his characters, there are also an incredible number of similarities between ‘Sebald’, the writer, and ‘Sebald’, the narrator of all of the author’s fictitious stories. They were both born in Wertach im Algäu in Germany, on the same day (18th May 1944). This technique of such close interplay between narrator and author indicates an almost autobiographical quality to the writing. However, it would be naïve to assume that the narrator and author are the same, instead it seems there is a blatant attempt for the similarity to play upon the reader’s understanding of fantasy and reality.
Whilst the homogeneity of the narrator and author imply some form of an authentic personal account, Sebald incorporates a vast array of fantastical elements in the book. The stylistic device of subliminal imagery serves a useful purpose in Sebald’s discourse, because it allows a level of symbolic representation that would be absent in a purely factual text. However, dreams are of a paradoxical nature because they are steeped in fantasy and yet experienced in reality. Consequently, it seems Sebald does not use the act of dreaming merely as a literary device, but instead they are at the heart of his understanding of the human psyche. They display an individual in their truest, most pure state and enable a connection with the past of the utmost lucidity.
Despite Sebald’s constant integration of the real and the invented, throughout the book a literary device emerges which exposes the text’s fictional nature. This is evident in a multitude of instances; the most striking, contrived circumstance being the appearance of the butterfly man in every story. This is an extremely astute literary device because the reader is made to feel disorientated by the counterparts carefully planted by the author. It is an emphatic, impressive element of Sebald’s writing and has an incredibly powerful effect, but it does not dominate the text too severely. The effect is that Sebald’s theme of the unexpected resurgence of memory is actually enforced in the act of reading the text.
However, despite the brilliance of this literary tool, it lessens the intensity of the book’s realism and crucially makes the reader aware it is a fictional work. Unfortunately there are times when such instances spoil the otherwise delicately weighted balance of fact and fiction. This is a trait which is thankfully absent from the majority of his neat and restrained prose.
Ghosts are often considered as fictional creations, but like dreams, their appearance in The Emigrants can actually be accepted as a mediator between fantasy and reality. Even if the idea of an apparitional atmosphere is a mere implicit suggestion, it is a constant undertone in all stories. Even inanimate objects are represented as if possessed by an otherworldly presence. It seems the author’s intentions by incorporating the theme of ghosts are to evoke his deep interest in the past.
The writer discovers it is possible to experience, and therefore understand, the emotion and pain of past lives through the medium of the subconscious or spectral. He can actually make contact with those outside of his reach. Sebald is constantly associated with a melancholy style in critical accounts. But, it could be argued that he affirms the potential in all of humankind to achieve an understanding of the past. Consequently this is actually an incredibly positive underlying theme of the author’s work.
Sebald’s discourse has often been acknowledged as a hybrid writing style, which is impossible to define. The inclusion of grainy, family-album style photographs serves as a powerful tool to enhance the book’s disguise as an autobiography. But the writer also uses literary techniques and imagery, such as ghosts, dreams and incessant repetition. It is understandable why Sebald chose to weave these patterns into his narrative. The repetition in particular has the amazing effect of enforcing a dazzling array of planted déjà vu’s. The reader gradually realises that the text holds limited factual value, but by then they will have succumbed to Sebald’s enchanting prose, which haunts like the ghosts of the past he is so fascinated with.