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Enigmatic Realism: Doing Justice through Photography and Figuration in Sebald, Marias, and Hemon

This study engages the enigmatic formal strategies in works by W.G. Sebald, Javier Marías, and Aleksandar Hemon as signal writers in a genre that first emerges in 1980. Enigmatic realism addresses the problems and possibilities of figuration in the making of texts, including those in the veridical genres, and the question of how a text can provide continuity with past time. The texts in this genre, first-person metanarratives with photographic and other intertexts, render ambiguous the boundaries between author and narrator, past and present, fiction and nonfiction, literature and life. Predicated on the notion that existing modes and genres fall short of meeting the effort to reclaim, recover, and recount, enigmatic realist narratives are as much concerned with the problems and putative failures of writing as they are with nevertheless doing justice to the subject matter treated. These works find their anchor in a point of deep gravitas--themes of ethnic cleansing, dictatorship, trauma, and death and remembrance--and involve an ardent effort to learn about, appreciate, and know in some substantial way the lives recounted. At bottom is a movement of anti-nihilist sensibility in works that draw on such postmodern stylistic techniques as ambiguity, indeterminacy, generic eclecticism, and metatextual skepticism. Enigmatic realism thus operates counter to the dead ends attributed to postmodernism in art and culture, not by merely rejecting postmodernism out of hand but by directing the postmodern project away from cynical relativism or nihilism and instead toward humanistic and affirmative ends. At the same time, the formal apparatus of these texts--the marriage of a deliberately enigmatic aesthetic together with earnest veridical purpose--works to spur heightened reader engagement, a desire on the reader's part to likewise seek this understanding of past lives and events.
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