Wandering in and out of Place: Modes of Searching for the Past in Paris, Moscow, and St Petersburg

Katherine Brabon



The wandering narrator is a familiar figure in contemporary literature. This narrator is often searching for something abstract or ill-defined connected to the past and the traces it leaves behind. The works of the German writer W.G. Sebald inspired a number of theories on the various ways a writer might intersect place, memory, and representation through seemingly aimless wandering. This article expands on the scholarship around Sebald’s themes to identify two modes of investigative wandering: (1) wandering “in place”, through a city where a past trauma has occurred, and (2) wandering “out of place”, which occurs when a wanderer encounters a city that is a holding place of traumas experienced elsewhere.

Sebald’s narrators mostly conduct wandering “in place” because they are actively immersed in, and wandering through, locations that trigger both memory and thought. In this article, after exploring both Sebald’s work and theories of place in literature, I analyse another example of wandering in place, in the Paris of Patrick Modiano’s novel, The Search Warrant (2014). I conclude by discussing how I encountered this mode of wandering myself when in Moscow and St Petersburg researching my first novel, The Memory Artist (2016). In contrasting these two modes of wandering, my aim is to contribute further nuance to the interpretation of conceptions of place in literature. By articulating the concept of wandering “out of place”, I identify a category of wanderer and writer who, like myself, finds connection with places and their stories without having a direct encounter with that place.  

Theories of Place and Wandering in W.G. Sebald’s Work

In this section, I introduce Sebald as a literary wanderer. Born in the south of Germany in 1944, Sebald is perhaps best known for his four “prose fictions”— Austerlitz published in 2001, The Emigrants published in 1996, The Rings of Saturn published in 1998, and Vertigo published in 2000—all of which blend historiography and fiction in mostly plot-less narratives. These works follow a closely autobiographical narrator as he traverses Europe, visiting people and places connected to Europe’s turbulent twentieth century. He muses on the difficulty of preserving the truths of history and speaking of others’ traumas. Sebald describes how “places do seem to me to have some kind of memory, in that they activate memory in those who look at them” (Sebald quoted in Jaggi). Sebald left his native Germany in 1966 and moved to England, where he lived until his untimely death in a car accident in 2001 (Gussow). His four prose fictions feature the same autobiographical narrator: a middle-aged German man who lives in northern England. The narrator traverses Europe with a compulsion to research, ponder, and ultimately, represent historical catastrophes and traumas that haunt him. Anna MacDonald describes how Sebald’s texts “move freely between history and memory, biography, autobiography and fiction, travel writing and art criticism, scientific observation and dreams, photographic and other textual images” (115). The Holocaust and human displacement are simultaneously at the forefront of the narrator’s preoccupations but rarely referenced directly. This singular approach has caused many commentators to remark that Sebald’s works are “haunted” by these traumatic events (Baumgarten 272).

Sebald’s narrators are almost constantly on the move, obsessively documenting the locations, buildings, and people they encounter or the history of that place. As such, it is helpful to consider Sebald’s wandering narrator through theories of landscape and its representation in art. Heike Polster describes the development of landscape from a Western European conception and notes how “the landscape idea in art and the techniques of linear perspective appear simultaneously” (88). Landscape is distinguished from raw physical environment by the role of the human mind: “landscape was perceived and constructed by a disembodied outsider” (88). As such, landscape is something created by our perceptions of place. Ulrich Baer makes a similar observation: “to look at a landscape as we do today manifests a specifically modern sense of self-understanding, which may be described as the individual’s ability to view herself within a larger, and possibly historical, context” (43).

These conceptions of landscape suggest a desire for narrative. The attempt to fix our understanding of a place according to what we know about it, its past, and our own relationship to it, makes landscape inextricable from representation. To represent a landscape is to offer a representation of subjective perception. This understanding charges the landscapes of literature with meaning: the perceptions of a narrator who wanders and encounters place can be studied for their subjective properties.

As I will highlight through the works of Sebald and Modiano, the wandering narrator draws on a number of sources in their representations of both place and memory, including their perceptions as they walk in place, the books they read, the people they encounter, as well as their subjective and affective responses. This multi-dimensional process aligns with Polster’s contention that “landscape is as much the external world as it is a visual and philosophical principle, a principle synthesizing the visual experience of material and geographical surroundings with our knowledge of the structures, characteristics, and histories of these surroundings” (70). The narrators in the works of Sebald and Modiano undertake this synthesised process as they traverse their respective locations. As noted, although their objectives are often vague, part of their process of drawing together experience and knowledge is a deep desire to connect with the pasts of those places.     

The particular kind of wanderer “in place” who I consider here is preoccupied with the past. In his study of Sebald’s work, Christian Moser describes how “the task of the literary walker is to uncover and decipher the hidden track, which, more often than not, is buried in the landscape like an invisible wound” (47-48). Pierre Nora describes places of memory, lieux de memoire, as locations “where memory crystallizes and secretes itself”. Interest in such sites arises when “consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with a sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists” (Nora 7).

Encountering and contemplating sites of memory, while wandering in place, can operate simultaneously as encounters with traumatic stories. According to Tim Ingold, “the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in doing so, have left something of themselves […] landscape tells – or rather is – a story” (153).  Such occurrences can be traced in the narratives of Sebald and Modiano, as their narrators participate both in the act of reading the story of landscape, through their wandering and their research about a place, but also in contributing to the telling of those stories, by inserting their own layer of subjective experience. In this way, the synthesised process of landscape put forward by Polster takes place.

To perceive the landscape in this way is to “carry out an act of remembrance” (Ingold 152). The many ways that a person experiences and represents the stories that make up a landscape are varied and suited to a wandering methodology. MacDonald, for example, characterises Sebald’s methodology of “representation-via-digressive association”, which enables “writer, narrator, and reader alike to draw connections in, and through, space between temporally distant historical events and the monstrous geographies they have left in their wake” (MacDonald 116).

Moser observes that Sebald’s narrative practice suggests an opposition between the pilgrimage, “devoted to worship, asceticism, and repentance”, and tourism, aimed at “entertainment and diversion” (Moser 37). If the pilgrim contemplates the objects, monuments, and relics they encounter, and the tourist is “given to fugitive consumption of commercialized sights”, Sebald’s walker is a kind of post-traumatic wanderer who “searches for the traces of a silent catastrophe that constitutes the obverse of modernity and its history of progress” (Moser 37). Thus, wandering tends to “cultivate a certain mode of perception”, one that is highly attuned to the history of a place, that looks for traces rather than common sites of consumption (Moser 37).

It is worth exploring the motivations of a wandering narrator. Sebald’s narrator in The Rings of Saturn (2002) provides us with a vague impetus for his wandering: “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that had taken hold of me after the completion of a long stint of work” (3). In Vertigo (2002), Sebald’s narrator walks with seemingly little purpose, resulting in a sense of confusion or nausea alluded to in the book’s title: “so what else could I do … but wander aimlessly around until well into the night”. On the next page, he refers again to his “aimlessly wandering about the city”, which he continues until he realises that his shoes have fallen apart (35-37). What becomes apparent from such comments is that the process of wandering is driven by mostly subconscious compulsions. The restlessness of Sebald’s wandering narrators represents their unease about our capacity to forget the history of a place, and thereby lose something intangible yet vital that comes from recognising traumatic pasts.

In Sebald’s work, if there is any logic to the wanderer’s movement, it is mostly hidden from them while wandering. The narrator of Vertigo, after days of wandering through northern Italian cities, remarks that “if the paths I had followed had been inked in, it would have seemed as though a man had kept trying out new tracks and connections over and over, only to be thwarted each time by the limitations of his reason, imagination or willpower” (Sebald, Vertigo 34). Moser writes how “the hidden order that lies behind the peripatetic movement becomes visible retroactively – only after the walker has consulted a map. It is the map that allows Sebald to decode the ‘writing’ of his steps” (48). Wandering in place enables digressions and preoccupations, which then constitute the landscape ultimately represented. Wandering and reading the map of one’s steps afterwards form part of the same process: the attempt to piece together—to create a landscape—that uncovers lost or hidden histories. Sebald’s Vertigo, divided into four parts, layers the narrator’s personal wandering through Italy, Austria, and Germany, with the stories of those who were there before him, including the writers Stendhal, Kafka, and Casanova. 

An opposing factor to memory is a landscape’s capacity to forget; or rather, since landscape conceived here is a construction of our own minds, to reflect our own amnesia. Lewis observes that Sebald’s narrator in Vertigo “is disturbed by the suppression of history evident even in the landscape”. Sebald’s narrator describes Henri Beyle (the writer Stendhal) and his experience visiting the location of the Battle of Marengo as such:

The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion […] In its shabbiness, it fitted neither with his conception of the turbulence of the Battle of Marengo nor the vast field of the dead on which he was now standing, alone with himself, like one meeting his doom. (17-18)

The “vertiginous sense of confusion” signals a preoccupation with attempting to interpret sites of memory and, importantly, what Nora calls a “consciousness of a break with the past” (Nora 7) that characterises an interest in lieux de memoire. The confusion and feeling of unknowing is, I suggest, a characteristic of a wandering narrator. They do not quite know what they are looking for, nor what would constitute a finished wandering experience. This lack of resolution is a hallmark of the wandering narrative. A parallel can be drawn here with trauma fiction theory, which categorises a particular kind of literature that aims to recognise and represent the ethical and psychological impediments to representing trauma (Whitehead). Baumgarten describes the affective response to Sebald’s works:

Here there are neither answers nor questions but a haunted presence. Unresolved, fragmented, incomplete, relying on shards for evidence, the narrator insists on the inconclusiveness of his experience: rather than arriving at a conclusion, narrator and reader are left disturbed. (272)

Sebald’s narrators are illustrative literary wanderers. They demonstrate a conception of landscape that theorists such as Polster, Baer, and Ingold articulate: landscapes tell stories for those who investigate them, and are constituted by a synthesis of personal experience, the historical record, and the present condition of a place. This way of encountering a place is necessarily fragmented and can be informed by the tenets of trauma fiction, which seeks ways of representing traumatic histories by resisting linear narratives and conclusive resolutions.   

Modiano: Wandering in Place in Paris

Modiano’s The Search Warrant is another literary example of wandering in place. This autobiographical novel similarly illustrates the notion of landscape as a construction of a narrator who wanders through cities and forms landscape through an amalgamation of perception, knowledge, and memory.

Although Modiano’s wandering narrator appears to be searching the Paris of the 1990s for traces of a Jewish girl, missing since the Second World War, he is also conducting an “aimless” wandering in search of traces of his own past in Paris. The novel opens with the narrator reading an old newspaper article, dated 1942, and reporting a missing fourteen-year-old girl in Paris. The narrator becomes consumed with a need to learn the fate of the girl. The search also becomes a search for his own past, as the streets of Paris from which Dora Bruder disappeared are also the streets his father worked among during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. They are also the same streets along which the narrator walked as an angst-ridden youth in the 1960s.

Throughout the novel, the narrator uses a combination of facts uncovered by research, documentary evidence, and imagination, which combine with his own memories of walking in Paris. Although the fragmentation of sources creates a sense of uncertainty, together there is an affective weight, akin to Sebald’s “haunted presence”, in the layers Modiano’s narrator compiles. One chapter opens with an entry from the Clignancourt police station logbook, which records the disappearance of Dora Bruder:

27 December 1941. Bruder, Dora, born Paris.

12, 25/2/26, living at 41 Boulevard Ornano.

Interview with Bruder, Ernest, age 42, father. (Modiano 69)

However, the written record is ambiguous. “The following figures”, the narrator continues, “are written in the margin, but I have no idea what they stand for: 7029 21/12” (Modiano 69). Moreover, the physical record of the interview with Dora’s father is missing from the police archives. All he knows is that Dora’s father waited thirteen days before reporting her disappearance, likely wary of drawing attention to her: a Jewish girl in Occupied Paris. Confronted by uncertainty, the narrator recalls his own experience of running away as a youth in Paris: “I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 – an intensity such as I have seldom known. It was the intoxication of cutting all ties at a stroke […] Running away – it seems – is a call for help and occasionally a form of suicide” (Modiano 71). The narrator’s construction of landscape is multi-layered: his past, Dora’s past, his present. Overhanging this is the history of Nazi-occupied Paris and the cultural memory of France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

With the aid of other police documents, the narrator traces Dora’s return home, and then her arrest and detainment in the Tourelles barracks in Paris. From Tourelles, detainees were deported to Drancy concentration camp. However, the narrator cannot confirm whether Dora was deported to Drancy. In the absence of evidence, the narrator supplies other documents: profiles of those known to be deported, in an attempt to construct a story.

Hena: I shall call her by her forename. She was nineteen … What I know about Hena amounts to almost nothing: she was born on 11 December 1922 at Pruszkow in Poland, and she lived at no. 42 Rue Oberkampf, the steeply sloping street I have so often climbed. (111)

Unable to make conclusions about Dora’s story, the narrator is drawn back to a physical location: the Tourelles barracks. He describes a walk he took there in 1996: “Rue des Archives, Rue de Bretagne, Rue des-Filles-du-Calvaire. Then the uphill slope of the Rue Oberkampf, where Hena had lived” (Modiano 124). The narrator combines what he experiences in the city with the documentary evidence left behind, to create a landscape. He reaches the Tourelles barracks: “the boulevard was empty, lost in a silence so deep I could hear the rustling of the planes”. When he sees a sign that says “MILITARY ZONE. FILMING OR PHOTOGRAPHY PROHIBITED”, the cumulative effect of his solitary and uncertain wandering results in despair at the difficulty of preserving the past: “I told myself that nobody remembers anything anymore. A no-man’s-land lay beyond that wall, a zone of emptiness and oblivion” (Modiano 124). The wandering process here, including the narrator’s layering of his own experience with Hena’s life, the lack of resolution, and the wandering narrator’s disbelief at the seemingly incongruous appearance of a place today in relation to its past, mirrors the feeling of Sebald’s narrator at the site of the Battle of Marengo, quoted above.

Earlier in the novel, after frustrated attempts to find information about Dora’s mother and father, the narrator reflects that “they are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous” (Modiano 23). He remarks that Dora’s parents are “inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes where, by chance, I discovered they had lived” (Modiano 23). There is a disjunction between knowledge and something deeper, the undefined impetus that drives the narrator to walk, to search, and therefore to write: “often, what I know about them amounts to no more than a simple address. And such topographical precision contrasts with what we shall never know about their life—this blank, this mute block of the unknown” (Modiano 23). This contrast of topographical precision and the “unknown” echoes the feeling of Sebald’s narrator when contemplating sites of memory. One may wander “in place” yet still feel a sense of confusion and gaps in knowledge: this is, I suggest, an intended aesthetic effect by both authors. Reader and narrator alike feel a sense of yearning and melancholy as a result of the narrator’s wandering.  

Wandering out of Place in Moscow and St Petersburg

When I travelled to Russia in 2015, I sought to document, with a Sebaldian wandering methodology, processes of finding memory both in and out of place. Like Sebald and Modiano, I was invested in hidden histories and the relationship between the physical environment and memory. Yet unlike those authors, I focused my wandering mostly on places that reflected or referenced events that occurred elsewhere rather than events that happened in that specific place. As such, I was wandering out of place.

The importance of memory, both in and out of place, is a central concept in my novel The Memory Artist. The narrator, Pasha, reflects the concerns of current and past members of Russia’s civic organisation named Memorial, which seeks to document and preserve the memory of victims of Communism. Contemporary activists lament that in modern Russia the traumas of the Gulag labour camps, collectivisation, and the “Terror” of executions under Joseph Stalin, are inadequately commemorated. In a 2012 interview, Irina Flige, co-founder of the civic body Memorial Society in St Petersburg, encapsulated activists’ disappointment at seeing burial sites of Terror victims fall into oblivion:

By the beginning of 2000s these newly-found sites of mass burials had been lost. Even those that had been marked by signs were lost for a second time! Just imagine: a place was found [...] people came and held vigils in memory of those who were buried there. But then this generation passed on and a new generation forgot the way to these sites – both literally and metaphorically. (Flige quoted in Karp)

A shift in generation, and a culture of secrecy or inaction surrounding efforts to preserve the locations of graves or former labour camps, perpetuate a “structural deficit of knowledge”, whereby knowledge of the physical locations of memory is lost (Anstett 2). This, in turn, affects the way people and societies construct their memories. When sites of past trauma are not documented or acknowledged as such, it is more difficult to construct a narrative about those places, particularly those that confront and document a violent past. Physical absence in the landscape permits a deficit of storytelling.

This “structural deficit of knowledge” is exacerbated when sites of memory are located in distant locations. The former Soviet labour camps and locations of some mass graves are scattered across vast locations far from Russia’s main cities. Yet for some, those cities now act as holding environments for the memory of lost camp locations, mass graves, and histories. For example, a monument in Moscow may commemorate victims of an overseas labour camp. Lieux de memoire shift from being “in place” to existing “out of place”, in monuments and memorials. As I walked through Moscow and St Petersburg, I had the sensation I was wandering both in and out of place, as I encountered the histories of memories physically close but also geographically distant.

For example, I arrived early one morning at the Lubyanka building in central Moscow, a pre-revolutionary building with yellow walls and terracotta borders, the longstanding headquarters of the Soviet and now Russian secret police (image 1). Many victims of the worst repressive years under Stalin were either shot here or awaited deportation to Gulag camps in Siberia and other remote areas. The place is both a site of memory and one that gestures to traumatic pasts inflicted elsewhere.

Image 1: The Lubyanka, in Central Moscow

A monument to victims of political repression was erected near the Lubyanka Building in 1990. The monument takes the form of a stone taken from the Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago in the far north, on the White Sea, and the location of the Solovetsky Monastery that Lenin turned into a prison camp in 1921 (image 2). The Solovetsky Stone rests in view of the Lubyanka. In the 1980s, the stone was taken by boat to Arkhangelsk and then by train to Moscow. The wanderer encounters memory in place, in the stone and building, and also out of place, in the signified trauma that occurred elsewhere. Wandering out of place thus has the potential to connect a wanderer, and a reader, to geographically remote histories, not unlike war memorials that commemorate overseas battles. This has important implications for the preservation of stories. The narrator of The Memory Artist reflects that “the act of taking a stone all the way from Solovetsky to Moscow … was surely a sign that we give things and objects and matter a little of our own minds … in a way I understood that [the stone’s] presence would be a kind of return for those who did not, that somehow the stone had already been there, in Moscow” (Brabon 177).


Image 2: The Monument to Victims of Political Repression, Near the Lubyanka

In some ways, wandering out of place is similar to the examples of wandering in place considered here: in both instances the person wandering constructs a landscape that is a synthesis of their present perception, their individual history, and their knowledge of the history of a place. Yet wandering out of place offers a nuanced understanding of wandering by revealing the ways one can encounter the history, trauma, and memory that occur in distant places, highlighting the importance of symbols, memorials, and preserved knowledge.   


Image 3: Reflectons of the Lubyanka


The ways a writer encounters and represents the stories that constitute a landscape, including traumatic histories that took place there, are varied and well-suited to a wandering methodology. There are notable traits of a wandering narrator: the digressive, associative form of thinking and writing, the unmapped journeys that are, despite themselves, full of compulsive purpose, and the lack of finality or answers inherent in a wanderer’s narrative. Wandering permits an encounter with memory out of place. The Solovetsky Islands remain a place I have never been, yet my encounter with the symbolic stone at the Lubyanka in Moscow lingers as a historical reminder. This sense of never arriving, of not reaching answers, echoes the narrators of Sebald and Modiano. Continued narrative uncertainty generates a sense of perpetual wandering, symbolic of the writer’s shadowy task of representing the past.


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WG Sebald; landscape theory; literature and memory; trauma studies; wandering

Copyright (c) 2019 Katherine Brabon

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