W.G. Sebald's fascination as a writer - perhaps even the unlikely cult of his success – derives from the slowness with which time passes in his books. Few narrators do less, or have less interesting things happen to them: he goes on long walks; he scrutinises buildings; he converses with strangers; he visits public houses or cafes that lack all repose; he imparts troubled memories from a haunted childhood spent in pre-war Germany. He seems to have no wife (on rare occasions someone called Clara is mentioned, though no details of her are furnished), no children, no friends, no job of work. He merely wanders through certain allotted territories (drab and unromantic parts of East Anglia or Belgium) like an amnesiac (except that he remembers everything – everything): an endlessly observant yet mournful presence, inhabiting or inhabited by some unexpressed grief or guilt.
He comes to embody the wearied spirit of those desultory mornings or evenings – the pervasive mood of which, however, sometimes lasts for days, or even weeks – of certain forms of loneliness we have all experienced enough to fear: the loneliness of the long-distance walker, of course, but also that of the short-stop tourist of history's most marginal sites.
To read Sebald is to be reminded inescapably of those drab occasions when, nagged by our own solitude, we compel ourselves to visit a church or a small provincial museum in an unremarkable town we have arrived in only out of some error of judgement or planning and already hope never to come back to; an autodidactical visit, yet one made less in optimistic expectation of instruction than in the gloomy knowledge that it's our own responsibility to find diversions for ourselves while we're trapped here; that it's up to us to devise an alternative from sitting in the comfortless lodgings we've undoubtedly taken in order at least to have somewhere to sleep overnight, since it appears we're unable to depart before tomorrow.
The difference between W.G. Sebald and the rest of us is that, for us, the tedious hours spent in these shoddy distractions count only as time wasted. For all the cultural significance we are able to draw from our self-enforced itineraries, we'd derive as much profit from reading a newspaper or doing the crossword puzzle in it. We lack Sebald's remarkable ability to rescue what, when seen from the outside, had seemed an interval of dead time by investing it with a historical or philosophical dimension through the intensity – the irradiating power – of his gaze. These intervals never quite lose their quality as dead time; their deadness is an audible hiss, like radio silence, out of which emerge distant and defunctive voices only partly overheard; yet these are voices which exist to be elucidated by Sebald's near-pedantic insistence on extracting their last note of relevance and meaning.
Chronicles of wasted time are what Sebald's writings so often amount to. But it's time redeemed, and this is why there's so much to admire in them, and why his recent death was a great loss, and why I'm re-reading his books now.
We, the rest of us, with the attention spans if not of goldfish then of goldfish-owners, lack the leisure or determination or patience or learning needed to examine a small rundown seaside town in Suffolk or an overblown railway station in Antwerp with the scrupulous didacticism which Sebald articulates out of them. What we recognise in his work, though, is the disconsolate sense of arriving in such places and having to spend a day and a night there before we can leave. Anywhere, but somewhere else! Through Sebald's work we suffer again the affliction of never being anywhere at rest, of longing always to be in another place: in sum, the existential sorrow of being whoever and wherever we are. W.G. Sebald has raised this ontological disgruntlement to an encyclopaedic level. In providing the history of a dilapidated country house in eastern England or a shabby pub in a street of properties up for sale, by perceiving the savagery of Belgian colonialism in a monumental public building, Sebald commemorates not only these matters but all those dejected evenings or mornings of impotence and boredom spent by all the generations who may have lived in that house or that pub or that town or passed through that building as members of an anonymous public pass through the most ornate and grandiose of stations without privilege of ownership or belonging but simply in order to catch a train somewhere else.
(W.G. Sebald, 1944-2001)