Memory lives on in mute objects and people, allowing occasional—albeit gauzy—glimpses into the past to those that seek and consider. In this examination of much that can’t be fully explained, W.G. Sebald proceeds with the rigor and research befitting a scientific study. He then packages his findings in a unique prose that is Bernhardian in structure but has a staid, almost 19th century tone and is coupled with documentary-like photographs that lack captions and are a touch too grainy to be considered definitive sources.
At times almost monotone, Sebald’s passages push forward despite bearing a tangible weight, yet there’s always a feeling that the text could combust at any moment. It’s this looming devastation that fills the book with ample tension, though the closest this comes to being realized is in the occasional moments of insight and clarity that Sebald affords us—be it a character, like Thomas Browne, that Sebald ties to seemingly disparate situations or the subtle yet horrifying connection between the Third Reich’s curriculum of silkworm rearing and their methods of extermination in the concentration camps. These are epiphanies of a sort, though the discoveries they offer are usually haunting and tend to offer no resolution. But therein lies the lure of Sebald’s writing: it’s impassioned, learned, singular, and honest to the point of never offering false hope.