I have never understood the fanatical intensity of critical admiration for the novels of W G Sebald. A fortnight ago I reread the first of his "novels" to be published in English, The Emigrants, then the other three books - Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz - because I wanted to understand why I couldn't believe most of what he wrote. In the process I discovered that what, in these four books which are among the most acclaimed of the past decade, is supposed to be rooted in "the real" - in the devastation of the Holocaust and the failure of 19th-century rationalism to prevent the darkness of the 20th - has, if you look past the brilliant descriptive writing, a sense of reality so flawed as to lie in the realm of pathology.
Exactly halfway through The Emigrants, when the narrator visits the sanatorium at Ithaca where his great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, perished, I got an inkling of what I was to find subsequently in all of the books. Rather than enactment of a character's actions and life, the narrative of these four Jewish exiles is simply a string of details. Great-Uncle Ambros, a casualty from childhood onwards, is a Sebald archetype. Mental disturbance of every shade, from casual nerves to disabling depressive illness, defines his characters, including three of his four narrators. "I began to sense in me a vague apprehension, which manifested itself as a feeling of vertigo" (Vertigo). "[A] year to the day after I began my tour, I was taken into hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility" (The Rings of Saturn). "Even on my arrival [at Antwerp] as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct . . . I had begun to feel unwell" (Austerlitz). The italics are mine, and this is not much of a discovery: the last two quotations appear on the first page of their respective books.
Complementary to illness is a mental and physical landscape that can, at best, be described as empty. "At the next station, the halt for Somerleyton Hall, I got out . . . There was not a soul about, of whom one might have asked the way." In Southwold "everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone". Emptinesses multiply. "There is something peculiarly dispiriting about the emptiness that wells up when, in a strange city, one dials the same telephone numbers in vain," remarks the narrator of Vertigo. Later, "Sebald" goes to a Tube station the like of which I have never seen, where no one ever gets on or off. Alan Bennett mentioned this un-peopled quality of his work in a recent diary in the London Review of Books. "The fact is, in Sebald nobody is ever about. This may be poetic but it is a short cut to significance."
Once noticed, these tics become, as Bennett says, almost comic. But Sebald does not stop there: illness and emptiness are exploited to win the reader's sympathy. The invention of time, according to the Holocaust orphan Jacques Austerlitz, "was by far the most artificial of all our inventions", though he tells us that it is still possible to exist outside time. "The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals . . ." In Sebald's lexicon it must be the dead, the sick and dying who are outside time. Yet one is tempted to ask: what of children, or artists, or lovers? All of whom, in their pleasure, are also capable of metaphorically existing outside time. Most importantly, illness lets his characters withdraw from life, while emptiness gives them an unpeopled place to withdraw to, and Sebald is able to get away with a pretence: a pretence at involvement with his characters who, restrained as they are by their creator's contrived and people-less world, rarely demand from him that he make them live. As a result, they rarely engage with each other, either. "Misshapen, like some great mollusc washed ashore, they lay there, to all appearances a single being . . ." On the one occasion that a couple making love on a beach stray into his narrative, the narrator's feeling of horror is tremendous.
Pathological unreality enters in, as he discards truth in favour of an atmosphere that is seldom positive and is also irrelevantly ethereal, as if melancholy towards the 20th century were the only reflex available. The result is a gesture at life that comes nowhere near earning the pathos he claims for it. It is an artistic falling-short of the truth. It is a failure. It tempts me to conclude that his books are not about life at all. They are more truly lifestyle novels, celebrating a certain intellectual sensitivity and consciousness (including a borrowed Jewish one), elevating them way above ordinary (Jewish and non-Jewish) existence.
In one novel, his narrator talks about holidaymakers at Lake Garda as "the wandering dead". Well, they may be; but imagine how you might feel if you were enjoying a drink at an Italian cafe, and a melancholy German with a cultured air told you that you were one of the wandering dead. You might, with justification, want to knock him down. Actually the description better applies to W G Sebald himself, with his sleepless nights, and his Alpine mountains threatening to fall on top of him, and his empty Tube platforms, where he stands "for a considerable time, on the very brink so to speak", but doesn't dare take the final step.