As a writer, Sebald had invented an arcane aesthetic by cobbling together things imagined and things recalled; his essays and novels challenge the idea that facts hold a greater claim to truth than misremembered faces, overlooked details or overheard gossip. Aunt Egelhofer, who was real, was Sebald’s gateway to the world of the Wallersteins, who were also real. And yet their narrative hovers in a misty zone typical of Sebald, who was loyal to neither history nor fiction but rather to an unstable confluence of invention, memory, and imagination.
Photographs also play a key role in all of Sebald’s books, casting an aura of documentation and verisimilitude on the narrative, and yet they are also vague and unreliable. Blurry images and illegible handwritten notebooks emphasize the imminent extinction of objects, people, places, or buildings that are already, or perhaps always were, on their way out. Jews, for Sebald, personify the very essence of transience and extraterritoriality, residents of a might-have-been world that has known better days. Other lines are blurred in Sebald’s universe, too. As a narrator in “The Emigrants” writes, “I leafed through the album that afternoon, and since then I have returned to it time and again, because looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them.”
Andre Aciman, W.G Sebald and the Emigrants: How a friendship with two elderly Jewish refugees inspired the German novelist. The New Yorker August 25 2016