I call his books novels, partly, I think, because I want to claim him for fiction, and partly because that seems the most inclusive term for their mélange of fictionalized memoir, travel journals, inventories of natural and man-made curiosities, impressionistic musings on painting, entomology, architecture, military fortifications, riffs on the lives of Kafka, Stendhal, Casanova, Conrad, Swinburne…Whatnot.
Defying classification, Sebald’s books take the shape of his consciousness. That is what makes them great.
I call them novels because what unifies them is the narrator’s distilled voice—melancholy, resonant as a voice in a tunnel, witty—the effluvia of their author’s inner life. And against all odds, from the accounts of exile and decay, the voice wrests a magical exhilaration. In the face of decline, Sebald offers writerly passion. It is gorgeous; it yields aesthetic bliss.