The book is divided into four sections, each purporting to be a portrait of a real person's life, augmented by photographs that pepper the text. First is Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of our narrator's new landlady who talks frankly about his emigration from Lithuania to London (a city he arrived in, mistakenly thinking it was New York, but staying anyway) and how the revealed secret of his heritage has opened up some distance between him and his wife. As that distance grows he feels his memories of the past growing ever closer and reminisces about his friend Naegeli who disappeared on a trip into the mountains. It is only after our narrator hears of Selwyn's suicide that he comes across a newspaper article detailing the discovery of Naegeli's body, released by a glacier 72 years after his disappearance, a symbol of remembrance and proof that 'they are ever returning to us, the dead.'
It is news of suicide again that introduces us to a former teacher of Sebald's (sorry, the narrator) Paul Bereyter, an inspirational and brave teacher betrayed by his being 'one quarter Jewish', a figure who carries that burden with him almost physically, a sadness creeping through when memory takes over.
Paul, who was standing by the window as usual, far from being able to hide the emotion that young Brandeis's playing produced in him, had to remove his glasses because his eyes had filled with tears, As I remember it, he even had to turn away in order to conceal from us the sob that rose in him. It was not only music, though, that affected Paul in this way; indeed at any time - in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings - he might stop or sit down somewhere, alone and apart from us, as if he, who was always in good spirits and seemed so cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.
The third and fourth portraits provide more narrative for a first time reader like me. Ambros Adelwarth, is the narrator's great uncle who for many years was the travelling companion of Cosmo, a rich airman with a gambling streak and fragile mental health. There is a hint of homosexuality when Uncle Kasimir mentions that Ambros was 'of the other persuasion' and this alters slightly, perhaps even explains, the nature of their bond whilst travelling, the impact on Ambros of Cosmo's internment in a mental hospital and the hollowing out as he grows older that leaves him looking as though 'his clothes were holding him together'. At this stage the darker side of memory is exposed for when Ambros commits himself to a clinic and undergoes large bouts of voluntary shock therapy his doctor slowly realises that this may be a 'longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember.' Ambros's journal, with its minute and almost indecipherable text becomes a cause for study, another document that makes up memory, commenting on that very phenomena.
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.
It's important to mention I think that there is lightness too amongst these shattered pieces and even humour. For example, another relative, Aunt Theres, provides some comic relief with her visits from America back to the fatherland.
Three weeks after she arrived on every visit, she would still be weeping with the joy of reunion, and three weeks before she left she would again be weeping with the pain of separation. If her stay with us was longer than six weeks, there would be a becalmed period in the middle... but if her stay was shorter there were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she dreaded having to leave again.
The last and longest section is about Max Ferber, an artist living now in Manchester, inspired by the real Frank Auerbach who similarly escaped Germany on the Kindertransport whilst his parents remained, were deported to the east and died in a concentration camp. As our narrator spends time with him in his studio he observes the artistic process, the constant application and removal of paint, the scratching out of faces that leaves their ghosts on the canvas, a haunting image of those left behind or lost.
Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.