Sebald – Time, Memory, and the Human Experience

  • a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament.
    The word ‘saudade’ came to mind when understanding Austerlitz. I guess it’s because it made me think of the past and how time back then and the memories which unfold give me this certain feeling.

There’s this text that appears at the end of a Wong Kar Wai film, In The Mood For Love (2000) that I’d like to share that talks about memory –

“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”

I find that incredibly beautiful. I know for a fact I have a thing for melancholia and nostalgia. I find it somewhat romantic. To describe looking into the past as a ‘dusty window pane’ is unparalleled to any description I could ever make up. Anyway, let me talk about how what I’ve just said above ties in with Austerlitz.

To set the tone… Here’s one of my favourite passages from the book:

“It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last… And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?”

Sebald writes with this trance-like, fleeting yet deep quality which makes me hear the voice of Time yet Time for some reason does not like to overstay its visit and dissolves into a core place within ourselves that transforms into memory. Sebald captures the sentiment and makes the intangible as tangible as you could get when he explores the very journey of being lost and found again, falling apart only to be put back together… This book is covered with wandering beings, movement of trains, mist, fog, smoke, buildings, empty places, streets, forests, cemeteries, obscurity etc. It’s melancholic. We’re wandering. There’s sadness when you wander, just floating by. We’re near death in a way. The prose wanders like the narrator and it gives me the sense of this lost soul trying to find home. It even reminds me of the sadness I felt when Holden Caulfield (from The Catcher of The Rye) endlessly wanders trying to find Allie, feeling as if he could possibly vanish into thin air every time he turned a corner. The narrator’s voice floats and guides us to feel melancholia – it’s beautiful and tender, but there is also a deep undercurrent of sadness and loss.

What Sebald has written truly is a representation of the human experience. It made me feel a lot as I tend to gravitate towards the past. Sebald’s Austerlitz is actually giving me the same feeling I felt when I watched the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both the book and film deal with the themes of memory, time, and the human experience.

1 thought on “Sebald – Time, Memory, and the Human Experience

  1. Christina Hendricks

    This is a very beautiful and thought-provoking reflection! I like the sentence about time not overstaying its visit and turning into memory. I also find it very interesting to think about wandering as being close to death in a way. To me, that could make sense because when wandering one can be lost (depending on why one is wandering), without a sense of home or belonging, and that would be the case in death as well–one will have moved on from what was previously a place of belonging. One would be separated from “home.” So being lost might be related to death in that way. At least, that’s what your idea sparked in me!


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