W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

W. G. Sebald (1944-2001) was a German writer, academic and emigrant. Though his written language was German, he taught only in England and held positions at both the University of Manchester and the University of East Anglia. He wrote four novels (and supervised their translation into English), as well as a number of poems, essays and short stories.

Though Sebald’s career was relatively short, having written his first novel only 11 years before his early death in a car accident in 2001, his work earned and continues to earn substantial acclaim in both Europe and America.

The central themes of his writing are memory; the loss of memory and its recovery; the decay of civilization, nature, culture and people; a complementary fascination with the the seemingly arbitrary things that survive; and the bodies of formal knowledge, natural science, history and architecture that seem to preserve the past and present. His magisterial, unsentimental renditions of individual narratives of survivors of the Holocaust, as well as his unique and artful use of the novel form, constitute what the New Yorker has called his “extraordinary contribution to world literature.”

The features of Sebald’s novels that combine to create his distinct style include a mixture of fact and fiction, biography and autobiography, scientific lexicon and poetic figures of speech. In the course of the narrative, these elements blend with their opposites and with one another.

His paragraphs are long but not expansive. He does not dwell on the description of a single object or event, but rather his descriptions stay on the level of photographic accuracy even when they are at their most poignant. The narrative eye’s constant movement from feature to feature serves, in the sequence of its attention, to drive the plot. The photographic clarity of the language is paradoxically complicated by the actual presence of black and white photographs in the text, which are more often cryptic than revealing.

The Emigrants bears each of these earmarks of Sebald’s style. The novel is structured in four sections, each longer than the one before it and each dealing with the history, life and death of an emigrant. Each of these men carries, in an indefinable way, in the negative space of his character, an emptiness caused by the loss of homeland. Three of the men are German, and one is Lithuanian. Each is connected personally with the narrator – two housemates, a former teacher and a great uncle.

The narrator remains nameless but has undeniable biographical similarities to the author. For example, the first sentence of the novel reads: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position at Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.” Sebald started at Norwich in 1966, and his wife’s name was Ute.

The man that he meets at the house he finds in Hingham, the novel’s first emigrant, Dr. Henry Selwyn, is pictured only a few pages later in his butterfly garb. He bears, as the narrator points out, a curious resemblance to the author Vladimir Nabokov, who was himself an emigrant from Bolshevik Russia as well as a passionate lepidopterist. Still more cryptically, the presence of the figure or specter of this “butterfly man” is one of the few commonalities of these four disparate stories. One’s inclination, in any case, is to take this photograph as a representation of Dr. Selwyn himself, a man whose name one might have found in the phonebook.

These are only two examples in the novel where the line between a real person and an invented character is deliberately blurred. But one is not compelled to begin a Wikipedia hunt for personal details, but compelled, rather, into the curious intimacy of Sebald’s stories.

In the course of each story, moreover, the narrator and the question of the narrator fall away, replaced by the much more compelling question of the story’s main character. In The Emigrants, as in Sebald’s other novels, the story is told primarily through reported speech, through stories told by characters in the story (the characters of which often tell stories in turn), through books, newspapers, journals and photographs. The two longest stories each end with the narrator making a journey to a central location of the preceding narrative. He carries with him the weight of this story (complete in his mind as it can never be for the person who lived it), and brings it himself to an end. This sort of third-person conclusion, in which the story’s listener is responsible for finishing it, gives us a strong sense of its ending while leaving  readers with the sense that everything most important remains in the irretrievable past.

The very last section of the novel deals with the author’s own emigration from Germany to Manchester, England, and more centrally the story of Max Ferber, an artist and emigrant German Jew. The two meet when the author first leaves Germany for Manchester at 21, and Max begins to share his story. After a separation of nearly three decades, the two meet again and Ferber gives the narrator his mother’s diary from the early 1940s, after he himself had already made it to England. This journal leads the narrator to the town it describes, the last known residence of Ferber’s mother, which provides him only with the company of old spa visitors and an overgrown, gated graveyard, for which he is given the wrong key. This uncanny place leaves him with a sense of the “mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans.”

Back in Manchester, returning to his hotel room after visiting the dying Ferber, he begins to enter into the missing memories of we’re not sure who: the view from his fifth-story window and the sounds rising from the city below begin to seem to him, and then become indistinguishable from photographs he had seen the previous year, in Frankfurt, Germany, of the Litzmannstadt ghetto. •