Posts Tagged ‘W G Sebald’

The Emigrants

December 14, 2020

W G Sebald’s The Emigrants, originally published in 1993, was the first of his books to appear in English, translated by Michael Hulse in 1996, and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year. It tells the story of four men, each in some way an emigrant, each in some way connected to Sebald: one is a distant relation, another his old teacher, and two he meets, one might say, by accident. In fact, the apparently accidental nature of the narrative, the randomness of the construction (the first two chapters are much shorter than then third and fourth), disguise a deeper-lying unity which builds through the emotional ripples which run through the book.

Although Sebald’s appearance in the narrative makes it something of a memoir, the author is careful to avoid seeming the centre of attention, where instead he places his subject and circles round them drawing ever closer to the heart of their story. In the first chapter he meets Dr Henry Selwyn, the estranged husband of his landlady. Selwyn, once a doctor, now spends his days tending his garden and caring for three horses which he has saved from the knacker’s yard. Eventually Selwyn shares the story of his childhood emigration from Lithuania to England, which seems to be affecting him more intensely as he gets older. A parallel story of a friend he had to part from in Switzerland when the First World War broke out provides an echo of that primal separation:

“Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli.”

Later Sebald hears that Selwyn has taken his own life, an act he has clearly been considering for some time as one day the author and his wife find him testing the shotgun he eventually uses to find out if it is still in working order.

Paul Bereyter, Sebald’s second subject, was once his teacher (in the 1950s), though we discover that before the Second World War it was difficult for him to find employment as he had a Jewish grandparent. Despite this, he fights in the German army. The chapter opens with his suicide, which prompts Sebald to discover more about his life. Even as a child Sebald is able to perceive something of the sadness in Bereyter’s life:

“…at any time – in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings – he might stop of sit down somewhere, alone and apart for us all, as if he, who was always in good spirits and cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.”

It is during the 1930s, a young man in love, and at the start of his career, that everything changes:

“The wonderful future he had dreamt of that summer collapsed without a sound like the proverbial house of cards.”

Not only must he travel abroad in order to work, but his father’s business is attacked and his father dies soon after, quickly followed by his mother. As with Selwyn, as he grows older these experiences affect him more profoundly.

The chapter on Ambrose Adelwarth, Sebald’s great uncle, I found the least successful in the book, perhaps because, as Sebald’s relative, there seems to be an excess of information, or perhaps because his story seems the most tenuously connected to the book’s themes. Adelwarth himself is not Jewish but he travels the world with Cosmo Solomon (it seems to be suggested they may be more than just ‘companions’) and then becomes butler to Solomon’s family when he dies. He, too, is an emigrant, having left Germany, with much of his family, for America.

The final chapter concerns Max Ferber, and is apparently based on the painter Frank Auerbach. Like Auerbach, Ferber was sent to Britain from Germany as a child and his parents later died in a concentration camp. Sebald meets him in Manchester when he first arrives in England but at this time Ferber gives him an “extremely cursory version of his life.” It is only years later he come across an article on Ferber which reveals that he arrived in England as a fifteen-year-old in 1939.

“The article went on to say that Ferber’s parents, who delayed their own departure from Germany for a number of reasons, were taken from Munich to Riga in November 1941, in one of the first deportation trains, and were subsequently murdered there.”

This leads Sebald to return to Manchester and speak to Ferber again, the resultant interview forming the rest of the chapter. Once again he unearths a past that was never really buried.

The Emigrants is a wonderful book. Sebald is adept at building from small details the portraits within, just as a painter might from the smallest brush strokes. He is also skilled at creating a powerful sense of time and place, both when he is revealing his subject’s past, but also when he describes moments in his own life. The intermingling of his text with photographs speaks of both these strengths; that they are uncaptioned suggests the fleeting images of memory with which he is so concerned. It is certainly arguable that, in The Emigrants, he creates a new form, one that would win him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize seven years later in 2002 for Austerlitz, and eventually provoke the prize which all writers secretly long for, his own adjective. More importantly, The Emigrants remains a subtle and immersive reading experience.