The Reading Passport
The 1990’s was a decade of multiculturalism and alternative media. Your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at “The Emigrants” by the German writer W. G. Sebald. Sebald settled permanently in England in 1970, becoming Professor of German Literature at The University of East Anglia. He wrote all his books in German which were then translated into English.
“The Emigrants” is an unusual book: part puzzle, part dream. Is it a fictional novel, or is it a memoir? Are the pictures that are interspersed through the text really taken from a family album, or are they devices to give apparent authenticity to the text? And, how do the four stories of people vaguely known by Sebald fit together into a coherent narrative.
Dr Henry Selwyn, whom Sebald meets when renting a flat in Norwich was originally a poor emigrant from Lithuania. He became wealthy after moving to England. He married but became increasing estranged from his wife, and committed suicide with an old hunting rifle kept from his African hunting days. Paul Bereyer, Sebald’s gifted teacher in Germany also commits suicide by throwing himself under a train after suffering bouts of claustrophobia since the war. Sebald’s Great Uncle Ambros was butler to the Solomon’s of Long Island before committing himself to a Sanatorium in Ithaca. And, Max Ferber, a reclusive German artist Sebald met in Manchester kept quiet about his parents until , as he was dying, he gave Sebald his mother’s journal for the war years before she was sent to a camp.
Sebald’s prose style is very precise, and although cautious seems to simmer with implications. He writes of the small things that stick in the mind, building inexorably into a picture of catastrophic loss. Although the Holocaust is never mentioned by name, and the book is neither a novel, nor history, nor a witness statement, it becomes a powerful invocation of the private devastation’s of Jewish experience that lingered long after the war.
If you want to read more Sebald after “The Emigrants” try his book “Austerlitz”, the story of Jacques Austerlitz, a Jewish refugee child during the war trying to trace the fate of his father in Prague and Paris. Like his other books, it is a blend of history, reportage, memoir and fiction.