Enthralling Books: The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark


The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

A few days before the news of W.G. Sebald’s sudden death in a car accident in 2000, I had decided I was going to send him a letter. I have written about two letters to authors in my life, and I would do it more often if I thought there was way to go about it that didn’t by design come across as fannish and gushing. But the work of Sebald, particularly his 20th century masterpiece The Emigrants, had such a profound affect on me, I felt compelled to let him know.

Word of his death was a blow. Sebald was just starting to get the wider recognition he deserved with the publication of Austerlitz, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. I felt as though something important had been taken from the world, something that was essential to helping us understand what it means to be human beings agents of history, and how history works on us. This is what Sebald’s work is about: None of our lives exist within a vacuum, that we are all part and parcel of historical forces that shape us, batter us about, and in our attempts to fight against them, we often lose.

I had discovered the novel The Emigrants by chance. It was weekday afternoon, browsing the literature section of the bookstore. I often scan by logos on the spines, looking for independent publishers in the hopes of discovering authors or books I have never heard of. I spied the New Directions mark on a book, pulled it from the shelf and read the back. I had never heard of Sebald, but thought it looked interesting enough. I bought it and took it home.

I was not quite prepared for what happened next. Almost like a state of self-hypnosis, I could feel some part of my reader’s consciousness shift. I read books as if I understand books, as if I know about genre and time-periods, know what to expect from science fiction, from crime noir, from Kafka, from Vonnegut, from Roth. Of course I’m surprised at times by language, plot, and a character that comes alive in a way I never thought possible. But I am rarely thrown off course by a book, never have I had to renegotiate the very act of reading. That is, until I read The Emigrants.

The story is simple enough. An unnamed narrator encounters through testimony and diaries the lives of four people all of whom are German exiles leading up to or during the Second World War: Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of the narrator’s landlady who haunts the gardens and the crumbling tennis court and spends his time counting blades of grass; Paul Bereyter, the narrator’s beloved school teacher whose partially Jewish heritage puts him in close proximity to tragedy; Ambros Adelwarth, the narrator’s great uncle who served as a butler for a wealthy Jewish family in America; and the artist Max Aurach whose family is exterminated.

While the shadow of the Holocaust looms large, The Emigrants is not a Holocaust book. Rather, it’s a book about displacement, identity, and place. All of Sebald’s characters are afloat, untethered from their homeland which as a result of the war is irrevocably changed. How can you go back to an unfamiliar place where you never really belonged but where you sense some part of your true self lies?

Sebald inserts photographs and other ephemera (maps, drawings, diary pages) into the text. A strange enough thing to do in fiction, but something that at first lends a comfortable sense of reality to the narrative. That is until you realize that one of the images corresponds directly to something in the text.

This first happened to me during the section on the schoolteacher Paul Bereyter. Sebald describes him with a group of people, somewhat apart from the rest and looking emaciated and depressed The photograph that follows shows just that, a tall gangly respected and skinny man standing alone amidst a group. At first I was not sure what I was looking at. Was this non-fiction after all? Was I being tricked? The story of Bereyter up to that point had been deeply moving and the character was as real to me as any I had read before, but here he was, a living person in a photograph, not just something spun out of the imagination of the author. It’s one thing to draw from real life in fiction, it’s another to merge the two so completely that one is made dizzy trying to parse them.

And so it goes throughout this strange, sad, and remarkable book that challenges all notions of literature, and of the act of reading. Each photograph and scrap of paper force you to go back to what you just read, to try and see how the text and the image line up. Sometimes the images are generic and only used as an example, but even these remind us that the narrative, however made up, exists in the real world, in “the actual.” There is often a sense of being pulled apart, just as the narrator’s own memories and those of his subjects are strained to the breaking point, where dream and recollection are merged into a single thing. In the end it’s doesn’t matter, Sebald seems to be saying, if what he writes is real or not. What is more important is what is true.

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