"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.