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The Emigrants Paperback – 1 Jan 2002
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The Emigrants is a meditation on memory and loss. Sebald re-creates the lives of four exiles--five if you include his oblique self-portrait--through their own accounts, others' recollections and pictures and found objects. But he brings these men before our eyes only to make them fade away, "longing for extinction." Two were eventual suicides, another died in an asylum, the fourth still lived under a "poisonous canopy" more than 40 years after his parents' death in Nazi Germany.
Sebald's own longing is for communion. En route to Ithaca (the real upstate New York location but also the symbolic one), he comes to feel "like a travelling companion of my neighbour in the next lane." After the car speeds away--"the children pulling clownish faces out of the rear window--I felt deserted and desolate for a time." Sebald's narrative is purposely moth-holed (butterfly-ridden, actually--there's a recurring Nabokov-with-a-net type), an escape from the prison-house of realism. According to the author, his Uncle Ambros's increasingly improbable tales were the result of "an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions." Luckily for us, Sebald seems to have inherited the same syndrome. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"Strange, beautiful and terribly moving" (A.S. Byatt)
"This deeply moving book shames most writers with its nerve and tact and wonder" (Michael Ondaatje)
"An unconsoling masterpiece...It is exquisitely written and exquisitely translated...a true work of art" (Spectator)
"A spellbinding account of four Jewish exiles. Its restrained and meditative tone has stayed with me all year" (Nicholas Shakespeare)
"A sober delicate account of displacement, and a classic of its kind. Modest and remote, it resurrects older standards of behaviour, making most contemporary writing seem brash and immature. No book has pleased me more this year" (Anita Brookner, Spectator)
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There is a real sense of place in each story & I especially enjoyed the description of Manchester in the 60's, reminding me of a world I used to know that has now passed.
I'm only sorry that there will be no more from this spare and elegant writer.
"The Emigrants" is composed on the stories of four individuals, one from Lithuania, three from Germany, all of whom were very much citizens, and felt as though they belonged to their countries, but who were also Jewish, or only partially Jewish, and in varying ways were rejected by their homeland. They went, or were forced into exile. Sebald writes masterfully, and the stories mount in a rising crescendo of nuance, complexity and sorrow, from Dr. Henry Selwyn who becomes a hermit on his own estate, through the school teacher; Paul Bereyter, Jewish enough to be denied his teaching post, but not Jewish enough to prevent being drafted into the Wehrmacht; to Ambros Adlewarth, who made it to America, and served as a butler of sorts to exclusive Jewish families; and finally to Max Ferber, the artist who escaped to Manchester, England. There are quite a few thoughtful reviews of this book, and I do not need to duplicate their descriptions of these stories.
Sebald is a masterful writer, with excellent erudition, who weaves esoteric facts and tales into his main story, without it ever seeming contrived. For example, there is the "butterfly man," who makes a cameo appearance throughout the book, and who is Vladimir Nabokov, the lepidopterist, and one of the ultimate Jewish emigrants, who had to leave his cozy life in his native Czarist Russia, but later capture that period in his excellent autobiography, "Speak, Memory." And there is Coubert's painting, "The Oak of Vercingetorix," which appears in the story on the painter Max Ferber. There is also a masterful portrait of the "proud tower" that was Europe in 1913, in which Sebald paints the life of the "rich and famous" in Deauville (France) that would have been worthy of, and could have come from the pages of Marcel Proust. Sebald introduces a new novelist technique of including black and white photographs which illustrate his story, and are referenced on the page which they occur. The photos are often grainy, and even out of focus, and none are worse than the one of the storyteller by the ocean on page 89. At first I thought this technique dreadful, but as I progressed through the book, I realized how important they were as an integral part of the story; they were the "real life" of actual family photos, the set-piece poses, the skewed perspectives, all of which seemed to fit perfectly by the end of the book.
Sadly, six months ago I had never heard of Sebald, and now I realize that he is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and the credit goes to the Amazon review program, and the strong recommendation of a fellow reviewer, R. M. Peterson, my "neighbor to the north" in Santa Fe. Kudos to both for the enriching recommendations. "The Rings of Saturn" will not be far behind. Obviously a 5-star plus book.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 20, 2010)
The book consists of four independent narratives portraying four very different individuals within their social and historical context. Yet, each of them is profoundly connected to a past that each cannot escape. The oblique references to the disturbing events of the twentieth century - the two World Wars, the Holocaust - linger like a shadow behind the characters, having deeply scarred their existence. The narrator, who in part, or entirely, could be Sebald himself, is an inquisitive researcher into his subjects' lives. In his quest to comprehend each of them, he imagines himself in their shoes, traveling through many villages, towns and countries, tracing their wanderings, probing in depth their temporary existence away from their homeland and the reasons for giving up on their lives: the doctor, the teacher, the great uncle, and the painter. Sebald is a meticulous observer of locales in nature. His own ruminations when walking along a familiar village path or through the street maze of a city add a rare quality of authenticity to the accounts. The significance of his usually gloomy black and white photos, apparently incidental, yet deliberately placed, of buildings, landscapes, objects or people, while not identified, emerges from the narrative context and strengthens it.
With each portrait Sebald builds a more complex character study. He expands his understanding of the subject beyond his personal recollections by interviewing intermediaries, such as family and friends and sifting through their documents and photos. In an overall sense, the protagonists are characters of fiction. However, they are drawn from and shaped to a greater or lesser extend by Sebald's memory of people he knew. For example, his elementary school teacher was the basis for Paul who, as part Jewish, was prevented from teaching during the thirties and left the country only to return after the war and to end up in the village of Sebald's childhood. The most direct connection between the narrator and his subject is established in the portrait of Max Ferber, who also resembles Sebald contemporary, the painter Frank Auerbach. In conversations and joint walks through Manchester, where Sebald lived for a time, the reader can sense that his narrator might well reflects many of the author's thoughts and preoccupations at the time.
All four individuals were ordinary people formed by extraordinary circumstances. A feeling of nostalgia for a simpler and happier time permeates the stories as Sebald's narrator reminisces over diaries and photos from his subjects' collections. The reader, almost despite themselves, are drawn into these personal portraits and also the reflections on time, loss and memory as a result of the turmoil of the twentieth century. [Friederike Knabe]
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