TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 March 2011
...survive. There have been literally thousands of books written about the Holocaust, and I have read my share of Primo Levi, but WG Sebald's "The Emigrants" has to be in the top five in conveying its absolute horror and devastation. He manages to accomplish this rather elliptically, and with much understatement, by depicting the lives of four individuals who "got out in time," but they were never able to overcome the terrible dislocation that occurred, and in the majority of the cases it resulted in suicide, direct, or incidental, as may very well have been the case with Levi. This dislocation has occurred to others, and continues to occur today, but in terms of graphics, I think of a drawing at a friend's house, of Andrew Jackson, holding an uprooted tree, and if one looks closely, one realizes that the tree is composed of individuals who composed the Cherokee Nation, who were forcibly relocated from their homeland by him.
"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)