on 9 April 2002
Sebald writes movingly of four different emigrants and ties together their sense of loss and displacement. There are common threads in each story but each life is clearly drawn and it's effect upon Sebald's own life and emotions alluded to rather than stated explicitly.
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.
on 6 February 2004
“The Emigrants” firs appear to be mere accounts of four different Jewish emigrants in the twentieth century. But gradually the four narratives merge into a poetic evocation of exile and loss. Mr Sebald’s precise, almost dreamlike writing – along with many beautiful photographs – works its magic. The account of the displacement of these four émigrés is both sober and delicate. Few books convey more about that complex and tragic fate. Michael Hulse’s exquisite translation really makes this book a work of art.
on 8 September 2007
Memories have a strange way of clinging to people, appearing haphazardly and intermittently. Other times they may roll over an individual with such insistence it changes the course of their life. Often the mind modifies recollections over time, suggesting altered fragments of past realities when they return. Sebald is a master of searching out lost or hidden memories. In a format that goes beyond the traditional genres, he merges memoir, biography, travelogue and fiction. In an often elegiac, yet precise language with great attention to detail, he takes the reader on a winding road of discovery. He creates patterns and builds connections out of incidents and places that initially appear disjointed. In The Emigrants he applies his unique writing style and descriptive technique to the fullest.
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]
...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)
on 4 July 2002
The melancholy of separation 24 June, 2002
"The Emigrants" presents itself as an anthology of four biographies, of a doctor, a teacher, a valet and a painter. But it is in fact a single narrative because all four emigrants have undergone the same story and because each successive biography takes the tale a little further back towards the subject's childhood.
The tale is of middle-Europeans who were forced to leave home during the first half of the 20th century. And in leaving home they lost their identities, their sense of belonging and their sense of self. They became, in the modern jargon, emotional cripples; bereaved, but bereaved of their own roots, not only of other people. All four were Jewish, but that is incidental to the narrative of loss and is never mentioned explicitly.
"The Emigrants" is written in Sebald's characteristic cool, measured, spoken prose. Ishiguro is another practitioner of this art, so maybe it can be called the University of East Anglia style. Sebald strikes the facts clearly so they can resonate. The book reads itself easily because it is simple and about real people. The story of the valet who willed himself to die under electroconvulsive therapy made me cry.
What is not there Sebald does not replace with speculation or embroidered adjectives. So the foursome's memories fade into the past like Sebald's smudged black-and-white photos.
on 15 December 2011
There are five main emigrants in this book: Henry Selwyn (a doctor); Paul Bereyter (the narrator's teacher); Ambros Adelwarth (the narrator's great uncle, a butler); Max Ferber (a painter) and the narrator himself. The narrator's story is not told directly, but indirectly through its intersections with the other four. What do they have in common, these five European men who have survived World War II? Two of them are Jewish; one has a father who we are told is part Jewish, the other two are German. Each of the five of them is deeply affected by what he has survived. Exile and loss form part of each man's experience.
This novel is presented as four separate biographies, incorporating photographs of people, places and artefacts. These photographs form part of the story being told: the photographs are of individuals, the stories are told as individual stories but they represent the dislocations of many. The memories may be shared, but each experience is unique. We are reminded that persecution takes many forms, and that emigration provides only one dimension of distance from experience. Two of the emigrants commit suicide and one dies in a mental institution. Arguably, emigration was not distance enough. Experiences cannot be escaped.
I have read each of the four stories once, and two of them twice. I need to read them all again in order to try to make my own sense of it. I am sure that the butterflies (for example) have more significance than I first appreciated, and the image of restless souls searching (for what, I wonder) is one I find haunting. Who are these people, and who do they represent? And what is the significance of the references to Nabokov?
This is not a book that can be read lightly. I found that there were limits to how long I could spend in the company of each emigrant without feeling overwhelmed by their stories. The prose is deceptively simple; the experiences being recounted are not.
This is the first of Mr Sebald's novels I have read, I have added the others to my reading list.
Like the recent French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, author W.G. Sebald was preoccupied with memory, nostalgia for the past and a haunting sense of loss. In a superb, sensitive translation from the German, "The Emigrants" comprise four freestanding sections, each recording the life of a man forced to leave Germany at some point in the last century, either to find employment in the States or to evade Nazi persecution.
Sebald has a very distinctive style, often described as dreamlike - and in the course of his meandering he sometimes resorts to recalling in detail real or imagined dreams, and tends to merge plain fact with probable invention. Slotted into the text to illustrate points, the frequent small, grainy photos of people, houses, scenery and objects are in some cases evocative and compelling, in others just quirky, such as a couple of keys for opening a cemetery gate, which in fact do not work. The first person narrator often finds out about his emigrants through the memories of others - perhaps emigrants themselves - but slots their commentary into his text without any inverted commas, creating in the process a stream of consciousness.
Opinions will differ, but I was most impressed by the final section on "Max Ferber". for which I would give five stars. In this, Sebald reveals himself to be an immigrant: a young German postgraduate student who came to Manchester in the `60s and found that he preferred not to return permanently to his homeland with its amnesia over the recent guilty past. Sebald "never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialisation had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation". But the most moving part is his friendship with the reclusive Jewish painter Ferber, who was sent on a flight to England by his once wealthy parents before they were themselves deported. Ferber inspires some of the author's most magical prose. The artist's method was to apply paint in a thick layer, only to spend hours scratching it off, leaving "a hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings mixed with coaldust..in places resembling the flow of lava". Ferber "never felt more at home than in places where matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness." He reflects: "I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced - consciousness - and so perhaps extinguishes itself". Ferber gives to Sebald the journal kept by his mother, which the author incorporates into his account - how much of this he actually writes himself is unclear. In any event it is a fascinating description of an ordered, carefee life in the one-third German village of Steinach at the start of the C20, all the more poignant since, "It goes without saying there are no Jews in Steinach now".
This strange account of people damaged by loss has the power to alter one's perception of life and is worth rereading for the quality of the writing and the insights expressed.
on 27 August 2009
I first read the Rings of Saturn a year ago and fell in love with Sebalds prose, I then read Campo Santo which I would recomend also. I then thought I'd try the Emigrants as I had seen that this is named dropped often by critics and fans of Sebald. It is basically four small books in one, each on getting longer and more elaborate. The first one is sublime, really left me speechless. The next three took a long time to really get into, but once sucked in once more, it becomes a brilliant response to the Jewish/German divide and the Hollocaust. I grew up in East Anglia and have never really thought too much about the Hollocaust or Jewish history very deeply, so I read it as an inocent looker in, and I have to say the way he told the stories and recounted this memory of the world moved me to my core. It wasn't a spectacle or a shock, but just a gentle wave of the millions of hours and seconds that acrew during a lifetime, either an individuals or a cultures. Each story is linked by phrases and ideas that keep re-ocuring like de-ja-vu. This is what Sebald is best at, and I would encourage a first time reader to try The Rings of Saturn or the Emigrants as a started and if you like them please read Campo Santo, it also contains essays which trace the influences of his style and you find out more about what made him tick.
on 22 July 2016
I read this for a Literature module on my degree, and I actually loved it. I became so entranced with the characters and it was so wonderful that I chose to write my assignment on it and received my highest mark! Really gets your brain working.
on 9 January 2014
WG Sebald is the foremost European writer of the late 20th century, though he chronicles earlier times, particularly Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, when Nazism was on the rise and the Jewish population was becoming increasingly beleagured and pressured into exile. Others here have told you what the book is about and described how beautifully the author threads the here and now with the ever-present past, and they're right. But let's just pay homage to the writing - in English as much the achievement of translator Michael Hulse as Sebald, who composed in German. A Bernese alpine guide, known to one of the characters, goes missing on a glacier in 1914 but his body is given up by the ice in 1986: "...the remains of Johannes Naegeli... had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots."