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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
31
4.6 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 30 April 2017
Integrated stories only work well when each story is of equal interest and quality. That was not the case here so the book never really built to be stronger than the combination of its parts.
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on 27 May 2017
this is a required book for my Open University studies. Enjoyed reading it.
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on 22 May 2017
Book was like new. Really pleased.
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on 20 April 2017
Excellent!
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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.
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...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)
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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]
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on 25 June 2013
I purchased this book as part of a study course but didn't particularly enjoy it. The writing is excellent but I found the stories quite depressive. Price though was very good.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 20 February 2015
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.
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