‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald

TheEmigrants

Paperback – fiction; Vintage; 256 pages; 2002. Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

Winfried Georg (“Max”) Sebald is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read for years, but it wasn’t until Robert McCrum, writing in The Guardian earlier this year, named him as one of three modern greats from the past 15 years, that I thought I really must get around to trying him. (Interestingly, The Guardian has an entire section devoted to Sebald on its website. His books The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz were also named on The Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read list.)

The Emigrants, first published in 1992 and translated into English in 1996, heralded Sebald as a writer to watch. He apparently had a rather meteoric rise in the literary world, with all kinds of praise thrown his way, including a suggestion that he should win the Nobel Prize. But tragically all this came to nothing when Sebald was killed in a car accident in 2001, aged just 57.

Knowing of his tragic demise makes reading this book even more of a poignant experience, for The Emigrants is a melancholy book about grief and loss told from the perspective of four German Jews coming to terms with the events of the Second World War. It’s a strangely beguiling book, a weird mix of fiction, memoir and history. To complicate matters further, it lacks a plot, all the characters are told through the prism of other character’s memoirs, and the narrative meanders all over the place. The text is also littered with black and white photographs, none of which are captioned.

But despite these strange idiosyncrasies, the prose is eloquent and hypnotic, even if Sebald has a penchant for overly long sentences. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s also highly readable and addictive. I ate this one up hungrily in the course of a weekend.

The book is divided into four parts, each one telling the story of a different exile: Dr Henry Selwyn; Paul Bereyter; Ambros Adelwarth; and Max Ferber. Their individual tales are linked by the unnamed narrator (believed to be a thinly veiled version of Sebald himself), who explores their histories and eventually comes to realise the devastating and occasionally long-lasting consequences of the Third Reich on their lives. Suicide, depression and displacement are never far away.

This is a sober and moving book about what it is like to have your country stolen from you. It was my first introduction to Sebald; I’m confident it won’t be my last.

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4 thoughts on “‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald

  1. I’ve not read this one but I have read Austerlitz and Rings of Saturn and loved them. Both are exactly what you say about this one – eloquent and hypnotic. Did this one have pictures? In his two other books there are photos – which are not explanatory, and yet somehow integral and essential to the whole experience.

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  2. Yes, it’s got loads of pictures in it. They look like family snaps, but nothing’s captioned, so I don’t know who I’m looking at, but I guess half the fun is trying to work it out for yourself. I’ve added Austerlitz and Rings of Saturn to my wish list.

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  3. Hi kimbofo, I read this back in January 2000 after my brother gave it to me for Christmas. I remember finding it really fascinating and one of those books I’d happily read again. I like its intriguing mix of fiction and memoir (with the photos etc). In a letter to a friend at the time I described its “seemingly typical postwar dispassionate German style. Eerie style to read when the subject matter is quite emotional”. (Is it typical? I’m not so sure now why I said that) Anyhow, I’ve always meant to read more of him – Austerlitz in particular – but haven’t yet managed to. (BTW Didn’t he have the car accident in England? Wherever he had it, it was pretty sad)

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  4. Yea, he had the accident in England. He emigrated to England in 1970 and settled in Manchester.
    You’re right that it’s written in a kind of dispassionate style, but even so I found it remarkably moving. I’m not sure why, but something about it does get under the skin.

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