Earlier this year I bought all of W.G. Sebald’s “fictions” and decided to read them in chronological order, starting with Vertigo. I was incredibly affected by that book, where the narrator seemed capable of making the past tangible as he roamed paths where Stendhal, Cassanova, and Kafka wandered. It was hauntingly real. However, having now read Sebald’s second book (the first published in English), The Emigrants, I feel as though Vertigo were more of a tutorial, a primer, preparing me for the richer, even more tangible past in The Emigrants.
In The Emigrants time and space again contract as our narrator, whom I’ll call Sebald, traces the steps of the dead, going to their home, listening to or reading their stories, and — it’s beautiful — looking at their photographs, which are embedded in the text. And though in Vertigo Sebald managed to make everything very intimate, in The Emigrants the intimacy is much more intense. Yet still I’m reading about people I know nothing about; their experiences are not part of my heritage.
The Emigrants is divided into four accounts: that of (1) Dr. Henry Selwyn, whose family emigrated from Lithuania from England, a secret he kept from his wife for a while; (2) Paul Bereyter, a quarter-Jew, still discriminated against though he served in the Wehrmacth, who taught Sebald in school and, later in life, emigrated to France; (3) Ambros Adelwarth, Sebald’s great-uncle, who travelled the Near East with a great friend but who, when that friend was committed to a mental institution, then went to be the butler to that friend’s family in Long Island; and (4) Max Ferber, a painter in Manchester, who ended up in Manchester when his parents succeeded in sending him away from Germany on a plane in 1939 but then failed to get themselves out.
The book begins with a picture of a cemetery, the same one showed on the cover above. It is 1970, and Sebald is driving around the English countryside with his wife, taking everything in, apparently, though not fully understanding the weight of everything he sees. At least, he doesn’t know how much he will eventually be affected by Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of his new landlord. Dr. Selwyn is surprisingly open to Sebald, telling him about a past friend named Naegeli, with whom he climbed mountains:
I can still see him standing at the station at Meiringen, waving. But I may only be imagining it, Dr Selwyn went on in a lower tone, to himself, since Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over the years, whereas Naegeli seems closer whenever he comes to my mind, despite the fact that I never saw him again after that farewell in Meiringen.
Naegeli disappeared, and they think that he was buried in the snow. Dr. Selwyn doesn’t cease divulging to Sebald there. In a later visit, he tells more of his past, “prompted by his asking whether I was ever homesick,” Sebald says. Interestingly, the fact that Sebald himself is an emigrant stays underneath the narrative most of the time. Dr. Selwyn tells Sebald of his emigration to England (they thought they’d landed in New York, got off the boat, and, realizing their mistake, decided to stay). Henry Selwyn’s name was Hersch Seweryn. When Dr. Selwyn finally divulged this information to his wife, their relationship changed. Now, he thinks his secret is what made them drift apart. Sebald finds out later that Dr. Selwyn eventually took his own life. As shaking as this must have been, Sebald says, “I had no great difficulty in overcoming the initial shock.” Years pass.
But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.
Many times throughout the book we find the past encroaching on the present, whether in the lives of the subjects or Sebald:
And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.
As he grows older, he begins to feel the weight of history. Or, perhaps more exact, he begins to understand the nature of time as it moves through people, and he begins to devote his time to finding the past these people left behind, the past they themselves have tried to forget. One of tales is told primarily by Mme Landau, and she talks about “the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget. . .”
But Sebald suggests they don’t forget. In fact, it’s all they can remember, and it follows them everywhere, to their death. This is a fantastic book, and while I’d love to keep paraphrasing the accounts and quoting Sebald, I think the best thing is to say you should read this book.