"The Emigrants" by W. G. Sebald

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

“The Emigrants” affects us very deeply, and it does this with a subtle, relentless buildup of man’s inhumanity to our chief characters, who are quite a sympathetic lot. This book has woven its enigmatic spell on some highly prominent readers, like Cynthia Ozick, Michael Dirda, Susan Sontag, and A.S. Byatt. W.G. Sebald brought this book out in German in 1992, and I want to give extra props to the translator, Michael Hulse, who captures the somber and straightforward prose so beautifully. This gem requires and deserves your attention like only a few other books.

The book’s main framework consists of a first-person narrator’s efforts to research the history of relatives and acquaintances who left Germany or other European countries for England in the 20th Century. In due course we learn these characters were fleeing Nazi ascendancy. The brief first section actually focuses on a seemingly random individual, but in fact, the character of Dr. Selwyn sets the tone for all the other emigrants: “The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing, even if I wanted to.” Shortly after moving away from the property the narrator and his wife had rented from the doctor, they learn of his suicide. The lives of the other characters often lead them to suicide, too.

The language in this quiet unquiet book makes us think of simple magazine pieces, written to elucidate the lives of some individual or other. The tone is rather light and distant, and never threatens to bog the reader down in emotion. But impossible to miss: the devastation of the Diaspora and the utter impossibility of remembering or discussing the Nazi regime. The first section, a kind of introduction although not marked as such, concludes with our narrator realizing that the dead come back to us, and he further concludes that they deserve to have their stories told.

A series of characters take us, Virgil-like, through varied versions of hell, but these are hells of frustration, of inefficacy. There is no help on Earth for the despised and reviled Jew. Sections dealing with two prominent characters take into account these characters’ visits to respective cities, each freighted with symbolic importance. The narrator’s great-uncle Ambros travels with his master to Jerusalem just before the First World War. They find a practical ruin. Everywhere, springs have dried up, once-spectacular buildings and temples have sunk and fallen, waste clogs the streets, and the city, even with its untold shrines, churches, and missions, appears abandoned. Later in the book, the narrator moves to Manchester, in the U.K., the onetime humming hub of the Industrial Revolution. There he visits with Max Ferber, an artist convinced of his own failure, and who works at painting in an odd, physical way, that leaves dried paint droppings and coal dust inches deep on the floor of his studio. Here too, the once proud, globally important city falls into ruin, dries up, its heyday long past.

And there it is: the center of the Jewish faith, the symbolic pinnacle which believers the world over acknowledge and cherish, lies devastated. All holy places, temples, shrines, and significant symbols – gone. And commerce, that other stalwart leg on which the Jewish community stood, lay in ruins as well. All crumbles to dust, forgotten in history's ultimate pogrom.

There is much here to explore and much to admire. I have not made a study of the critical literature that follows this book, but suffice it to say the language serves its ends splendidly, by placing before us, unadorned, the frank and violent prejudices that last to this day. Sebald shows us the great black hole: the unnamed and unspoken-of decades surrounding World War II, and the devastation they wreaked on a wide variety of individuals. A somber read, yes, but I promise you, a worthwhile one, one which won’t drag you down, but only make you think. And make you wonder at its creator, W.G. Sebald, and his unforgettable artistry.

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