A meditation on memory and loss. Sebald re-creates the lives of four exiles--five if you include his oblique self-portrait--through their own accounts, others' recollections, and pictures and found objects. But he brings these men before our eyes only to make them fade away, "longing for extinction." Two were eventual suicides, another died in an asylum, the fourth still lived under a "poisonous canopy" more than 40 years after his parents' death in Nazi Germany.
Sebald's own longing is for communion. En route to Ithaca (the real upstate New York location but also the symbolic one), he comes to feel "like a travelling companion of my neighbor in the next lane." After the car speeds away--"the children pulling clownish faces out of the rear window--I felt deserted and desolate for a time." Sebald's narrative is purposely moth-holed (butterfly-ridden, actually--there's a recurring Nabokov-with-a-net type), an escape from the prison-house of realism. According to the author, his Uncle Ambros's increasingly improbable tales were the result of "an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions." Luckily for us, Sebald seems to have inherited the same syndrome. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
Composed of four compelling portraits of Jewish emigres whose lives have been scarred by exile, dislocation and persecution, this unusual work of fiction is pervaded by a sensibility and a degree of circumstantial detail so authentic that it could pass for historical documentation. That Sebald has invested his fictional creations with both dignity and pathos is a mark of his achievement here. A narrator provides perspective on the lives he relates. Retired surgeon Henry Selwyn was born Hersch Seweryn and changed his name after arrival in England; his disclosure of his true origins to his Swiss wife causes an irreparable rift in their marriage and an essential loss of identity in the now aimless man. Paul Bereyter, fired from his post as schoolteacher in Germany because he is one-quarter Jewish, serves six years in the Germany army and is haunted by the bestial violence he witnesses. Ambros Adelwarth escapes Germany, finally settling in the U.S. Concealing his traumas from family members, he commits himself to a sanitarium at age 67 and undergoes electroshock therapy, longing for extinction. German-born artist Max Ferber, a recluse in Manchester, England, suffers claustrophobia stemming from the deportation and murder of his parents by Nazis. Though none of the protagonists is thrown into a concentration camp, they are all haunted by the effects of the Holocaust. Two of them eventually commit suicide, all suffer shame and guilt, claustrophobia and depression. Photographs interwoven with the restrained text add to the cumulative effect, which is that of an eerie memento. Long after the Nazis have fallen, these exiled individuals endure existential agony and emotional breakdowns. German novelist and literary scholar Sebald, who has lived in England since 1970, won the Berlin Literature Prize for this remarkable work.
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