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The Emigrants Paperback – September 17, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: New Directions Paperbook, 853 (Book 853)
  • Paperback: 238 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions; Reprint edition (September 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811213668
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811213660
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #29,972 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

It will haunt you forever.
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.
Friederike Knabe
Highly recommendable but it is a sad book.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

123 of 124 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Harper on October 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
Sebald's book consists of four long narrative lives of Europeans, living in exile to some degree, before or after the Second World War. It seems the most straightforward thing imaginable, but it isn't.
Each section is like a lingering film camera shot of an innocent family photo. The lens slowly pulls back to reveal slight discoloration of the edges, then the charred page of a photo album, then only at the very end of the view the ruins of the house that held it, the rubble of the city around it.
Sebald blends fiction, memory and history. He weaves pictures and words. He researched his novels by visiting war archives and sifting through piles of postcards, maps, photos and magazine pictures. Some of them end up in his books, but infused with his artist's imagination.
This is what Truman Capote might have written, if he had been a brilliant and sublime novelist instead of a journalistic raconteur.
I'm tempted to omit the fact that this is a book "about" the Holocaust, for fear that people who were assigned to read Eli Weisel in high school will politely click the page on me and think, "OK, well, I know what that's like."
The Holocaust in this book is a negative space, a hole into which things go and never come out. If it is mentioned by name at all, it is only once or twice. It's like the silent, immense black hole that astronomers find in the middle of the Milky Way. The bright stars we watch at night pinwheel around it.
The novel shows how people warp under the weight of their inherited identity, which is something modern Americans and Germans share.
Critics compared Sebald to Ingmar Bergman, Kafka and Proust.
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Meg E. Wolff on February 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
Amazon recommended "The Rings of Saturn" to me so many times I finally bought it. Sebald's writing was so incredible that I bought "The Emigrants" and "Vertigo", too. These are definitely like no other books I have ever read, almost like travelogues through raw, barren landscapes. The juxtaposition of photographs with the text is compelling and absorbing, drawing the reader into the representation of the landscape - the actual, tangible place or thing - as well as the one that Sebald creates with his words.
I enjoyed this book more than "The Rings of Saturn" because of the four seemingly different stories that are united by the themes of loss and displacement. Sebald has a very penetrating eye for his character's condition and a displaced, frank way of writing about them to involve the reader in their lives. I think of Sebald's writing like conceptual art - despite the tangential and oblique elements, the idea that is evoked is so strong that it remains with the reader long after the reading. There are few other writers that I've found that can write as poignantly and uniquely about the human condition of alienation and sorrow, with the longing for connection and communion.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 30, 2003
Format: Paperback
This was my second book by Sebald and like Austerlitz, I experienced a deep, almost surreal sense of gloom as flashes of images kept playing in my mind. It was so hypnotic - I almost felt like I was floating in air. I attribute it to Sebald's unique talent -- he's able to lead readers to a totally new plane, so to speak, where the plot of the story becomes so secondary -- all that matters is the journey and the sense of how the characters' thoughts and pain become yours.
That said, this book (and Austerlitz) isn't exactly for everyone. I've tried recommending it some friends who felt it was too "meandering and emotive". I didn't quite agree with them, but lately, I'm beginning to see their point -- you've got to be in a right frame of mind to enjoy Sebald. If you're a sucker for plot-drive, high-octane stories, then this may not be for you, but if you're more contemplative and patient, this could be the most rewarding book you'll read in a long while.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Grady Harp HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
WG Sebald continues to show us that his gifts as a writer are not only unique but are consistently fine. Having read all of his translated books I find that I never offered my thoughts about "The Emigrants" on this platform. Perhaps that is because after reading this powerful little tome I was speechless, or in awe, or felt inadequate to the task of commenting on a masterpiece. Having just read "Austerlitz" I returned to the Emigrants to see if all the promise of what his latest book brings was present in his first translated volume. Without hesitation ........... it is. The Emigrants weaves the lives of four people who wander the terrain of postwar world in search of discovering their true past in that nightmare of history they have survived. Sebald is eloquent in his use of language, spare in his style of writing, and wholly individual in his method of presenting not ony the word but related photographs to mimic the melange of fragments that piece together to form our histories.
He is simply one of the literary treasures of our day.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By H. Schneider on April 17, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Having had my appetite for Sebald whetted by Austerlitz, I picked up the Emigrants with high expectations, and they were surpassed: on top of the expected modern masterpiece I got a recognition of one the greatest writers on emigration that Europe produced in the 20th century. Nabokov shows up in all four pieces in small roles, a bit like Hitchcock did in his films. His appearances are as dispersed, geographically, as the stories told here.
The Emigrants are four men whose life stories Sebald explores in his meandering multiple media way. All of them are people that played some kind of part in Sebald's life, if only tangentially, like his temporary landlord in England, who had come from Lithuania to England, married a rich Swiss woman, got estranged and poor and became an ornamental hermit, in his own words. One man is his granduncle who emigrated to the US and became an appendix of a rich Jewish banking family. One is a former teacher who had been banned from teaching during the Third Reich, being a 'quarter Jew', but was not banned from soldiering for six years; when the war was over he went back to his old profession,taught Sebald for a while, but could not stand this life for long and went abroad. One is a painter, an aquaintance of Sebald's from his student time in Manchester, who escaped from the holocaust trap to England just in time, but whose parent got left behind to perish. The men share a deep melancholia or depression, and all find an end either by their own hand or by diseases aquired by lifestyle choice. The state of being an exile is not explored analytically, but phenomenologically. The tales of 4 men dive deeply into European history and civilization.
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