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The Emigrants
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123 of 124 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 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. But "The Emigrants' " true antecedents are in works just beginning to emerge from the bargain bin of history _ works long obscure, but now with suddenly snowballing reputations, such as Stendhal's unfinished autobiographical "Life of Henri Brulard" or Ezra Pound's "Cantos," which pull history like taffy through poetry.
The evocation of memory throughout the book recalls Stendhal's image, in trying to recall his own childhood, of ancient frescos in ruins. Here's an arm, precisely and vividly painted on plaster. And next to it is bare brick. Whatever it once attached to is gone beyond recall.
For Stendhal, a 19th century French writer, Napoleon and his career were a brilliant meteor that blazed, never forgotten, never fully understood. The Holocaust fills this space in Sebald. Pure light and pure darnkess blind alike. They make you lose sight of things.
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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
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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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
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
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
on April 17, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified 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.
One of the surprising aspects of this great writer, who died much too young at 57 in 2001, is that he seems barely noticed in his home land. If you look at the German Amazon site, you see just 3 reviews of this book. When I tried to add a fourth, the system was down.
That's how come this review shows up in the American version of Amazon. It is just more lively here.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
"The Emigrants" is a fictional account of four men, and, more importantly, their journey through space and time and the effects of memory on their lives. Although I read this book in German in 1992, as "Die Ausgewanderten," I only recently read Michael Hulse's brilliant and luminous translation into English. In my opinion, the English work retains the originality, the tragedy, the delicacy and the ephemeral qualities of the original...qualities so perfect for the subject matter.
Although the four subjects of "The Emigrants" are not known to one another, they are related in that each explores the significance of living his life in a land that is not his own. Their stories dramatize, through the memories of each of the four emigrants, the relationship between historical accuracy and memory, a relationship that cannot be denied.
The first section belongs to the retired Dr. Henry Selwyn. Ourwardly, Dr. Selwyn is an elderly Englishman and devoted gardener, but, as with all of Sebald's books, things are not what they might, at first, seem to be. Dr. Selwyn, our narrator learns, is not really English, by birth or by ethnicity. He is, instead, a man who has become quite homesick, and home turns out to be, not surprisingly, a small village in Lithuania that Selwyn has not seen since the date of his departure in 1899.
The second section belongs to Paul Bereyter, a man whose suicide comes to interest the narrator since Paul Bereyter had been the narrator's favorite school teacher in his childhood Germany. The narrator finds, that although he thought he knew Bereyter, he really knew very little about him. And, more interestingly, he finds that Bereyter, for so many years, really didn't know himself. When Bereyter finally finds out who he really is, the truth of the revelation is something he cannot face.
Perhaps the most playful section belongs to Ambros Adelwarth, the long-dead great-uncle of the narrator. Adelwarth is the only one of the four emigrants who fled to the United States, becoming a butler for an ultra-wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. When Ambros becomes the valet and lover of polo-playing Cosmo Solomon, however, he returns to Europe where the narrator traces him from Deauville to Constantinople to Jerusalem. In a lovely dream sequence, the narrator himself, returns to Deauville and the dinner party of the Prince de Guermantes. There, among the assembled aristocrats, are Ambros and Cosmo, sharing a romantic lobster dinner.
The fourth narrative, however, may be the very best. It belongs to one Max Ferber, a Manchester artist, who, in 1939, at the age of 15, was sent by his parents from his native Germany to live in England. Memory plays an important part in Ferber's life as well, and he spends much time studying a book on Tiepolo and the Wurzburg frescoes so that he may more fully recall the summer of 1936, unpleasant as his memories of that summer are.
At the heart of this book, of course, lies the Holocaust, something Sebald's characters feel so deeply, yet never seem to be able to address directly. These are tormented characters, yet they cannot let go of their torment because it forms an integral part of who, and what, they are. Lose that torment and, sadly, they lose themselves.
Sebald is never without his playful, even absurd, side, and it is present in this book as well. Running through his narratives, and culminating in the memoir of Max Ferber's mother, Luisa, are allusions to "the butterfly man." In Ferber's section, "the butterfly man" is a boy of about 10 who chases butterflies in the German resort town of Bad Kissingen. This man is clearly Vladimir Nabokov, for the scene described is exactly the same as one described in Nabokov's own memoir, "Speak, Memory." Whether muse or mentor, "the butterfly man" holds great significance for each of Sebald's characters. And, who but Sebald would have had the imagination and creativity to braid, like a silken thread, the spirit of the most celebrated of all literary emigrees throughout this book?
As in all of Sebald's books, photographs are an integral part of the work and, once again, rather than adding clarity, they seem to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction instead. What is real? What is not? With Sebald, we never really know.
Sebald, himself, said that his "medium is prose, not the novel." "The Emigrants" is not a novel nor should it be approached as one. It is part novel, but it is also an essay, an historical record, a memoir, a musing, an allegory. Sebald's poetic, crystalline and ephemeral prose is perfect for his subject matter.
In "The Emigrants," Sebald has done something I have never seen done before. He has managed to say what is, essentially, not able to be said. Sebald isn't writing outwardly of "Nazis," and the word rarely even appears in the book, yet other, seemingly more benign words, somehow manage to conjure the grimmest evocations of the Holocaust and its repercussions. Sebald is obtuse and oblique, but in his obliqueness he still manages to be more chillingly precise than any other author I have ever encountered.
This is a brilliant book, that much is certain. It is, perhaps, the most brilliant book I have yet to read. It is heartbreaking, melancholy, luminous, playful, chilling and almost unbearably beautiful. In short, it is perfect. It's message seems clear: we cannot emigrate from memory. Our memories are a part of who and what we are and they will be with us for all time. This book reminds us that the dead are as alive as the living, that memory is as real and vibrant as what is happening at this very moment.
"The Emigrants" is a book like no other; not even Sebald, himself, managed to surpass it. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece, a sublime work of art. I don't know how anyone could read it and not come away forever changed.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 26, 2002
Format: Paperback
While at first reading the four occluded biographies that comprise "The Emigrants" may seem almost happenstance episodes in the lives of four unrelated characters, these are actually histories, painstakingly and painfully assembled (albeit invented?) by the late W.G. Sebald.
I came to the book believing (because of a misleading review I can't re-find) that it was about people driven from Europe by the Holocaust. But, if anything and if possible, the forces that sent Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber from their continental European homelands to Britain and the America run even deeper than that. And Sebald or the narrator (I guess both, with a patience that spans decades goes to odd corners of all these places to gather fragments of stories. He retraces parts of the journeys of people who with only one exception, he was never all that close to in search of the cause of emigration.
This narrator is selective in a way that itself is puzzling and worth meditation. One wonders, often for pages at a time, why is the narrator going down this path. After encountering and hearing out each of these subjects (or hearing other informants retell their stories), he travels to one or more of the places that mattered in their lives. This takes him to an almost abandoned sanatorium in Ithaca, New York, an untended Jewish cemetery in a small German town, to a once trendy but now seedy Normandy casino and into dusty personal journals and diaries. His research while intensive is not all aimed at drawing some greater truth or even satisfying conclusion but in creating a collage made symbolically of shattered bits and pieces of lives that were also quite shattered. But you usually are left the work of figuring out exactly what shattered them. Why, for example, did Great Uncle Ambros Adelwarth who very competently and authoritatively managed the lives of others fall steadily into an undiagnosable ennui?
Included are many, sometimes puzzling black and white pictures that pictorialize the narrator's quest, yet deepen rather than explicate the mystery of the lives he traces. For me the overall effect was to understand, or rather, feel exile in a way that other books about that experience cannot begin to touch.
Sebald died in December 2001 in a car accident. It would be a fitting memorial for someone else to assemble but not systematize the fragments of his life, only one of which is this remarkable "fiction".
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
"The Emigrants" first appear to be mere accounts of four different Jewish emigrants in the twentieth century. But gradually the four narratives merge into a poetic evocation of exile and loss. Mr Sebald's precise, almost dreamlike writing - along with many beautiful photographs - works its magic. The account of the displacement of these four emigres is both sober and delicate. Few books convey more about that complex and tragic fate. Michael Hulse's exquisite translation really makes this book a work of art.
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34 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on July 9, 1997
Format: Hardcover
The prospective reader of this book should read the reviews very carefully. Much is made in them of the grayness of tone, of the characters' loss of memory, of their displacements, of ambiguities, and of enigmas. To an American who was taught that a cardinal rule of writing is to "Be Specific," this book constitutes a formidable challenge. There is no beginning, middle, or end, no plot, no climax, no clear thematic development. Unlike other novels which ultimately connect three or four separate parts, this book remains four separate parts. The reader is expected to ponder the lives of the characters and, at the end, not draw conclusions, it seems, so much as feel the pulls and tugs toward and away from Germany. This reader was left feeling as s/he had participated in a black-and-white film, perhaps something by Ingmar Bergman, not quite finished
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
As elusive as ever, Sebald tackles the lives of four Jewish emigrants. The book reads as a set of memoirs, apparently built around real lives but it would seem that Sebald takes a few literary liberties in piecing their lives together.
The stories build one on top of the other. The first, the story of a displaced "Lithuanian" Jew, is the most sketchy and most elusive. Dr. Henry Selwyn seems never been able to adjust to his life in England, and over his long life drifted deeper inside himself until he had become a "hermit" on the grounds of his own home. Yet, Sebald seems able to draw him out of the overgrown garden and relate a few tell-tale anecdotes.
The following portraits are more rounded as Sebald seems to have a deeper personal attachment to these persons, culminating in the life of an artist, Max Ferber. This story is apparently drawn from Sebald's relationship with the reclusive British artist, Frank Auerbach, and seems to thematically sum up the sense of isolation that all these persons feel. Ferber, unlike the others, makes the effort to come to grips with his past through dark layered paintings. However, Ferber seems more attached to the scrapings from his paintings and dust that has built up over the years on the floor of his studio, which in his mind more accurately reflects the condition of his mind.
All of these persons managed to escape Germany prior to the Holocaust, which hangs like a shroud over this narrative. Sebald chooses to approach this sense of displacement obliquely, with subtle references, never approaching it head on. One of his subjects, Paul Bereyter, the most German of all, could not function anywhere else except in his home country and chose to return after the war, and was Sebald's teacher while in primary school. Bereyter makes his comments against the church and state in childlike ways, endearing himself to his students, but Sebald's research reveals a much deeper character.
Haunting stories that evoke memories of times lost. There is a bit of Proust in Sebald's writings as he seems more comfortable in a period that occurred before the industrial juggernaut of the 20th century that seemed to sweep away so much of the past.
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