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The Emigrants Paperback – September 17, 1997
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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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Similarly, but for different reasons, EL Doctorow's "Ragtime" did this, too.
Allusions to Nabokov, butterflies, and Nabokov's amusement at American place-names shadow some of the action, and I did not fully understand why - other than perhaps as a sort of symbol of longing-for-place.
One is gripped by all of these goods and stories: their once-upon-a-time existence, their owners, their disappearance, and - miraculously - their return. The material culture of the early twentieth century is used, fabulously and unapologetically, in order to summon memory, show God in the details, and to illustrate loss. There is no nostalgia here.
An amazing and successful effort by a German born in 1944 to come to terms with the unthinkable: Germany's attempt to destroy European Jewry, and Europe, really, too. A wholly original and efficiently disturbing novel.
"The Emigrants" is composed on the stories of four individuals, one from Lithuania, three from Germany, all of whom were very much citizens, and felt as though they belonged to their countries, but who were also Jewish, or only partially Jewish, and in varying ways were rejected by their homeland. They went, or were forced into exile. Sebald writes masterfully, and the stories mount in a rising crescendo of nuance, complexity and sorrow, from Dr. Henry Selwyn who becomes a hermit on his own estate, through the school teacher; Paul Bereyter, Jewish enough to be denied his teaching post, but not Jewish enough to prevent being drafted into the Wehrmacht; to Ambros Adlewarth, who made it to America, and served as a butler of sorts to exclusive Jewish families; and finally to Max Ferber, the artist who escaped to Manchester, England. There are quite a few thoughtful reviews of this book, and I do not need to duplicate their descriptions of these stories.
Sebald is a masterful writer, with excellent erudition, who weaves esoteric facts and tales into his main story, without it ever seeming contrived. For example, there is the "butterfly man," who makes a cameo appearance throughout the book, and who is Vladimir Nabokov, the lepidopterist, and one of the ultimate Jewish emigrants, who had to leave his cozy life in his native Czarist Russia, but later capture that period in his excellent autobiography, "Speak, Memory." And there is Coubert's painting, "The Oak of Vercingetorix," which appears in the story on the painter Max Ferber. There is also a masterful portrait of the "proud tower" that was Europe in 1913, in which Sebald paints the life of the "rich and famous" in Deauville (France) that would have been worthy of, and could have come from the pages of Marcel Proust. Sebald introduces a new novelist technique of including black and white photographs which illustrate his story, and are referenced on the page which they occur. The photos are often grainy, and even out of focus, and none are worse than the one of the storyteller by the ocean on page 89. At first I thought this technique dreadful, but as I progressed through the book, I realized how important they were as an integral part of the story; they were the "real life" of actual family photos, the set-piece poses, the skewed perspectives, all of which seemed to fit perfectly by the end of the book.
Sadly, six months ago I had never heard of Sebald, and now I realize that he is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and the credit goes to the Amazon review program, and the strong recommendation of a fellow reviewer, R. M. Peterson, my "neighbor to the north" in Santa Fe. Kudos to both for the enriching recommendations. "The Rings of Saturn" will not be far behind. Obviously a 5-star plus book.
What's interesting about it? That it's called "The Emigrants" and not "The Immigrants". What links these people together is where they came from, and how they experienced that act of leaving. Further interesting is that Sebald resists the temptation to spend too much time on what they fled-- he sketches the pain in their past by telling what they did and how they lived after they got to safety. It's oblique, and delicately done.
Of course, as literal-minded as I am I got hung up on whether the stories are True. Even the book avoids the issue by categorizing the book as fiction/history.
It's better to be in the right mood for this book. It's not very active, and it's easy for it to get lost in the whirl of a busy life. Recommended reading for a contemplative mood.
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