The Emigrants Questions and Answers
by W. G. Sebald

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How is the line between truth and fiction obscured in W.G. Sebald's novel The Emigrants?

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W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (originally published in German as Die Ausgewanderten) is a collection of narratives first published in 1992 and in English translation by Michael Hulse in 1996. The narrator recounts the lives of four main characters, elderly German/Jewish exiles whose lives are haunted by the shadow of the Holocaust.

This book is noted for its combination of documentary-like prose that later takes on an eerie, dream-like quality. Text blends with photographs, maps, diary entries, and drawings that add to the realism of the account, giving it the feel of a scrapbook or photo album. The effect of historical authenticity relates to one of the novel’s central themes—the intersection of history and memory.

Sebald claimed that the photographs and documents in his books were “what you would describe as authentic,” a statement that itself blurs the line of historical truth with the qualifier “what you would describe as.” The relationship between the text and photographs further blurs this line, tossing the reader back and forth between truth and fiction.

This work brings up more questions than it answers, leading the reader to think about the fluid nature of personal and historical memory. At the intersection of fact and fiction, what matters is not necessarily what is real but what is true.

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jwrenard | Student

The line between truth and fiction is constantly blurred in the work of the German writer, W.G. Sebald. In all four of his novels, real people and places are mixed with fictional characters and dreamlike prose. This is particularly evident in The Emigrants, which features four stories, all of which are about characters who are inspired by real people.

He obscures this line in several ways. Firstly, he does it through his use of photographs in the book, which are of course of real people and places, but are used to stand in for fictional characters. The photographs give the text a ring of truth, as if they prove the reality of the characters. 

One of the photographs shows the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, himself an emigrant. Nabokov appears throughout the book in different ways, sometimes as a child, sometimes as a ghost, and Sebald directly quotes from Nabokov's autobiography. Here he is again blurring the line between truth and fiction, because autobiography is of course a reconstruction of real life which depends on selection and fictionalising reality.

Sebald also furthers the autobiographical element by using a version of himself as the narrator. The narrator of The Emigrants has the same biographical history as W.G. Sebald, so the reader is more convinced of the reality of the stories because we know Sebald exists. 

 

The effect of this is that Sebald makes us question of the stories we tell ourselves, and the truthfulness of memory. By including photographs of real people, having Vladimir Nabokov appear in the book, and using a version of himself as the narrator, Sebald shows the reality is ordered by our own fictions, and a novel is another, perhaps more honest, way of doing this.