What is W. G. Sebald's novel, The Emigrants, about? 

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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W. G. Sebald's book The Emigrants (German: Die Ausgewanderten) was first published in 1992 in German and translated into English in 1996. It can be considered either as a novel with four main themes or parts or a collection of stories on related themes.

On the most literal level, these narratives are about emigrants from Germany to other countries, specifically France, England, and the United States. The emigrants tend to be outsiders, Jews or homosexuals fleeing from persecution by the Nazis, or people with other dark secrets in their past. Despite their new lives, both the characters and narrators of these tales are shaped, and often haunted, by memories of their personal and cultural past. The stories constantly emphasize the importance and weight of memories: 

Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

Many of the plot elements, including deaths and suicide, result from the intolerable weight of memories pressing down on characters. 

See the two references below for plot summaries of the four narratives. 

Sources:

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