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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694

In The Emigrants, the unnamed narrator(s) tells the stories of four men who left their homes in Germany around the time of, or prior to, the second World War. He explores the ways in which their exile affects them, most often tragically. In the first section, we meet Dr. Henry Selwyn, who lives on the same property as his estranged wife. She lets an apartment to the narrator and his wife, Clara. He tells the narrator of an alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli of whom Dr. Selwyn was quite fond. He says that "never in his life, neither before nor later, did he feel as good as he did then, in the company of that man." One day, Naegali went missing.

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Eventually, the narrator and his wife move into their own home, and Dr. Selwyn visits them often. Once, he "confessed . . . that in recent years he had been beset with homesickness more and more," and he talked about his childhood home in Lithuania. He also admits that he changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to Henry Selwyn. Not long after, he takes his own life. The narrator reads a newspaper article discussing the discovery of Naegeli's remains, which had been trapped in a glacier for seventy-two years.

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In the second section, an unnamed narrator discusses a man named Paul Bereyter, who was his teacher in third grade; Paul was brought to the narrator's attention again when he read the news that Paul had taken his own life. The obituary included the information that "during the Third Reich Paul Bereyter had been prevented from practising his chosen profession." Paul seems to have been a rather unorthodox teacher as well as someone with a substantial "aversion to hypocrisy." He didn't teach from the textbooks and frequently took the kids out into nature. The narrator meets Lucy Landau, Paul's friend in his later life, and she tells him a great deal about Paul. He learns about how, before the war, Paul was "served official notice that it would not be possible for him to remain as a teacher, because of the new laws, with which he was no doubt familiar. The wonderful future he had dreamt of . . . collapsed without a sound." Paul was one-quarter Jewish. Nevertheless, Paul was moved to return to Germany because he was

profoundly attached to his native land . . . and even to that miserable place S as well, which in fact he loathed, and, deep within himself . . . would have been pleased to see destroyed and obliterated, together with the townspeople, whom he found so utterly repugnant.

In the third section, an unnamed narrator explores the life of his great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth. He was the "valet and travelling companion" to Cosmo Solomon, the son of a very wealthy Jewish banker in New York. It is implied that there may have been a sexual relationship between Ambros and Cosmo; one uncle says that "he was of the other persuasion," among other such hints. They trotted the globe, gambling together for many years, and eventually, Ambros had to commit Cosmo to the Samaria Sanatorium in Ithaca, NY. That is where Cosmo died. The more Ambros told his stories to family members, the more depressed he became, and he seemed to have a very good memory. He became unable to "utter a single world, or any sound at all." Soon, he commits himself to the same sanatorium. He readily submits to shock-therapy treatment (which was incredibly painful and tortuous). This seems to have been his way of taking a "leave of absence," to use one doctor's words. In other words, it seems that Ambros was ready to die and took steps to make that happen.

In the fourth section, an unnamed narrator describes the life of Max Ferber. He lived in Manchester, England, for some years. Ferber was an artist, and he seems to have had some extreme anxiety regarding leaving home and being among strangers. He'd left Munich at the age of fifteen in 1939. His parents were supposed to follow but perished in a concentration camp in 1941. He recalls his own childhood there and also shares the memoirs his mother wrote before she was taken away.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

In The Emigrants, Sebald explores the nature of exile through an examination of the lives of four Germans who have voluntarily emigrated from their homeland to various places in Europe. The tales grow longer with each subject, and each story focuses on the loneliness, the pathos, the unreliability of memory, and the glimmer of hope that comes with the territory of exile. These are tales of sadness—each ends in suicide—and of the halting attempts each emigrant makes to start a new life in a world that is strange and uninviting to him. In the final two tales at least, Sebald himself may be the narrator, and one of the stories purports to concern his great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth. Whoever the subject, each story contains Sebald’s characteristic blend of fact and fiction, memory and forgetting, narrative and photography, as the narrator tries to retrace the footsteps of each of the emigrants.

In the first story, the narrator meets Henry Selwyn, a Lithuanian Jew who had immigrated to London quite by accident. Although Selwyn’s family originally planned to leave Lithuania to settle in New York City, they settled instead in England when they realized that their original destination was farther than they wished to travel. Although the story opens on a hopeful note—the narrator and his wife are searching for a place to live in an area near Norfolk, England—it soon turns somber as the two come to a graveyard and an old man lying down near it. The opening pages of this story resemble Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and their eloquent description of a run-down house and Malte’s speculations about the house’s inhabitants. Selwyn lives in the past, feeling guilty for hiding his Jewish identity from his wife (his real name is Hersch Serewyn) and reliving incidents, including a butterfly hunting expedition with writer Vladimir Nabokov, from his former life. The narrator’s own memory of Selwyn is sparked on a train trip through Switzerland, when he sees a news story regarding an event in which Selwyn had long been involved. This first tale not only examines the nature of exile but also the reliability of memory.

The remaining three tales of these German exiles work in similar ways to explore the nature of happiness, memory, exile, hope, despair, and identity. The second tale focuses on Paul Bereyter, a schoolteacher modeled on one of Sebald’s own teachers. This story begins at the end, when news reaches the narrator that a former teacher had killed himself. The obituary recalls Bereyter as a dedicated teacher who loved his pupils and loved the subjects—art, literature, and music—he taught. Because he is one-quarter Jewish, Bereyter was not allowed to practice his beloved profession during the Third Reich. The narrator learns from one of the teacher’s close friends, though, that while Bereyter loved his students, he also held them in contempt for their willful disregard for the beauty of music and literature. Thus, the teacher’s devotion to teaching fostered hopefulness in him for the future of the world, but his students’ failures depressed him, leading him to hopelessness about the present and the future, destroying any dreams he had of a more perfect world.

The narrator of the third tale opens the story by remarking that exiles and emigrants tend to seek out their own kind. The story of Great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth concerns family more than the first two stories, and the narrator (Sebald?) inserts many family pictures into the narrative as a way of tracking the footsteps of an uncle whom he had only met once or twice in the past. There are not only family photographs, but there are also photographs of the places the uncle had visited. Adelwarth spent most of his life in New York, where he had a job as a valet for a wealthy family and developed a relationship with the family’s younger son, Cosmo. When his lover dies, Adelwarth sinks into a deep depression that marks him for the rest of his life. In a story reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924; The Magic Mountain, 1927), Adelwarth commits himself to a sanatorium, where he hopes a variety of medications and therapies might cure him of his depression. The narrator contrasts the darkness of the sanatorium with the brightness and happiness of the French resort, Deauville, where he and Cosmo had spent many happy days. In the end, Adelwarth is exiled not only from his community but also from himself, a distance that leads to his death.

In the final story, Max Ferber—whose name in the German edition of The Emigrants is Max Aurach and who is likely modeled on the English Jewish painter, Frank Auerbach—has lived in Manchester, England, for twenty-two years, having moved from Munich in 1939 to Manchester’s Jewish community. The opening of this tale is as haunting as some of the previous ones. The narrator, who is himself moving to Manchester (and, again, who might be Sebald), descends in an airplane over strange territory that he does not recognize. When he arrives in Manchester, his Sundays are so lonely that he must take long walks through the apparently deserted city in order to come to terms with his own feeling of exile. When the narrator comes across Ferber, the two begin to meet every day to discuss Ferber’s art and to offer each other some kind of comfort and community in a city that is alien to each of them. Ferber’s art expresses the lack of unity that he and the narrator feel as exiles in a strange land. Ferber attempts to overcome the loneliness and despair of exile by withdrawing into his studio to practice his art. This withdrawal only results in a greater sense of alienation and a feeling of failure as an artist. When the narrator learns only after Ferber’s death that he had been transported to England following Kristallnacht, and that Ferber had stopped speaking German on the day he arrived in England, never to speak it again, he begins to understand the tremendous loss of identity and memory that exile fosters.

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