(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

An unnamed narrator is traveling to the small English town of Hingham in search of lodging. Near the village church, with an ancient graveyard, he discovers a large house with a flat for lease. While he describes the grounds as overgrown, the house in mild disrepair, and its inhabitants eccentric, the narrator moves in and befriends his landlady’s husband, Dr. Henry Selwyn. During one conversation, Selwyn tells the narrator about an encounter in his youth, in which he had befriended a sixty-five-year-old alpine guide in Switzerland, whose death, presumably in a glacial crevasse, sent Selwyn into a deep depression.

After moving from the flat, the narrator learns from Selwyn that the doctor is not English by birth, as the narrator had assumed, but a Lithuanian Jew named Hersch Seweryn, whose family had emigrated to London in 1899. Selwyn confesses to a growing homesickness. Not long after, the narrator learns that Selwyn has committed suicide with a hunting rifle. The narrator then reads an article in a Swiss newspaper about the discovery of an alpine guide whose body had recently been released by the glacier—the same man who Selwyn had known and mourned.

The narrator later reads a news report of the suicide of his schoolteacher, Paul Bereyter, in 1984. Because of an unexplained line in the obituary, reporting that during the Third Reich, Bereyter had been forbidden from teaching, the narrator is compelled to uncover the full story. Paul, who was invariably called by his first name by students and townspeople alike, was a freethinking and devoted teacher with little patience for convention or sanctimony.

After describing his own recollections of Paul, the narrator gains a fuller account of his teacher’s...

(The entire section is 714 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)