It has been said that the twentieth century can be defined as a period of mass displacement and mass murder. The Holocaust is an event that continues to haunt the imagination of the contemporary world. Yet even this horrific event that seems so unique to many people can be viewed in the context of huge population shifts and the anomie of individuals. There is the Turkish slaughter of Armenians, the forced migration of Sudetan Germans after World War II in Czechoslovakia, the Palestinian refugees, and the plight of the Kurds—to mention just a few instances of the kind of deracination that troubles W. G. Sebald. His book suggests that the twentieth century has been indelibly marked by the experiences and the imaginations of the uprooted.
Sebald himself writes as a German emigrant in England. He encounters Dr. Henry Selwyn while looking for a new home, and Selwyn’s story about his inability to locate his identity in a shifting world becomes emblematic of the ambiguous, troubled personalities Sebald will meet, re-create, and invent. Sebald first spots Selwyn as a motionless figure in a garden—a figure so still and inconspicuous that Sebald and his companion think they are quite alone. Gradually, Selwyn unfolds his story. Although he has grown up in England and has a Cambridge education, he is actually Lithuanian and has changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to Henry Selwyn.
Estranged from his wife, the ascetic Selwyn comes alive as he remembers his past. Like the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, Selwyn has a passion for butterflies and shows Sebald a photograph of himself in Switzerland with a large butterfly net. As Sebald remarks, the photograph bears a striking resemblance to a photograph of Nabokov Sebald had just clipped from a newspaper. Suddenly the seemingly straightforward narrative of Sebald’s book is called into question. Is the photograph reproduced in The Emigrants of Selwyn or of Nabokov? It looks like Nabokov, but then Selwyn is supposed to look like Nabokov. Is it the photograph Selwyn showed Sebald or the picture Sebald clipped from a magazine? The narrative does not say and the picture is not captioned.
Using Nabokov as Selwyn’s alter ego is also a kind of joke for literary readers who remember Nabokov’s own subtle undermining of what is fiction and what is fact. His novels are notorious for narrators who are not reliable and for creating elaborate biographies of characters who do not exist. What is more, Nabokov was himself an emigrant who, like Sebald, taught for many years in a land that was not native to him. Nabokov, or a Nabokov figure, haunts many of the stories in The Emigrants.
How much of Selwyn is Selwyn? How much is he Sebald’s invention? Does Selwyn exist at all? Sebald’s publishers have said that all the characters except Max Ferber (who is a composite based on several people Sebald has known) are taken from life. Yet The Emigrants surely and slyly implies that everyone, in a fundamental sense, is a product of the imagination, and the author’s note to the book identifies him as the author of “two other works of fiction.” Whatever else Selwyn may be, he is certainly an extension of Sebald’s theme of emigration, which isolates the individual and throws him back on his own resources, challenging him either to burnish his difference from others or to banish it by assimilating into the majority culture.
Selwyn’s education and manners would seem to indicate that he has been absorbed into his new country. Yet he is a virtual solitary who comes alive for Sebald only as he describes his past. Indeed, the more he unburdens himself to Sebald, the clearer it is that Selwyn is unreconciled to his present and will remove himself from a reality of which he cannot partake.
An even more severe case of emigration is Paul Bereyter, one of Sebald’s teachers. A staunch individualist and a remarkable inspiration to his students, Bereyter is caught in the tragedy of war. He regards himself as German, even though he learns that he is partly Jewish. His life is torn apart by the war and by the persecution of the Jews, yet he fights in the German army and, after the war, returns to the German town that rejected him. Why would such a man want to live in Germany, and why in the end does he return to this terrible home only to end his life? Sebald does not say in so many words, for he is trying to evoke the mystery of lives and human identity. It seems, however, that Bereyter cannot help loving a land that spurns him any more than he can stop teaching students in a town whose values he despises. A teacher and a German is who he is, even though these...
(The entire section is 1905 words.)