The Emigrants

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

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The Emigrants

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

W. G. Sebald writes as a German emigrant in England, recalling the lives of other emigrants, Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. Each character tries to live in the present, although his primary identity is located in the past—in lives spent in Lithuania, France, Istanbul, and other parts of the world. They seem to embody much of the displacement and uprooting that marks the twentieth century. Sebald works as a historian, patiently investigating these lives, traveling to their homes and relatives, interviewing people, and speculating on why so many of these characters end up in isolation and despair.

Sebald is a novelist, and it is clear that not only his narratives but the intriguing photographs that accompany them, are not to be taken as straightforward history. Max Ferber, for example, is a composite figure, based on several artists Sebald has befriended. References to other emigrant writers—particularly to Vladimir Nabokov—suggest that Sebald is exploring the theme of the artist as emigrant—estranged from but also trying to assimilate into new societies via his or her art and imagination.

Sebald raises important questions about how people construct their lives, forming narratives every bit as compelling as those found in books. He also aims to blast precise distinctions between fiction and fact, the novel and history. One of the major points of THE EMIGRANTS is that art is a continual journey toward and away from reality—at once a part of this world and apart from it, a form of emigration that the artist ignores at his or her peril.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 20, 1996, p. 14.

Choice. XXXIV, February, 1997, p. 970.

The Guardian. December 19, 1996, pp. 2, 12.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 27, 1996, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXV, December 16, 1996, p. 33.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, September 25, 1997, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 30, 1997, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, August 19, 1996, p. 51.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XVII, Spring, 1997, p. 173.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, August 17, 1996, p. 28.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 12, 1996, p. 22.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, December 15, 1996, p. 6.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Aciman, André. “In the Crevasse.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June, 1997): 61-64. A review of The Emigrants by the novelist and memoirist, which discusses the role of memory in the record of the displaced persons depicted in the novel.

Aliaga-Buchenau, Ana-Isabel. “’The Time He Could Not Bear to Say Any More About’: Presence and Absence of the Narrator in W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants.” In W. G. Sebald: History—Memory—Trauma, edited by Scott Denham and Mark McCulloh. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006. This essay discusses the problem of form in The Emigrants, arguing that the issue of the book’s hybridity of genre is solved by the unifying voice of the narrator.

Angier, Carole. “Who Is W. G. Sebald?” In The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald, edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007. An interview with the author originally published in the Jewish Quarterly. Primarily concerned with the sources of the Jewish characters in The Emigrants and Sebald’s portrayal of their lives.

Doctorow, E. L. “W. G. Sebald.” In Creationists: Essays, 1993-2006. New York: Random House, 2006. Focuses on Sebald’s The Emigrants, praising Sebald for his ability to weave...

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