Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 208

The Emigrants focuses on the histories of four men who were either forced or felt compelled to leave their home countries and the effects that this estrangement from their homes had on their lives and relationships. Two of the four take their own lives in brutal and violent ways. One...

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The Emigrants focuses on the histories of four men who were either forced or felt compelled to leave their home countries and the effects that this estrangement from their homes had on their lives and relationships. Two of the four take their own lives in brutal and violent ways. One other seems to readily submit to electroshock therapy in an effort to hasten his own death. One is estranged from his wife, a fact that he attributes to her inability to understand him as a result of his emigrant past; another is forced to abandon the profession he loved and for which he'd spent so long training because he was one-quarter Jewish; another has an incredibly difficult time even leaving his house. It seems that an attachment to one's geographical home, one's extended family, and one's native language amounts to a great deal more than simply homesickness or regretful nostalgia. Instead, the severing of these ties leads to an unresolved loneliness, sense of displacement, and a lack of feeling oneself as rooted to something, and so even if one develops a hatred of one's home as a result of the traumas one endured there, it is ultimately impossible to completely dissolve that longing to be whole once again.

The Emigrants

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1905

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 feelings of kinship make him homeless, so to speak, and an internal emigrant.

Sebald’s great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, is the most elusive figure in The Emigrants. He appeals to the emigrant in Sebald, it seems, because Adelwarth travels the world, a perpetual emigrant, gambling with his destiny, before finally settling in America, the quintessential land of emigrants. Sebald pursues Adelwarth’s story, interviewing relatives and piecing together his great-uncle’s fascinating journeys and relationships. An apparently exhausted Adelwarth eventually seeks refuge in a sanatorium, where enthusiastic doctors subject their uncomplaining patient to a cruel series of shock treatments. Sebald even interviews one of the doctors, who admits that their “therapy” only made Adelwarth worse and contributed to his death. Indeed the doctor, like Selwyn, is a recluse, having abandoned any faith in his profession’s claims to heal people. He has closed the sanatorium and lives in seclusion.

It is fitting that Sebald’s final character, Max Ferber, is an artist who does not actually exist. He is presented, however, just as convincingly as the other characters and has a reality just as compelling as theirs. He is an emigrant/refugee struggling to continue with his art and, as such, is a stand-in for Sebald. He is also the only character who evokes writer’s block in Sebald. Sebald confesses that even as he tried to write an account of Ferber’s life he kept undoing and destroying his drafts. He scruples over whether he can do Ferber’s life justice. No matter which approach he essays, he finds himself questioning the very purposes of writing.

However poor a thing Sebald thinks he has made of Ferber’s life, he does not abandon his narrative—or his life, as so many of his characters do. On the contrary, their lives give life to his riveting accounts. The Emigrants also argues the opposite: It is art, fiction, that gives life, and the artist can suffer over his creation just as intensely as “real people” agonize over their lives. The line between art and life, in other words, is constantly blurred in a work that is simultaneously fiction and history, fact and imagination.

Similarly, Sebald’s emigrants have the minds of artists—stubborn, aloof, creative, and individualistic. To be an artist, Sebald implies, is to be an emigrant, to be alienated and isolated, though the artist can also seek communion with others, as Bereyter does in his teaching, as Selwyn does when he confides so much of his story to Sebald, as Sebald does when he shares so much of the process of creating his four stories.

The Emigrants is an engrossing, stimulating, and powerfully disturbing book. It suggests that memory can destroy a person by overcoming his or her ability to live in the present. One defense against the drag of memory is the imagination, the creation of stories such as Uncle Adelwarth’s about beheadings he witnesses in Japan. A skeptical Sebald supposes his uncle suffered from Korsakoff’s syndrome, which allowed him to replace memory with fantastic inventions. Does Sebald also suffer from this syndrome?

Sebald’s book is studded with photographs that seemingly document the personalities and events he describes. Are the photographs genuine—that is, truly attached to Sebald’s stories? Or are they, like the photograph of Nabokov, actually subversive, undermining any easy confidence in distinctions between fact and fiction? Ferber’s story also has photographs, but Ferber does not exist. There is, in other words, no privileged medium of information that is simply fact, a record of the past. Pictures, no less than words, are the products of invention and interpretation.

History, no less than a novel, is an imaginative construct, Sebald implies. And books—neatly categorized into fiction, journalism, biography, travel narrative, and so on—are no less contrivances of truth. Like a book, the world is a made-up thing. Sebald emphasizes his own contrivances by switching in mid- sentence from third to first person and back again, and by eschewing the use of quotation marks. Although he presents many scenes with dialogue, the lack of quotation marks to denote the speaker suggests the words are Sebald’s as much as they are those of the person who is apparently talking. Indeed, quotation marks are one of the writer’s ruses. The quoted words may come from someone other than the writer, but it is the writer who arranges them on the page, who may edit them and put a context around those words. Quoted words imply the writer is relying on the authority of others, but actually the quotations are the writer’s, Sebald implies. Similarly, first- and third-person narrators are an invention of books. The writer is actually writing from several points of view simultaneously, putting himself or herself in another’s thoughts or reporting another’s statements but nevertheless making all of it the writer’s own creation.

The emigrant writer is even more challenged by reality and his own creations. He operates in another language, as Nabokov did when he switched from Russian to English. Sebald’s emigrants tend to withdraw from society; this is their ultimate form of emigration. One of the characters in Adelwarth’s story gives up the world to raise orchids; another, Dr. Abramsky, gives up psychiatry to become a bee keeper. Nabokov, it must remembered, was busy chasing butterflies when he was not writing. And though he did not withdraw from reality, he eventually did leave America for retirement in the quieter confines of Switzerland.

It is no wonder that these stories harrow Sebald and that he has trouble writing one of them. On the other hand, these stories are what prompt him to write, or he writes so that he can find these stories. Which is it? It is hard to tell, and that seems to be one of the major points of The Emigrants: 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.

The Emigrants

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

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 various leitmotifs into the novel to capture the themes of displacement and movement.

Feiereisen, Florence, and Daniel Pope. “The Enigmatic in Sebald’s Use of Images in The Emigrants.” In Searching for Sebald: Photography After W. G. Sebald, edited by Lise Patt. Los Angeles: Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007. This article attempts to account for the inconsistencies in the connections between the narratives and the photographs in The Emigrants, arguing that the relationship adds to an enigmatic quality that intentionally intrudes on the verisimilitude of the novel.

Long, J. J. “Family Albums: The Emigrants.” In W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. This chapter, part of a study that examines Sebald’s response to modernity, pays particular attention to the role of photography and the concept of the archive in his work.

Long, J. J., and Anne Whitehead, eds. W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. Collection of essays that explore Sebald’s life, his influences, and the themes of his writings.

McCulloh, Mark R. “The Emigrants: In Search of the Vividly Present Dead.” In Understanding W. G. Sebald. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003. A highly accessible book that provides an excellent student guide to Sebald’s life and work. Chapter on The Emigrants synthesizes the critical dialogue, section by section, and discusses questions of reception and the novel’s relation to the author’s oeuvre.

Wachtel, Eleanor. “Ghost Hunter.” 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 conducted in 1997, after the publication of the English translation of The Emigrants. Discusses the form and origins of the novel.

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