The Emigrants Analysis
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,935 words.)