The first thing to note is that W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is difficult to write about, partly because it is so profoundly moving, and partly because it is so excellent that it doesn’t need my help making itself understood. But still: it’s unbelievably beautiful, delicate and deep, one of those books that makes me wonder where it’s been all my life.
If you look anything up about Sebald, you’ll see that the genre of his books is hard to pin down. I don’t want to get into it very far — just far enough to say that this is something like a semi-fictional memoir, in which the narrator (perhaps even Sebald himself, or someone very like him) tells us the stories of four different characters who have emigrated away from Europe to various places in the world. These four stories are deeply in the shadow of the Holocaust, and they intertwine the themes of memory, time, truth, and fiction. Sebald uses badly-reproduced photos as documentary evidence, making the book look like eerily empty nonfiction; there are also long passages that reproduce characters’ dreams, which are sometimes as suggestive as their waking life.
In the opening section, the novel’s narrator meets Dr. Henry Selwyn, an elderly Englishman, devoted to gardening, who eventually “confesses” that he is not English by birth. He left his Lithuanian town at the age of 7 to come to Britain. “For years the images of that exodus had been gone from his memory, but recently, he said, they had been returning once again and making their presence felt.”
In the second section, the narrator hears of the suicide of his favorite elementary school teacher from Germany, Paul Bereyter. It emerges that Bereyter’s paternal grandfather was Jewish, and that although Bereyter believed “he was a German to the marrow” and fought in the German Army during World War II, he finally realized “that he belonged to the exiles.”
In the third section, the narrator goes to America to interview his own family members about a long-dead great-uncle, Ambros Adelwarth, who served as a butler to a rich Jewish family during the years before World War I. Later, he became valet and lover to Cosmo, the eccentric eldest son of the family, and the two traveled the world together. The narrator traces their exotic journeys, and Ambros’s final years in a sanatorium in Ithica, New York.
The final subject of the book, Max Ferber, is an artist in Manchester. His art, like that of Mr. Boffin, is that of dust:
And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust. He drew with vigorous abandon, frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest of time; and that process of drawing and shading on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woolly rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust, which never ceased except at night. […] He might reject as many as forty variants, or smudge them back into the paper and overdraw new attempts upon them; and if he decided that the portrait was done, not so much because he was convinced it was finished as through sheer exhaustion, an onlooker might well feel that it had evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.
Ferber’s parents sent him to an English boarding school when he was fifteen, but left too late themselves, and were deported and murdered by the Nazis. This part of the story also includes a girlhood memoir by Ferber’s mother, Luisa: an idyll, all the more dreadful because we know the outcome.
This book is quiet. It’s melancholic and deeply shadowed, rather than shining a light on the horror at the center of the twentieth century. The Holocaust is a silence, a suppressed tragedy. Henry Selwyn, for instance, says that the years of the second World War were a time about which “I could not say a thing, even if I wanted to.” Uncle Adelwarth becomes completely silent during his final years in the sanatorium. The images in the book are similarly allusive: for instance, the book is criss-crossed with trains. The narrator takes trains; we see trains from a distance; and in a more sinister turn, Paul Bereyter commits suicide by putting his head on the tracks. “Railways always meant a great deal to him — perhaps he felt they were headed for death,” says Bereyter’s friend Mme Landau. But Sebald doesn’t spell it out for us.
Another thing which is blessedly not spelled out is the appearance of Nabokov, that great emigre, in each of the four stories. Each time, he appears unnamed, with his butterfly net, to bring a moment of pleasure or safety to the emigrant. In “Max Ferber,” he appears as a young boy to Ferber’s mother:
…though everything else around me blurred, I saw that long-forgotten Russian boy as clearly as anything, leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net; I saw him as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation.
In the third section, he appears to Uncle Adelwarth:
In the mirror of the hall stand he had stuck a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since. Have gone to Ithaca. Yours ever — Ambrose. It was a while before I understood what he meant by Ithaca….The sanatorium, which was run by a Professor Fahnstock, was in grounds that looked like a park. I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning. The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pole in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It’s the butterfly man, you know. He comes round here quite often.
Here we are in Ithaca — the end of the Odyssey, and all those restless wanderings — and indeed the homesickness in all the stories is near the foreground here. But the sanatorium is not home, and it is strongly suggested that for Uncle Adelwarth and the others, there may be no real home but the grave. This knowledge, with which The Emigrants is saturated, could carry a warning like the one Max Ferber gives the narrator when he gives him his mother’s memoir: “It is like one of those evil German fairy tales in which, once you are under the spell, you have to carry on to the finish, till your heart breaks, with whatever work you have begun — in this case, the remembering, writing and reading.” The relief from the deep sadness of this is the butterfly man, for whom (for a while) Ithaca was home. The joy of the butterflies is lost to the irretrievable past, but the memories and the indelible fictions (the fictions of memory) that Nabokov loved remain to us.
This book is beautiful. It’s complex and fascinating without being at all difficult. The translation (by Michael Hulse) is flawless. it’s full of interest and insight into people and the shadow, and it’s one of the loveliest books I’ve read in ages.