by W.G. Sebald translated from the German by Michael Hulse
New Directions. 237 pp. $22.95
W.G. Sebald was born in Germany, studied literature there as well as in Switzerland and in Manchester, England, and since 1970 has been teaching at the University of East Anglia, where he is now a professor of European literature. That he and I are both emigrants—a cross of immigrant, exile, and extraterritorial—and that we have both written on the impact of personal as well as acquired memories, and that the question of Jewish suffering lies at the root of our work (though Sebald is not himself Jewish) are coincidences that should have drawn me to his book, which was published in this country late last year and which in literary form combines a variety of fictional and nonfictional motifs. Still, or perhaps just so, I put off reading it long after it had been recommended to me, first by a friend who found it “quite astonishingly beautiful and enigmatic,” then by reviewers whose taste I either respected or did not respect, and finally by the editor of this magazine, who was not entirely sure I would like the book.
So when I began reading The Emigrants on the commuter train into Manhattan, I was half-expecting to find a reason to put it down by the end of the first page. But as things turned out, it was the labored flatness of the opening paragraph that reeled me in: its everydayness, and behind it, in the deliberate rhythms of Michael Hulse’s extraordinary translation, that extra nudge in the language, part cadence and part syntax, that suggests literary excellence:
At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The marketplace, broad and lined with silent façades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents described.
This strange braid of the lyrical with the irreducibly ordinary is precisely what gives Sebald’s world its haunting, hypnotic, and, at times, even hallucinatory quality (not to be confused with anything so paltry as magic realism). Everything in The Emigrants is rendered through a prism of dispassionate observation, spiritual fatigue, and sudden revelation—an elusive blend of eloquence and silence, riddle and revelation. What is uncanny is that, shift the prism however you like, Sebald’s subject remains nothing subtle at all, but rather our century’s most devastating chapter, the Holocaust and the disappearance of European Jewry.
This is, though, a Holocaust not as experienced by its primary victims but as perceived from distant shores or after the fact. The light, like the pain, that is refracted in Sebald’s prism is quite gray, a numb gray, the color of emptied cities, the color of ashes, of dust, of strayed lives that end long before death comes. Grayness lowers over the black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the book, as it does over the characters who people it: unfinished spectral beings, hollow, sapped, bruised, hopelessly and quite futilely homesick.
The Emigrants is divided into four parts, each a portrait—a parable—of a different character. The first section, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” is the shortest and for me the most uncanny of all.
Henry Selwyn, a successful doctor who is now the very picture of the retired county Englishman, hunting rifle and all, rents an apartment in his house in Hingham to the narrator and his companion Clara whom we have met in the extract above. The house is strange in a Gothic sort of way, its tennis court overgrown, its kitchen “on its last legs.” The real owner is the doctor’s wife, who is suspected by her husband of having amassed a fortune during their married years but who leads a separate life in the same house, in a pattern of estrangement that is not unusual in Sebald’s characters. A mysterious kitchen maid also makes an appearance, though, again typically, nothing is made of her. In Sebald’s prose, loose strands and red herrings are not exactly meaningless, and not exactly clues to an overarching meaning, but rather the specter of meaning in its larval stage.
One day the young couple is invited to dinner. Although Mrs. Selwyn is absent, her husband has invited an old friend, and to entertain his guests he shows them pictures of the two of them on a trip to Crete many years before; the narrator observes that this “return of [the men’s] past selves was an occasion for some emotion.” Then Selwyn tells the young couple about his experiences in the Swiss Alps before World War I, when he befriended a sixty-five-year-old Swiss guide by the name of Johannes Naegeli. The two had become very close and their separation when war broke out in 1914 was traumatic. Some time after, Naegeli, continues Selwyn, disappeared, and “it was assumed that he had fallen in a crevasse in the [Oberaar] glacier.” “It is an old story,” he adds, before admitting that now, fully 60 years after the fact, the image of Naegeli has begun to haunt him more than ever.
Another day, after the couple have moved to a different place in town, Henry Selwyn walks in bearing a basket of vegetables from his garden. In the course of the ensuing conversation he confesses that, recently, he has become prey to homesickness. And then comes a major revelation, spoken in a minor key: the doctor turns out to be no echt-Englishman at all, but to have come from a small village in Lithuania. From the names of relatives whom he mentions it rapidly becomes clear that his family, who emigrated at the turn of the century, and whose name was not Selwyn but Seweryn, is Jewish. Intending to emigrate to the U.S., they had boarded a ship they thought bound for that destination, but after about a week, “far sooner than we had reckoned . . . we entered a broad river estuary.” Somehow they had landed in England.
“Certain things,” writes Sebald, “. . . have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” He is referring to repressed sorrows, though it is not quite clear which sorrows he has in mind: the memory of an abandoned shtetl in Lithuania, the pain of emigration, Selwyn’s youthful love for the Swiss guide Naegeli, his estrangement from a wife who may never have forgiven him his Jewish roots, or the loss of younger days briefly recaptured in the photographs of Crete.
But we are not done with revelations—nor with the way coincidence combines here with memory to produce something that supersedes ordinary experience and leads to a kind of meaning. Some time after these events, while vacationing in France, the narrator and his companion suddenly hear that the doctor has committed suicide with his own rifle. And then, in July 1986, as if the past never can be done seeping through the layers we place between it and ourselves, the narrator finds himself reading a newspaper on a train in Switzerland—only minutes before, “the memory of Dr. Selwyn returned to me for the first time in a long while”—and chances upon an article announcing the recovery in the Oberaar glacier of the body of an Alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli, missing since 1914.
“And so,” the narrator reflects, “they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
The Emigrants is about people who are not just ultimately homeless but whose lives have strayed, who missed the boat that never sailed, or who took the boat that sailed elsewhere. Henry Selwyn, né Hersch Seweryn, strays to England. Paul Bereyter, the protagonist of the second of the book’s four sections who, the reader eventually infers, must also be partly Jewish, drifts back from Switzerland to his native Germany, where he ends up serving in Hitler’s army. Ambros Adelwarth, also partly Jewish, wanders from Germany, to Switzerland, to Japan, and finally finds employment as a gentleman’s gentleman for the Solomon family in New York. Finally, the artist Max Ferber, who escapes Germany during the war, settles in Manchester, the same city where the narrator, too, once lived and where Ferber “imagined [he] could begin a new life . . . from scratch; but instead, Manchester reminded [him] of everything [he] was trying to forget.”
All are displaced persons, all caught staring into the void, all feeling “a long way away, though they never quite know from where.” Paul Bereyter, like Dr. Selwyn, commits suicide several decades after the Holocaust; Ambros Adelwarth, after a life filled with world travel, consigns himself to electroshock therapy and wastes away in a “home” in upstate New York—in Ithaca, of all places. And Max Ferber wastes away, too, in his ash-ridden studio, painting in gray and feeling “closer to dust than to light, air, or water.” Thus does the Holocaust exact final payment even from those who escaped its maw.
And it does so with staggering precision. Henry Selwyn, the man who shows his guests his gun, ends up taking his own life with it. Paul Bereyter, a schoolteacher obsessed with railroads, puts an end to his life by lying down upon the tracks. Ambros Adelwarth, having once delivered a friend/lover to an asylum, years later finds his own way to the same place. And Max Ferber, who escaped Germany to avoid the gas chambers in Poland, ends up in Manchester, an industrial city whose spewing smokestacks inevitably remind the narrator of the industrial center of Lodz, a heavily Jewish city once referred to as the Polski Manczester.
Things come back; but nothing is ever restored. Time—that “disquiet of the soul”—works its way with Sebald’s characters as it does with abandoned buildings and countries, abandoned gardens and homes. Like Sebald’s prose, the photographs that pepper the pages of The Emigrants succeed in illustrating this point without fully illuminating it. An “x” sitting at the top of a group picture indicates the narrator’s diminutive mother, and tugs at the reader with the resonance of her certain death; workmen sitting on the roof of a synagogue in Germany—the copper had been donated to the German war effort in World War I—have “Holocaust” written all over their happy faces; Max Ferber’s father, at a ski resort, is shown in a pose that communicates, “I will never see my son again.”
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that a photograph is disturbing not by virtue of what it shows but because of what we know is about to happen to its subjects. The pictures in Sebald’s book evoke, in the reader, a similar mechanism of psychic dread and recoil.
When, in the final section of The Emigrants, the narrator leaves Max Ferber’s studio in Manchester and returns to his hotel—like so many hotels in this book, it is a large, luxury establishment that has fallen on very hard times—he thinks not only of his “own” Manchester of a quarter of a century earlier, when he himself first came to England as a student, but of a “hotel somewhere in Poland,” and in thus thinking of Poland works his way back to “Manczester,” and the Lodz ghetto during the Nazi occupation. His mind moves to a photograph of working girls in the ghetto—it is not reproduced here—and suddenly he sees three weavers “looking across at him” with such intensity in their gaze that he “cannot meet [it] for long.” He could be staring at the abyss of time, or at the abyss of collective memory, or in any event at the land of the dead, the dead who are “always coming back” so many decades afterward the way the frozen body of Johannes Naegeli suddenly appeared, Rip-Van-Winkle-like, after two world wars and an entire lifetime.
“I wonder what the three women’s names were,” the narrator finally asks, still mesmerized. “Roza, Luisa, and Lea, or Nona, Decuma, and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors, and thread.”
Except in books, one seldom comes face to face with fate, let alone with the Three Fates. And yet, while reading The Emigrants, I thought repeatedly of a friend of mine whose father had escaped the Holocaust as a boy on the last train headed for England. Two years after the end of the war, six years after last seeing his parents, my friend’s father, who was by then studying in Canada, received, exactly as does Max Ferber, a letter from his mother. In typical Sebaldian fashion, the package arrived too late.
What must he have thought? On recognizing his mother’s handwriting, must he not have caught himself doing something he had sworn never to do again: namely, hope? I called my friend to urge that he buy a copy of The Emigrants for his father. But then, a half-hour later, I called back to retract the suggestion: what need had he to be brought back into the past which had claimed the lives of both his parents? The need, rather, is ours, and The Emigrants, an astonishingly beautiful book, just as my friend had said, meets our need in a consummate act of artistic fatedness.