The Emigrants consists of four short biographies told in the first person by the author. Perhaps “displaced persons” or the French dépaysés would better describe these men, who are without the sense of purpose, of going somewhere, implicit in the word “emigrant.” (To be pedantic: the German for “emigrants” is Auswanderer, suggesting people on the move. Die Ausgewanderten—Sebald’s original German title—means people who once emigrated.) Sebald’s four men aren’t going anywhere. They have reached the end of the road. His book is tragic, stunningly beautiful, strange, and haunting. What makes it beautiful is the fastidious prose with its sad resigned rhythm—as appealing and hypnotic in Michael Hulse’s English translation as in the German original; and also Sebald’s wonderfully desolate landscapes and townscapes, where depression rises like mist from quite factual, unemphatic descriptions of people and things.
The strangeness lies in the hybrid genre that he has invented for himself, a mixture of fact and fiction, illustrated by small blurry photographs which may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the stories. One of the characters recalls “trying to see further and further” into old photographs with a magnifying glass. I tried that too, but, especially when the illustrations were of inscriptions on graves or pages from diaries or children in the back row of school photographs, it wasn’t strong enough. Puzzles, unexplained happenings, cryptic subtexts remain to be decoded in the text as well. The reader becomes a sleuth. The author is a ghost hunter.
Sebald has used variations of this hybrid format before: in 1990 he published Schwindel: Gefühle, which also comprises four strange pieces about real people, Henri Beyle and Kafka among them; and in 1995 he produced Die Ringe des Saturn, a dreamy account—with photographs—of his wanderings in Suffolk and his encounters with some of its inhabitants, both living and dead. The dead include Sir Thomas Browne and Chateaubriand, and among the living is the Jewish poet Michael Hamburger, who writes in English, but was born in Berlin and emigrated with his parents in the Thirties. Suffolk is the English county to the south of Norfolk, where Sebald has lived for more than thirty years, himself an emigrant, but still writing in his native language. He was born in a village in the Bavarian Alps, studied in Freiburg, Switzerland, and Manchester, and is now Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia.
He writes about people who haunt him, and his stories can be read as attempts at exorcism. Does it work for him? Probably not, or he would not sound so sad. Or so repetitive: for while there is no repetition within The Emigrants, it takes up themes and motifs he has dealt with before, and which seem to obsess him. In Germany, where his work is well known and has won several prizes, he is famous for melancholy and pessimism. In 1985 he collected his scholarly essays on …