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 Austrian writers from Adelbert Stifter to Peter Handke and called the book Die Beschreibung des Unglücks—Describing Unhappiness—a title so typical of him that it sounds like an insider joke. These studies are written in the most inspissated German academic jargon imaginable—one can’t, in fact, imagine that they are by the same man whose non-academic writing is so limpid, calm, and modest.
Among the unhappy things that haunt him is the Holocaust. He is not a Jew. If the narrator’s self-portrait in The Emigrants is en clair, he was born in 1944 into a Catholic Bavarian peasant milieu. He seems to hate it, judging it to be complacent and insufficiently contrite about the Holocaust. No wonder reviewers of The Emigrants have written about it as though it belonged to the genre of Holocaust literature. But it is really more general than that: it is about time, distance, absence, isolation, loneliness, depression, withdrawal, nostalgia, memory, and oblivion. Besides, of his four protagonists, only two had their lives disrupted by the advent of Hitler, and a third, his own great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, is not Jewish at all.
All four portraits bear the names of their sitters. The first is “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” a retired country doctor in a Norfolk village. His wife has a flat to let in their house, and Sebald and his companion Clara move into it in 1970. Selwyn seems typical of what he seems to be. He shoots, grows vegetables, and keeps horses he has saved from the knacker. His marriage is finished, although he and his wife still live under the same roof. He spends most of his time in the garden or in a folly at the bottom of it. One day when Sebald and he are talking about themselves, he says that he is homesick for the Lithuanian village where he was born and attended the Orthodox Jewish school. His real name is Seweryn. Just before the turn of the century his family emigrated. They meant to go to America, but landed in the London docks and stayed. The boy won scholarships, studied medicine, became a doctor. He played tennis and went climbing in Switzerland, where he made friends with a mountain guide. In 1914 the guide disappeared on the Oberaar glacier; his body was never found.
Selwyn shows Sebald photographs of his friend. “In 1960,” he says, “when I had to give up my practice and my patients, I severed my last ties with what they call the real world. Since then, almost my only companions have been plants and animals.” After a few months Sebald and Clara move to a house of their own. Dr. Selwyn keeps visiting them with presents of vegetables from his garden. Then one day he shoots himself. In 1986 Sebald is in Switzerland. He picks up a paper and sees a report about a human skeleton found in the Oberaar glacier. It belonged to a guide who disappeared in 1914: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”
Almost the same words recur in the second story, “Paul Bereyter.” Bereyter was a schoolmaster in Sebald’s village. Like Dr. Selwyn, he had very few—perhaps no—attachments, and he too committed suicide. Sebald gets to see the dead man’s photo album, and: “Looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them”—Bereyter’s father was half Jewish. He was sent to a concentration camp, released, and died not long after. His mother was ostracized because she had married a half-Jew. She committed suicide. Bereyter had to give up teaching and went to France as a private tutor. In 1939 he returned to Germany, perhaps because life in France became too difficult for a German, “or out of blind rage or even a sort of perversion.” He was called up and served in the German army in Belgium and Russia, in Romania and France: always, as he wrote under a photograph of himself taken at the time, “about 2,000 km away—but from where?” This phrase is another Leitmotif: in the next story, an old German emigrant stands on a beach in New Jersey and says: “I often come out here,…it makes me feel that I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where.”
After the war Bereyter returns to his teaching job. Sebald is in his class, and even as a little boy recognizes his teacher’s extraordinary dedication and talent. Bereyter lives in a modern apartment block built on the site where a charming old building once occupied by him and his parents has been pulled down. He hates his new flat, but even after his retirement, when he lives mainly in Switzerland, he pays it regular, conscientious visits to keep it in order. Then he commits suicide. Selwyn was fond of shooting and shot himself; Bereyter loved railways and lay down under a train. And he must have loved the past, or else he would not have resented the destruction of the old house so much.
Apart from “Dr. Selwyn,” which is shorter and less elaborately constructed than the other pieces, they all include Sebald’s quest for someone who knew his subject when he was alive. It is on these journeys that some of his most powerful landscapes loom up, all of them testifying to change and decay. His informant may then produce diaries and memoirs—not to speak of photographs—sometimes of a generation before his own. Some of these reminiscences are reported in indirect speech. So the past is seen at several removes, like a print of a print of a painting, or a reflection in a suite of mirrors, growing fainter and more poignant at every stage: verbal sepia. In “Paul Bereyter” Sebald’s quest leads him to an old lady in Switzerland, herself a displaced person whose early memories (not of Bereyter at all) are full of charm. It is she who produces Bereyter’s photo album; and she who arranged his burial. He had struck up an acquaintance with her in 1971 because he noticed her reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory on a park bench.
Nabokov makes fleeting appearances (usually with his butterfly net) in three of the stories. He seems a strange mascot for Sebald to have, since he dealt so gaily and optimistically with his own exile. Instead of being destroyed by memory and nostalgia, he came to enjoy them. Or perhaps that is what qualifies him to be a mascot. But he is not the only wraith flitting in and out of The Emigrants. The other is Adelbert Stifter, who comes first in Sebald’s collection of unhappy Austrian writers. He committed suicide in 1868. Sebald tempts one to hunt for clues and correspondences. So: one of Stifter’s stories (“Der Waldgänger”) has a mysterious butterfly hunter in it, and in another collection every story is named after a mineral. Its index reads almost exactly like a list of minerals remembered by one of Sebald’s emigrants from a geology lesson in his childhood: “Rose quartz, rock crystal, amethyst, topaz and tourmaline. We draw a long line to mark how much time it has taken for them to form. Our entire lives would not show as the tiniest dot on that line.”
Sebald sees Stifter as “living in a kind of exile”—another emigrant. He is traditionally regarded as the Biedermeier writer par excellence, celebrating God through the beauty and permanence of His inanimate creation. He was an obsessive describer of things. Sebald turns this around: Stifter, he maintains, dedicates himself to things in the hope of permanence, but by highlighting them he only shows up the ravages of time. One of Stifter’s best-known stories is called “The Bachelor.” Bachelors are lonely by definition. Three of Sebald’s emigrants are bachelors, and Dr. Selwyn is a bachelor in all but name. His blank marriage sounds not unlike Stifter’s own. You could, if you wanted, read a faint hint of homosexuality into his inextinguishable attachment to the Swiss guide. But there are no hints of pedophilia in “Paul Bereyter,” even though, in his essay on Stifter—another gifted teacher—Sebald declares that all good teachers must have a streak of pedophilia in them.
Homosexuality is more explicit in “Ambros Adelwarth.” This is the story of a whole family of displaced people. Sebald’s great-uncle (he saw him only once, in 1951) was born in 1886. At thirteen he left home to work in a hotel on Lake Constance; at fourteen he was taken on
as an apprenti garçon in room service at the Grand Hôtel Eden in Montreux, probably thanks to his unusually appealing but nonetheless self-controlled nature. At least I think it was the Eden, said Aunt Fini, because, in one of the postcard albums that Uncle Adewarth left, the world-famous hotel is on one of the opening pages, with its awnings lowered over the windows against the afternoon sun.
The Emigrants is adorned with photographs of this and other brooding Victorian grand hotels in France, the US, Canada, Egypt, and Manchester. As for Aunt Fini, she is Sebald’s aunt and Ambros Adelwarth’s niece. She is the main source of his story, and an emigrant herself.
She embarked for New York in 1927 with her elder sister Theres. There was no future for poor girls like them in Germany. “Theres was twenty-three and I was twenty-one, and both of us were wearing bonnets.” This is the only slip-up in Hulse’s lovely translation. They were wearing cloche hats (Kapotthüte)—a much more poignant headgear for these country girls who were hoping, perhaps, to look like real American flappers. Unfortunately this photograph is not reproduced. By the time they got to the States, Uncle Adelwarth had worked his way up through all the grand hotels to become a very grand gentleman’s gentleman, a profession he took with the utmost perfectionist seriousness. He was able to find domestic jobs for the girls, and a job for their younger brother Kasimir, who followed them two years later. Sixty years or so after that, Kasimir is the old man on the beach who feels a long way away, though he never knows from where.
By this time the three siblings are living in a retirement community in New Jersey, where Sebald finds them in his quest for Ambros Adelwarth. Adelwarth’s last employer, just before the First World War, was a New York millionaire called Samuel Solomon, who trusted him to look after his wild playboy son, Cosmo. Together the pair traveled to every smart casino around the world, and their relationship changed from servant and master to friends. “Of course, said Uncle Kasimir, he was of the other persuasion, as anyone could see, even if the family always ignored or glossed over the fact…. I always felt sorry for him, because he could never, his whole life long, permit anything to ruffle his composure.” Cosmo’s behavior became more and more strange until he fell into dementia. “When darkness fell he would lie down on the floor, draw his legs up to his chest and hide his face in his hands.” Uncle Adelwarth had to take him to a sanatorium in Ithaca, “where that same year, without saying a word or moving a muscle, he faded away.” When Samuel Solomon died in 1947 he left Uncle Adelwarth a property on Long Island, where he lived alone, falling deeper and deeper into depression himself. One day when Aunt Fini went to see him, she found the house empty and “a visiting card with a message for me, and I have carried it with me ever since.” The card is reproduced in the text, and the message reads “Have gone to Ithaca.” Adelwarth had gone to Cosmo’s sanatorium and voluntarily submitted himself to shock therapy. He died soon after.
In 1984 Sebald traveled to the States to find the sanatorium. His journey along Highway 17 to Ithaca (where Nabokov once lived) is one of his most stunning descriptions. He found the sanatorium, now in decay, and wandered around its vast park, where he came upon Dr. Abramsky, a psychiatrist who had known Uncle Adelwarth. Dr. Abramsky is a replay of Dr. Selwyn, except that he keeps bees instead of growing vegetables. He is cleaning out their hives with a goose wing, and explains that he gave up psychiatry years ago, appalled by the brutality of the then-primitive shock therapy he had to administer, and had administered to Adelwarth the day before he died—wearing his best butler’s get-up. He sees Sebald back to his car “in silence. Nor did he say a word in farewell, but described a gentle arc with the goose wing in the darkening air.”
In a press interview Sebald explained that his fourth emigrant, “Max Ferber,” was partly based on the British Jewish painter Frank Auerbach, whose paintings (like Ferber’s) hang in the Tate Gallery. The other part of the portrait is based on Sebald’s landlord during his first visit to England. When his plane landed in Manchester, “a blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometers, built of countless bricks, and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.” This was “in the autumn of 1966.” The Emigrants is thick with dates—essential, because Sebald is always switching from the present to the past, and from one past to another. So lives have to be measured out in coffee spoons. The dates remind you both how long and how short they are; insignificantly, pathetically short when you recall what the child—it was Ferber—learnt in his geology lesson: “that our entire lives would not show as a dot” on a line representing the life of a piece of stone.
Ferber left Nazi Germany as a child refugee. He never saw his parents again after they waved goodbye to him at the Munich airport in 1939, and he has lived in Manchester ever since, a recluse in his studio. “Manchester,” he says,
reminded me of everything I was trying to forget. Manchester is an immigrant city, and for a hundred and fifty years, leaving aside the poor Irish, the immigrants were chiefly Germans and Jews, manual workers, tradesmen, freelancers, retailers and wholesalers, watchmakers, hatters, cabinet-makers, umbrella makers, tailors, bookbinders, typesetters, silversmiths, photographers, furriers and glovers, scrap merchants, hawkers, pawnbrokers, auctioneers, jewellers, estate agents, stockbrokers, chemists and doctors. The Sephardic Jews, who had been settled in Manchester a long time and had names like Besso, Raphael, Cattun, Calderon, Farache, Negriu, Messulam or di Moro, made little distinction between the Germans and other Jews with names like Leibrand, Wohlgemuth, Herzmann, Gottschalk, Adler, Engels, Landeshut, Frank, Zirndorf, Wallerstein, Aronsberg, Haarbleicher, Crailsheimer, Danziger, Lipmann, or Lazarus. Throughout the nineteenth century, the German and Jewish influence was stronger in Manchester than in any other European city.
The lists of names and professions evoke Manchester’s “millions of souls, dead and alive” better than any social history could.
After the war, Ferber received a parcel containing a memoir written—after they parted—by his mother, Luisa, about her youth. He knew she had died in a concentration camp, so the shock of this late arrival was great. The memoir—this is a long flashback—describes her idyllic childhood in a village, and then her youth in the spa town of Kissingen. “At that time,” she wrote, “I was almost sixteen, and believed that a completely new world, even lovelier than that of childhood, would be revealed to me in Kissingen. In some respects that was really how it was, but in others the Kissingen years up until my marriage in 1921 seem in retrospect to have marked the first step on a path that grew narrower day by day and led inevitably to the point I have now arrived at.”
Luisa’s memoir is one of the most moving episodes in the book, largely because Sebald catches so well the tone of a gentle, serene, resigned, and very feminine woman. Perhaps her most touching recollection, as a small girl, is of an ornately bound book: “This, says Mama [i.e., her mother, Ferber’s grandmother], is the works of her favorite poet, Heine, who is also the favorite poet of Empress Elisabeth.” Heine has always been almost every German’s favorite poet, and the fact that he was Jewish made no difference. Ferber’s grandmother was too simple to know this; but she was proud of sharing her favorite with the Empress, and there is something doomed and heart-rending about this pride. “Max Ferber” is certainly a Holocaust story, although the Holocaust is barely alluded to and not mentioned in the other stories at all. Sebald’s affection and pity for Jews is part of a general sorrow for the dead.
September 25, 1997