I first read W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants when it came out in English in 1996 and remember feeling that I had not read anything so captivating in a long time. The book is difficult to classify. Told in the first person by the author, it reads at times like a memoir, at others like a novel or a work of nonfiction about the lives of four emigrants. They come from Lithuania and Germany and end up in England and the US. The book includes, and this is another peculiarity of his, blurry, black-and-white photographs with no captions and not-always-clear connections to people and places being talked about in its pages. As for the author, one knew next to nothing about him except what one deduced from autobiographical details in the book, most importantly that he was a German living in England. The Emigrants was widely praised and called a masterpiece by many eminent writers and critics. The reviewers noted the author’s elegiac tone, his grasp of history, his extraordinary powers of observation, and the clarity of his writing. While stressing his originality, critics mentioned Kafka, Borges, Proust, Nabokov, Calvino, Primo Levi, Thomas Bernhard, and a few others as Sebald’s likely influences. There were some complaints about the unrelenting pessimism of his account of thwarted lives and the occasional monotony of his meandering prose, but even those who had reservations acknowledged the power of his work.
The narrator of The Emigrants is a loner and so are the rest of the characters. The countless victims of last century’s wars, revolutions, and mass terror are what interests Sebald. One may say that he sought a narrative style that would convey the state of mind of those set adrift by forces beyond their understanding and control. Unlike men and women who have never known exile, whose biography is shaped by and large by social class and environment, to be a refugee is to have sheer chance govern one’s fate, which in the end guarantees a life so absurd in most cases that it defeats anyone’s powers of comprehension. Sebald served as a kind of oral historian and unconventional biographer of such people, reconstructing their lives out of bits and pieces he was told by them and out of additional research he did himself into their backgrounds. If his book is melancholy, it is because the task he gives himself is all but hopeless.
Eventually, other works of Sebald’s were translated, though not always in order of their composition. The Rings of Saturn (1998), which came next, is a record of a walking tour of the eastern coast of England with lengthy digressions on Thomas Browne, Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, the Battle of Waterloo, the Taiping rebellion, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and at least a dozen other topics. Another oddity of Sebald’s prose, which either delights or exasperates his readers, is his digressions. He never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.