When W.G. Sebald died in a car accident in December 2001, he was eulogized in Great Britain and America as one of the great writers of our time. And yet, before his first book, The Emigrants, was translated into English in 1996, very few had ever heard of him outside Germany. The reception of that first book and the others that soon followed in quick order was simply astonishing. He was called one of the most original voices to have come out of Europe in recent years, a Teutonic Borges, strange, sublime, and haunting. “Is literary greatness still possible?” Susan Sontag asked in the TLS and then replied: “One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald.” Since his death, however, there have been differing views. What at first appeared to be a seamless prose style turned out to be on closer examination a patchwork of literary borrowings. His books, it seemed, were as much the product of his vast erudition as they were of his own imagination and experience. This raises the question whether a writer who draws many of his ideas from other writers can still be called an original. If anyone can, Sebald may be the one.
I suppose most everyone who read The Emigrants in Michael Hulse’s translation, when it came out, shared Sontag’s high opinion. It was a book unlike any other one had read. At times it sounded like a novel, at other times like a memoir or a work of non-fiction. There were even documents and photographs to complicate the question of how it should be understood. The narrative tells about the lives of four emigrants: an old Lithuanian Jewish doctor who accidentally emigrated to London in his youth, having embarked on a ship he thought was going to United States; a German schoolteacher who was forced to leave his job in 1935 and move to France because he had a Jewish grandfather and was thus only three-quarters Aryan, but who then returned home and served in the Wehrmacht; a great-uncle of Sebald’s who emigrated to America and ended in a mental hospital in Ithaca, New York; and finally a Jewish painter who lost his parents in the camps and whom the narrator encounters in Manchester.
These are people like my own parents who could never forget that war, or stop being puzzled by how strange their lives turned out to be. What makes The Emigrants such a powerful book is the laconic way in which tragedies are recounted. That sounds right to me. Those who have lived through horrors tend to acquire a detachment about what happened to them. “It makes one’s head heavy and giddy,” one of them says, “as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of…
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