The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten)

views updated

THE EMIGRANTS (Die Ausgewanderten)

Novel by W.G. Sebald, 1993

The Emigrants, an eloquent rumination on the nature of memory and loss, is the first of W.G. Sebald's novels to garner critical and popular acclaim in English translation. Published as Die Ausgewanderten (1993) in the German original and translated into English in 1996, it presents four thematically interrelated life stories of emigrants who were forced to leave their home countries, in some cases due to their Jewish origin.

The Emigrants is characterized throughout by the use of fictional techniques that locate the novel in the interstices of generic convention. Sebald combines elements of biography, autobiography, travelogue, and photographic representation to arrive at a narrative form all his own. The combination of historiography with fictional elements results in a style that points beyond the portraiture of individuals toward allegory.

The book's first section, "Dr. Henry Selwyn," relates how Hersch Seweryn emigrated from Grodno, Lithuania, when he was seven years old. He settles in England where his secrecy about his Jewish origin, as well as his increasing sense of his deracination and consequent hollowness of identity, result in his suicide. "Paul Bereyter," the second section, introduces the narrator's grade school teacher, who is prevented from teaching by the Nazis because of his being a so-called Dreiviertelarier (one of his grandparents was Jewish), subsequently emigrates and returns to Germany, but can never assimilate into a postwar culture bent on forgetting about the Third Reich. He kills himself by lying down on the train tracks, an uncanny echo of the role the railways played in the deportation of the Jews.

The third section, "Ambros Adelwarth," depicts a great-uncle of the narrator who emigrates to the United States between the wars and serves as a personal servant and travel companion to Cosmo Solomon. By depicting the relationship between a German émigré and a Jew in the United States, Sebald evokes the very different relationship between Jews and Germans in Germany and thus mourns the absence of Jewish life from Germany. The book's lengthiest section, "Max Ferber," depicts a German Jew who fled to Manchester and lives in the shadow of smokestacks—literally, due to Manchester's industrial heritage, and figuratively, because his parents were killed in the Holocaust.

Ferber is a painter, and his artistic technique could be seen as emblematic of Sebald's understanding of memory's processes:

Since [Ferber] applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the edges, in places resembling the flow of lava … It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water … And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust. He drew with vigorous abandon, frequently going through half a dozen of his willow-wood charcoal sticks in the shortest of time; and that process of drawing and shading on the thick, leathery paper, as well as the concomitant business of constantly erasing what he had drawn with a woollen rag already heavy with charcoal, really amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust, which never ceased except at night.

Despite their conversations, the narrator does not find out anything about Ferber's biographical background until he returns to Manchester from a sojourn in Switzerland and reads about the painter in a newspaper's Sunday supplement. Ferber left Germany in 1939, and his parents were exterminated in the Holocaust in 1941. When the narrator visits him once more in Manchester, Ferber tells him in great detail his life history and says that "time … is an unreliable way of gauging these things, indeed it is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither a past nor a future." Upon departure, Ferber hands the narrator a package containing his mother's memoirs of her youth and upbringing, written between 1939 and 1941—a document where "remembering, writing and reading" intersect.

In The Emigrants the prism through which the present is viewed is a gray one, one that refracts the light against the backdrop of emptied cities, the color of ashes, and the allpervasiveness of dust, all of which are recurrent images of the "Max Ferber" section. The pastness of history does not guarantee an escape from its maw. The narrator experiences this bond at Bad Kissingen's Jewish cemetery: "A shock of recognition shot through me at the grave of Maier Stern, who died on the 18th of May, my own birthday; and I was touched, in a way I knew I could never quite fathom, by the symbol of the writer's quill on the stone of Friederike Halbleib, who departed this life on the 28th of March 1912." This realization extends beyond the narrator imagining the universality of human experience—such a sentiment appears limited by virtue of attempting to extract metaphysical meaning from biographic coincidence. Seen against the backdrop of Jewish life in Germany contained in the memoir of Max Ferber's mother and the cemetery's "wilderness of graves, neglected for years," it also bespeaks a loss that transcends the individual—a loss of a culture and a world whose only present traces are those of the past, where presence is indicated only by markers of absence. The phenomenal reality the photographs and, by extension, The Emigrants depict is one that captures more than the present-day object: They capture an aura of the past and are as accurate a depiction of ghosts as is possible to a device that depends on expressing memory through linguistic means.

—Stefan Gunther

About this article

The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten)

Updated About content Print Article


The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten)