The Emigrants

by W. G. Sebald

Other authorsMichael Hulse (Translator)
Paperback, 2016

Call number





New Directions (2016), Edition: Tra, 240 pages


The road to exile of four men. One is a teacher, fired by the Nazis from his job for having a Jewish ancestor, then inducted into the German army. Of the others, all Jews, one is a surgeon who commits suicide as he is unable to assimilate into British society, a second is an artist, a third becomes a butler in New York.

Media reviews

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.
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Yet ''The Emigrants'' is not exactly a fictional memoir. Rather, it is the record of its narrator's investigations into the mysterious memories of others, preserved in stories that dramatize the sometimes treacherous enchantment of memory itself. In the shaping of these stories, Mr. Sebald's book reflects the irresistible retrospective circlings of our contemporary culture, even as he pursues a post-modern fictional inspection of the delicate relationship between memory and history.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
This is a book of 4 essays, each focusing on someone the author knew personally (a landlord, a teacher, a great uncle, an artist friend), all displaced emigrants, all fairly normal, but also very remarkable in ways that Sebald skillfully and subtly brings out. These are essays about history and fate and, often, the holocaust... which is wisely never mentioned directly. But its devastating effects permeate these pages like... like, a deadly gas (okay, bad analogy... sorry).

The other Sebald book I read The Rings of Saturn was okay, but I never connected to it the way I felt I should have... I enjoyed this one much more. Maybe because I felt that there was more at stake here (in the other one he was just wandering around aimlessly, trying to connect threads into a compelling narrative). Or maybe I was just in the right mood for him now. Because he writes in a way you have to savor slowly, in a certain state of mind.

I have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly I enjoyed so much about this book. Perhaps this is a compliment to the writer, in that nothing stands out as remarkable... it is stylistically and structurally pretty standard stuff, but it builds in a cumulative way. Something about the slow, personal way these essays develop. Something about the melancholy that isn't ever melodramatic. Enlightening without being simply (or ever) revelatory. In fact, there are no answers here, simply questions and pain and longing. It's complex and open ended and personal.

His essays, which are sometimes considered fiction, but really are a tightrope-walk between reality and our tenuous relationship with it, are interspersed with photos. Some of the photos obviously contribute to the pieces, but some--oddly--are very literal and do not seem to illuminate much. And oftentimes I want to see a photo of something (like the paintings of Max Ferber) that is frustratingly not shown. Perhaps this was deliberately withheld from the reader for a purpose.

I didn't notice this before I started this book: but I've been moving away from pure fiction into more fiction-ish/essay/memoir territory lately with Fun Home, Kabloona, and So Long, See You Tomorrow (which is a novel, but seems very autobiographical too--and probably is). This was not a conscious decision. I wonder what this means.

Needless to say, this particular book satisfied a craving. A craving for something stirring and huge, but not sad in the traditional 'weeping over my pillow' way... but more restrained, more difficult, more like a very distinct stillness, like an enormous snow-covered mountain range. You look at it a while and wonder to yourself 'WTF I supposed to do with this?', and then you realize you're asking the wrong question.

OK, I'm starting to babble incoherently, so this book review is officially over.
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LibraryThing member thorold
I discovered Sebald when a friend recommended Austerlitz, so, having started at the end, I'm inevitably going backwards. Die Ausgewanderten is the second of his books I've read.

Superficially at least, this is a much simpler book than Austerlitz -- four extended stories, apparently self-contained, each presenting a portrait of an exile. I'll try not to repeat what antimuzak has already said in a very detailed review.

What struck me was, first of all, to find many of the same characteristic Sebald features as in Austerlitz: photographs in the text; spare layout without quotation marks and with only very occasional paragraph breaks; a fascination with big buildings (hotels here; libraries, stations and forts in Austerlitz); obfuscation of the boundary between fact and fiction (Sebald-like narrator); evidence-based narrative -- we only hear what the narrator has experienced directly, or reports a third person as telling him.

The narratives are certainly simpler in structure than that of Austerlitz: we don't get into multiply-nested levels of narrators. Everything is either told by or to the narrator. However, the book is clearly not as simple as meets the eye. Trivially, the stories are all about the nature of exile and about memory, individual and collective. as you read, there are little facts that establish connections between the stories, places and minor characters that suddenly pop up, but at the same time there are destabilising elements that warn us not to make assumptions about what we are not told - is the narrator who grew up in the Bavarian town of S. and went to school taught by Paul Bereyter the same as the narrator who grew up in W. and is the great-nephew of Ambros Adelwarth?

It's tempting to speculate about the significance of the butterfly collector who appears in all the stories. The same one? Again, we don't know. We want to make patterns and say that he is, but Sebald doesn't give any clues. Is he a metaphor for the author, collecting the fragile fragments of colour in his Botanisiertrommel then letting them out for the reader? Or memory? Or the reader? Or just a butterfly collector?
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LibraryThing member kant1066
A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed another of Sebald’s novels, “Austerlitz.” “The Emigrants” – really more a series of four interlinked short stories – has many of the same themes and seems to deal with them in the same way. While I much preferred “Austerlitz,” I liked the stories here as well. Short stories, especially those collections where there is an important connecting thread between all the stories as there is here, sometimes give me difficulty because the whole reading experience doesn’t come across as unified as I would have liked. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I started reading this a few months ago right before I came down with some truly horrible form of stomach bug which put me out of commission for a few days. Not surprisingly, that might have also affected the reading experience.

I won’t say anything about the stories themselves. Summaries are readily available. But I would like to reiterate how much I love what Sebald did with his fiction. Characters of displacement and marginalization are always his core concerns; blurring the lines between documentarian journalism and fiction, his preferred method of writing. In this sense, he’s vaguely reminiscent of writers like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, but I think the broad philosophical scope and history that he’s writing about make his work much more important. His writing is superior to both, too.

Just as in “Austerlitz,” this book is full of historical photographs claiming to be of the characters, which manages to both keep a critical distance and build empathy in the reader toward the people we’re reading about. The tension that Sebald keeps bringing up between history and fiction continually and intelligently brings attention to both, and the complex relationship the two share.

I have “Rings of Saturn,” and am still very much interested in reading it even though I found it a less compelling reading experience than “Austerlitz,” which I still think is perhaps one of the best novels I’ve read in the past few years. For readers who are new to Sebald, I would suggest “Austerlitz” to those who prefer the form of the novel, and “The Emigrants” to those who prefer short stories. I can see both being a wonderful point of departure for appreciating what Sebald has to say.
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LibraryThing member John
Sebald is a German writer and apparently this book has been very popular ever since being published in Germany in 1992. It is a fascinating and at times wonderful and very moving depiction of the lives of four people and/or their families or particular friends. None of them is connected to the other except, through the pen of the author, to their shared experiences as emigrants either in the literal sense of having left Germany to find a future in the New World of America, or in the metaphoric sense of having become emigrants because the country has left them. There are some incredibly poignant stories, in particular that of Max Ferber's mother, which details with wonderful description and writing, her life growing up in a small town in Germany from which her father moved the family to the city as he became more successful and more wealthy. It is a story of an almost idyllic childhood, subsequently beset by the concerns and yearnings of adolescence, and then falling in love and getting married to begin one's own experience of that stage of life. A normal set of experiences, of normal hopes and fears, of normal feelings for parents and siblings, replicated a million, a billion times by individuals around the world and throughout history, with the difference that this woman and her husband are doomed to die in one of the concentration camps of the Reich for the crime of being Jewish.

This is a book that celebrates the unfathomable mystery of the individual, driven, shaped, influenced by circumstances that are unique, even if experienced by any number of persons, because evey individual has his/her own prism of experiences, hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, etc etc, that will refract any given experience into any number of unpredicable patterns.
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LibraryThing member reedist
I have recommended and given this book to more people than any other, and only one of them liked it. Another summed up the general reaction by saying 'I like book where you know what the author thinks and MEANS'. This is not one of those books, and that's why I love it so much. Reading it for the first time in September and October 2001 (!) was one of the most intense reading experiences of my life. I am very very sorry that Sebald is dead: far, far too soon.… (more)
LibraryThing member MSarki
This was such a pleasing read for me. Sebald was a special talent. I am looking forward to reading the two remaining unread titles in his oeuvre that includes Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz.
LibraryThing member dr_zirk
Considering that I read W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants in translation from the German, I am amazed at the beauty and fluidity of his language, particularly in regards to his description of physical environments - I'm not sure that I have ever encountered a writer who can evoke a specific place anywhere near as well as Sebald can. This book focuses on memory, particularly memories surrounding the forced displacement of European Jews by the Nazis. Sebald is much less interested in the recounting of events than he is in the understanding of motives and passions, and the first chapter, focusing on Dr. Henry Selwyn, is exceptional - Sebald handles melancholy, history, and decay with a lightness of touch that is truly the hallmark of a talented artist.… (more)
LibraryThing member FPdC
Sebald's four narratives with the biographies of four Germans in exile is, as with several other of his books, a mixture of fiction, biography, and essay, in the beautiful and movingly melancholic style of the author. In the stories about a doctor, a teacher, Great Uncle Ambrose, and a painter, Sebald portrays a whole world of change in the lifes of ordinary people in the 20th Century across countries and continents, from a glacier in Switzerland to de-industrialized 1960s Manchester, from pre-WWI Jerusalem to the Casinos of Monte Carlo and Deauville, from the life of a "quarter-Jew" school teacher to the visit to the jewish cemitery of the German town of Kissingen. A graceful book, certainly a bit sad, written in the enthralling way unique to Sebald.… (more)
LibraryThing member ben_a
Borrowed from my mother, and just as excellent as she suggested. But I did not finish it -- too depressing for vacation reading.
LibraryThing member annbury
This book is I think a quiet masterpiece. It looks much simpler than it is. Sebald recounts the stories of four men, all of whom emigrated from Germany at different points in the twentieth century, and all of whom had a marginal connection with the unnamed narrator who frames the stories. Each is at least partly Jewish, and each has been profoundly affected by the Holocaust. Still, the great catastrophe is never front and center, it is always alluded to in passing, and in terms very specific to each of Sebald's protagonists -- how a life was changed, a past destroyed.

This book at first seems an easier read than "Austerlitz", but Sebald's focus of piling memory on memory creates at least as strong an effect as in that book. In "The Emigrant", one person's story opens out into another's, until all the complexity of a past descends. It is not a cheerful book -- the protagonists die, either by their own hands or in distressing circumstances -- but it is a very beautiful and powerful one. The description of Manchester, for example, vividly recalled to me the experience of being a foreigner in 1960's Britain, and the section on Istanbul is perhaps the loveliest evocation of that city that I have ever read. Overall, Sebald takes the reader on a journey through layer after layer of memory, history, identity, arriving with nothing concrete, but something profoundly evocative.

"The Emigrants" is about identity, and memory, and about the great mystery of the 20th century -- how could so many people have gone mad enough to allow the Holocaust? Sebald does not arrive at an answer, but he tells us a great deal about the question.
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LibraryThing member TRHummer
This book is, in a minor key, what Sebald's Austerlitz is in a major key. It is a beautiful, moving book -- Cynthia Ozick describes it as "sublime," and I do not disagree. I would give Austerlitz ten stars; this one, then, is well worth the five I assign to it.
LibraryThing member rosechimera
Need to add a shelf "Books I Fail to Appreciate Proving I'm a Cretin". I didn't find this one horrible. It felt like eavesdropping on grownups when you're little. My curiosity was piqued but my attention was not easily sustained. I could sense importance and relevance, but it was quickly pocketed away in my subconscious.
LibraryThing member mooingzelda
This is a quietly affecting book that takes a subtle look at the effect of the Holocaust on the lives and descendants of four Jewish men who emigrated away from Germany at various points of the 20th century.

The book is divided into four stories told from the point of view of a narrator who has some sort of a connection with the emigrant in question. It reads like a hybrid of a memoir, historical account and stream of consciousness to me, which made it a little difficult for me to get to grips with what was happening - there are a few tangents and quite a few instances where the story switches between the perspective of different characters, but this is not made obvious.

Having said that, I admire the way the book explores the issues of memory, history, guilt and loneliness, but without hammering its points home by explicitly detailing the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish people and their families. I also enjoyed the descriptions of 1960s Manchester in the final section of the book, being a Manchester resident myself.

This isn't an easy read, but it's a worthwhile one if you're interested in the history of German Jews in the 20th century.
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
History of four Jewish emigrant men from Germany is finely tuned.

For me, what is missing is what each man missed from his previous life in Germany.

Even after the horrors of World War II, they still wanted to return to the places and people the Nazis had obliterated.

It is difficult to feel connections, except for the sheer fear and depression from being totally uprooted
from what you thought was your homeland forever, when so little is revealed of what came before.

The life of Selwyn is the most quietly memorable.
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LibraryThing member rosechimera
Need to add a shelf "Books I Fail to Appreciate Proving I'm a Cretin". I didn't find this one horrible. It felt like eavesdropping on grownups when you're little. My curiosity was piqued but my attention was not easily sustained. I could sense importance and relevance, but it was quickly pocketed away in my subconscious.
LibraryThing member b.masonjudy
Reading The Emigrants is to allow oneself to be ushered into a diffuse world centered around a definite, yet rarely named emotional core. I found it hard to think of this work in isolation from others of Sebald's oeuvre, and missed some of the explicit transhistorical themes. Yet, I am left with an acute feeling of longing for the lives of the characters and the underlying sorrow of the narrator's project to capture and sustain their life experiences.… (more)
LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
I wanted to like this book more than I did, I'm blaming myself for having a difficult time always following what I was reading. The author seemed to wander off on tangents and I would have to back track frequently to remember the gist of the story.




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