At first, The Emigrants appears simply to document the lives of four Jewish emigres in the 20th century. But gradually, as Sebald's precise, almost dreamlike prose begins to work its magic, the four narrations merge into one overwhelming evocation of exile and losss.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.