Having read Austerlitz and Vertigo (the latter of which is the title of a blog devoted to Sebald and photographically illustrated literature), I jumped at a secondhand copy of The Emigrants. It comprises four fictional accounts of Jewish exiles escaping the Holocaust. These collectively build a detailed anatomy of exile itself: the circumstances of departure, the prehistory to emigration, the experience of arrival in foreign lands, and most importantly, the worlds they left behind. Each story evokes a rising sense of loss. Whether you will enjoy Sebald hinges on this point. He gives no ideas as to what you could do with that sensation. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps there’s intention to this. It all subverts that question that any intelligent reader will ask of any book: why are you telling me this?
What disturbed me was the use of voice. Sebald’s narration is precise, contingent, a seemingly arbitrary wandering through memories and the connections between them that read naturally while, under analysis, have an illogic that you can’t help but suspect is a deception that masks an underlying logic. It’s a compelling style whose ever-newer mysteries lead you on. Yet the narrator’s voice builds in prominence. The result is an ongoing struggle between the teller and those whose tales are told, so much so that the individuality in their individual lives that their narrative strives to get across merges into the narrative voice that straddles them. There is a sophisticated trick going on here. You can’t be anything but aware of how the stories rely on a bond of trust that a reader makes with an author. It’s as if the ethical responsibilities to storytelling are the real story.
What is most delicately handled is the alternations between personal and political, large and small, past and present and so on. They are an examination that evince a brand of sehnsucht, a feeling that one’s real homeland, perhaps a sense of belonging itself has faded or disappeared, its replacements only heightening the loss no matter how hard they try to re-settle. In this way, the homeland on offer in Sebald’s novels is the displacement we’ve come to attribute to modernism (more about modernism in Kaggsy’s recent post), perhaps even postmodernism, and certainly, diaspora. And Sebald’s sincerity never quite lapses into nostalgia: the lost homeland is genuinely longed for without mawkishness.
The use of period photography adds to the effect. They’ve clearly been sourced and selected with great care to help construct something that ‘was’ through events that never quite were. There’s a tenderness to how a people and its culture were partly erased and partly re-distributed with a cruelty unparalleled in human history. The singular Sebaldian voice as the conduit for multiple lost voices left me both enjoying his authorial voice while wishing I could hear those of his characters.
Another Sebald novel, The Rings of Saturn, is in my TBR pile. His novels have been in many other TBR piles going by their slight regularity on the secondhand market. The edition shown here is published by Harvill. There’s a secondhand stall at Tynemouth whose holder tries to cater for European literature and history: Harvill is one of his favoured publishers. Look for black spines with the panther logo and Garamond typeface. I’m sure there’s more authors from this stable whose work can be tried out for a few quid.
Anyone interested in reading about German authors over this month may enjoy, as I am, German Literature Month: