The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald: Modernism as Sehnsucht

Bought for £2.49 at Oxfam Hexham.

Bought for £2.49 at Oxfam Hexham.

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:

glm_v

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14 Responses to The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald: Modernism as Sehnsucht

  1. Jonathan says:

    Sebald’s work rarely appeals to me but I should at least try something by him. I think ‘Rings of Saturn’ may be best for me. I’ve seen ‘Austerlitz’ in secondhand bookshops before and look through it, read parts, but it just doesn’t appeal.

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    • Jeff says:

      I showed a friend of mine around Bookcase in Carlisle – possibly the largest secondhand bookshop in Britain, posted on previously – and he found a Vintage edition of Rings of Saturn (he even bought it for me, partly because he’s generous anyway, but I suspect the secondhand book overload intoxicated him too). I don’t know though as I ‘look forward’ to Sebald novels as such. His portrayals of what constitutes s person’s or people’s ‘world’ are fascinatingly small, but to be overwhelmed by the situated sense of being you have to deal with a cyclical burden of inevitable and irreconcilable departure.
      Austerlitz does have a very long start-up that’s a dry as bones. The shift from architectural history to personal disorientation and homesickness is shattering. But it’s quite a way in. Maybe that’s why it shattering?

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  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’ve tried Sebald in the past but really struggled to *get* him and I think you’ve articulated some of the problems I had with him here. I was kind of unsure of his point, but maybe if I revisited now I would have a different perspective. And thanks for the link!

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    • Jeff says:

      I find myself a reluctant admirer of his work. It’s meticulous, patient, forensic; what’s off-putting is the coolness towards personal narratives, and I suggest, a somewhat blokey focus on neutral subjects in people’s lives – the kind of small and uncontroversial stuff that strangers talk about to not cause offence. Then suddenly you’ll get an offhand remark about a death, or disappearance, as though this were incidental. It’s like there’s a supreme effort of concealment that’s intensely revealing in itself. The front put up by the descriptive leaves me both ambivalent and bursting with never-quite-satisfied curiosity about what’s going on underneath. Not everybody’s cup of tea.

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  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Meant to say that I agree about the Harvill logo – I always look for that on the spines in the local charity shops!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Guy Savage says:

    Jeff: I have a small stack of Sebald books which I’ve picked up used over the past few years. He didn’t make the cut for GLM this year but perhaps next.

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    • Jeff says:

      I’m sure the length and exactness to your observations will help to pin some things down about an author so opaque.
      Actually, I wrote about The Emigrants to get back into blogging, and then realised that I could add it to the recent spate of German Lit Month posts I’ve been enjoying in my Reader feed. It’s been nice to throw something into the pot. I wish I’d taken a few notes now!

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  5. roughghosts says:

    Interesting reflections. I am especially fond of Sebald and this book in particular. I can understand how some readers find his work too slow or, as a writer I was reading about said, “static”. The Emigrants speaks very deeply to me, especially in the sense of dislocation that he captures so well. It holds strong parallels in my mind to my own experiences (and not in the obvious sense, but I have come from a place that no longer exists but can never be left behind).

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    • Jeff says:

      > I have come from a place that no longer exists but can never be left behind

      Perhaps it is inevitable that pondering on such things takes time. People who have experienced great upheavals can spend the rest of their lives coming to terms with what may have been a brief (and becomes increasingly distant) period. Sebald shows the variety of responses to exile. Goldberg Variations by Gabriel Josipovici is worth a look if you like Sebald. I find myself not necessarily a Sebald fan so much as easily and inexplicably drawn back.

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  6. Sarah says:

    It’s high time I read another of Sebald’s books, and ‘The Emigrants’ sounds particularly timely with the UK’s resistance to immigration in the wake of the devastating Syrian crisis. I’m a huge fan of Sebald’s writing, but I’m still feeling the aftershock from reading ‘Austerlitz’ again, so I need a good few years in between!
    I think you’re spot on about how disconcerting it can be as a reader when Sebald’s detached documentation becomes fractured by evidently fictional moments. I suppose even our rememberings are fictional, in that they are only versions of an event. That subtle interplay between ‘truth’, memory and the weaving of story is one of the things I really admire in Sebald’s writing, and while his ‘dry as a bone’ delivery can often be challenging I think this clinical detachment heightens the emotional impact in his books by sheer contrast.

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  7. Pingback: German Literature Month V: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

  8. GDBurns says:

    First-time reader here, Stateside poet living and working in an independent bookstore in NYC. I just finished ‘The Emigrants’ as the final work of fiction I’ve read by the author (thought it fitting to read his first one last!). Sebald has been looming over my own essays and poems for a few years now, and ‘The Emigrants’ was no exception. His work is certainly centered in the tangled reality of our memories and in the wound of historical (European) trauma. The virtue of his writing is that it bears this burden plainly and is endemic to his style, narrative voice, etc. Thanks for the link to Kaggsy’s blog – his recent post on Berman’s ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ was particularly illuminating after a fresh Sebald read. That book is now in my New Year’s book queue. I think what Kaggsy has to say about Berman’s take on modern architecture sheds even more light on the beginning of ‘Austerlitz’ and the passages about Kissingen and Manchester in ‘The Emigrants’. Nice to find some dialogue this morning on Sebald – thanks again!

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    • Jeff says:

      Welcome, Mr Burns. Yes, architecture is epochal in time, and yet, it must take a view on the vernaculars to its geography as well as internationalisms. I’m quite taken with Ste J’s recent excursions into Berlin recently. It’s a city rebuilt, and its sense of youth as a place, I guess, relates to its outwardness in a way that might not be reflected in the smaller rural parts of Germany where tradition might tend towards cultural inwardness. My surprise in Sebald’s work is the scant reference to Anglia, not just because it was where he settled, but also because of its German history.

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