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The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald

Hosted By Elisa Gabbert

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W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is a novel in four portraits, the stories of four men in exile: a doctor, a teacher, a painter, and Sebald’s Great-Uncle Adelwarth, the traveling companion of an American aviator. Written in Sebald’s signature indeterminate, essayistic style, intercut with photographs of people and places, The Emigrants explores post-war trauma and memory, guilt and displacement, and what it means to survive. Join us to read this book Larry Wolff called “an end-of-century meditation” on “the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years."

Elisa Gabbert

is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism, most recently The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays and The Word Pretty. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, A Public Space, the Nation, and many other venues. Her next book of poems, Normal Distance, will be out from Soft Skull next year. Read 6 Questions with Elisa Gabbert here.

W. G. Sebald

(1944-2001) was born in the Bavarian Alps. From 1975 he taught at the University of East Anglia, became Professor of German in 1986, and was the first director of the British Centre for Translation. His books include The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Vertigo (all New Directions).

Daily Reading

Day 1

June 10, 2021 | Dr. Henry Selwyn

“And I recalled the château in the Charente that I had once visited from Angoulême.” A very Sebaldian sentence! For Sebald, seeing begets memory; his walks, travels, & reading are all ways of looking, thus ways of cultivating encounters with memory.

Day 2

June 11, 2021 | Paul Bereyter (through "awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.") p. 27-45

We start to see the importance of chance, coincidence and “miracles” in Sebald’s work. Leo Damrosch contrasts realism w/ verisimilitude, which doesn’t have to be realistic. Do Sebald’s stories have to, in their nebulous space between fiction & reality?

Day 3

June 12, 2021 | Paul Bereyter (to end)

Mme Landau says that after years of silence and secrets people sometimes “really did forget” their past—memory is active work, and not to remember is to undo that history.

Day 4

June 13, 2021 | Ambros Adelwarth (through "and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end")

Emigrants “tend to seek out their own kind.” (As we read in the previous section, Paul “belonged to the exiles.”) Emigrants are citizens of their own country, a nowhere that is not utopian.

Day 5

June 14, 2021 | Ambros Adelwarth (through "remained indelibly in my memory ever since.")

Kasimir is a fascinating character, with his slow driving and macabre revelries (“This is the edge of darkness”… “I am a long way away, though I never quite know from where”)

Day 6

June 15, 2021 | Ambros Adelwarth (through "the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm") p. 107-126

Dr. Abramsky’s comment about madness being “a question of perspective” makes me think of the famous paper “On Being Sane in Insane Places”

Day 7

June 16, 2021 | Ambros Adelwarth (to end) p. 126-145

From Ambros’s diary: “A day out of time.” And later: “Are we no longer part of time?” It’s time travel for Cosmos and Ambros, and for Sebald, reading the diary, and for us reading The Emigrants.

Day 8

June 17, 2021 | Max Ferber ("a herd of deer headed for the night"), p. 149-169

Max Ferber’s aestheticization of dust! “The grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved”! Made me think of this Jeremy Gordon essay on dust as “metaphor for the futility of the human experience.”

Day 9

June 18, 2021 | Max Ferber ("so much in the shade and dark in recent years"), p. 160-191

On p. 176 of the New Directions paperback, at least, there is no break between Max Ferber’s monologue (“what a true work of art looks like”) and the return to the narrator’s voice (“I had been in Manchester for the best part of three years”).

Day 10

June 19, 2021 | Max Ferber ("who was then staying in Kissingen"), p. 191-213

Again someone gives Sebald (or the narrator) a document he has a kind of obligation to experience on their behalf, and again the document is wondrous, transporting, devastating.

Day 11

June 20, 2021 | Max Ferber, to end

The figure of the butterfly man or boy, the lepidopterist and “messenger of joy” who appears in each section is curious, the kind of unlikely coincidence that makes our lives appear scripted, a show for the gods.

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