Read W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants
with Elisa Gabbert in the June edition of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs, free and open to all. Starting June 10, you can read Elisa's daily posts, and comments from our fellow readers, on our Twitter
accounts. And join us for a virtual discussion at the end of the book club, on June 22—register here
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.”
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.
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).
June 10 | Day 1. Dr Henry Selwyn
June 11 | Day 2. Paul Bereyter (through "awoken in her a sense of the contrarieties that are in our longings.")
June 12 | Day 3. Paul Bereyter (to end)
June 13 | Day 4. Ambros Adelwarth (through "and life up in the dizzy heights came to an end")
June 14 | Day 5. Ambros Adelwarth (through "remained indelibly in my memory ever since.")
June 15 | Day 6. Ambros Adelwarth (through "the enormous cauliflower he held in his crooked left arm")
June 16 | Day 7. Ambros Adelwarth (to end)
June 17 | Day 8. Max Ferber ("a herd of deer headed for the night")
June 18 | Day 9. ("so much in the shade and dark in recent years")
June 19 | Day 10. ("who was then staying in Kissingen")
June 20 | Day 11. (to end)
June 22 - A virtual discussion of The Emigrants with Elisa Gabbert
Day 1 | June 10
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.
Sebald once said “The older you get the more the passage of time between your present age and your childhood or youth begins to shrink somehow.” We see this in Selwyn’s story, the *closeness* of Naegeli, the way the sharp images of Lithuania return.
It’s as though aging involves a reversal of time as well as a racing forward. (I think of William Maxwell: “I have liked remembering almost as much as I have liked living”—for Sebald’s characters memories can be both treasured and traumatic)
Day 2 | June 11
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?
The photo on p. 39 is uncaptioned, like all the photos here, its exact relationship to the text unclear. Is young W.G. among them? Which boy is he? They could be any boys, but Sebald has said his photos are “to a very large extent documentary.”
The story of Paul Bereyter’s moments of “utterly groundless violence” against his young pupils connects so neatly to Wittgenstein one has to wonder if this is mere coincidence, or fictive legerdemain, or a warping of Sebald’s own memory.
Day 3 | June 12
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.
I love the detail of the case of rainbow sewing thread that “seemed especially magical” to Paul as he rode through the emporium on his tricycle.
Our oldest memories, which somehow grow in clarity as we age, becoming more real than reality, have this quality of magic because the past is an unreachable place, a fiction, a fairyland.
Mme Landau again: “It is hard to know what it is that someone dies of.” Where is causation in a complex chain of events? Had Paul come to see suicide as inevitable? Was it any more a choice than other deaths of despair (as in broken heart syndrome)?
Day 4 | June 13
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.
Sebald can be surprisingly hilarious—see the passage about Theres’s constant weeping. “There were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she was already dreading having to leave.”
Sebald’s eschewing of quotation marks creates interesting ambiguities. In The Rings of Saturn, it is difficult to know when he is quoting from a text vs. paraphrasing. Here, remarks in the first person often seem to be shared sentiments—it’s easy to imagine that Adelwarth’s “extremely dignified German” astounds both Fini and the narrator.
Day 5 | June 14
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”)
Cosmo Solomon has a legendary quality, an otherworldly clairvoyance that wins him fortunes at the casinos but also destroys his mind when the great war in Europe begins, and he claims he can see it from overseas: “the inferno, the dying”
Fini says Ambros, recounting his past, was “at once saving” and “mercilessly destroying himself.” Like life-saving poison. (Was Paul’s suicide also self-salvation?)
She herself has trouble believing Ambros’ history, wonders not if he was lying but if he had Korsakoff syndrome (“which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions”), an interesting metaphor for imagination in the “nonfiction novel.”
Day 6 | June 15
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”
Abramsky’s fantasia of the collapsing sanatorium reminds me of the labyrinth in The Rings of Saturn, a physical space that represents the conceptual space of the book—we re-create the past in such fine detail before we watch it fall.
Ambros’s difficult with dressing/undressing: a much more tragic version of Theres’s continuous weeping.
The Deauville dream! The endless dream that goes on for days. He is tired and even sleeps in the dream.
Day 7 | June 16
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.
The lostness in time reminds me again of Maxwell—memory is dangerous
Again one has to wonder if these beautiful passages are straight transcription from the diary or fictionalized, stylized, at all. (The photocopied pages are illegible to me; German speakers, can you make anything out?)
This embedded tale of Ambros and Cosmo’s journey is very dreamlike, or play-like, as in theater, everything condensed on a stage, like the schooners that pass by so close you could touch them.
We are suddenly immersed in their world; the agenda opens and we enter it like a magic storybook. And we never quite leave it; Sebald doesn’t quite close the parenthesis, ending on A’s words, not his own.
Day 8 | June 17
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.”
There is so much mist and dust in this book. Mist the unreal and ineffable; dust the banal real, the deathly real.
Sebald is so cute with a phrase sometimes: “a little ratcatcher”; “an incomparable stylish apathy.” Endearing little Sebaldisms.
The fresco in the restaurant recalls Cosmo’s mirage in the theater, the one that tipped him over into madness. Recurring images are part of what makes Sebald’s work feel fictive (while still highly nonfictive, as in nonfictionlike, for a novel!).
Day 9 | June 18
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”).
A jarring shift in time and perspective. I’m unsure if this is a typographical error or an intentional confusion. Sebald was also known as Max.
The Ferber article unlocks “a sort of gaol or oubliette.” Once again I am reminded of Maxwell, how the seed of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a moment of perceived moral failure, however small, a source of lifelong guilt.
“This loss of language, this oblivion”—Ferber’s break with his first language creates a break in continuity with the past. He can hardly picture his parents, a selective aphantasia. His exile is yet more complete.
The scene at the Oberwiesenfeld airport, and the ensuing flight, are so tragic. The boy doesn’t know the future, but the man does. Once we know the future, the past is changed.
Day 10 | June 19
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.
At first S. keeps reminding us that these are Luisa’s words, but soon we are fully immersed in her voice, her world. “Ferdinand Lion even smokes a cigar!” We feel we’re hearing directly from the child’s mind/POV, though we are many steps removed.
As there is for her son in the future, there’s a pivot point in Luisa’s life when memory falters. She pinpoints the moment when “childhood ended”—which surely involved a slow realization that her religion made her an outcast in her own country.
Day 10 | June 19
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.
It’s here in the final pages that Sebald’s presence as the author becomes more forceful, his doubt and frustrations with the text he is writing breaking through like street noise that enters the dream.
Remembering the grave with the writer’s quill in the Jewish cemetery at Kissingen, “it feels as if *I* had lost her,” Sebald writes. There is profound identification with his subjects, both a result of & a reason for his seamless embedding of narratives.
His work has made history real, and he seems to question his right to resurrect these lives…I think he is shaken and sickened because he cannot resurrect them without also resurrecting evil. They are inextricable from their world.