Book Review: The Emigrants

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

Having read a fair amount of the author’s work before, I must say I was struck by the elements that made this such a compelling novel.  Some readers may be a bit puzzled that it is a novel in reading it, because the novel is approached in such a detailed way that it seems entirely true to life, with a deep degree of connection between the fates of the various emigrants involved.  As exile is a theme I ponder often in my own writing and life [1], this book certainly revealed that Sebald had a strong ability for empathy in being able to construct the lives of people who were able to make a go of it but who suffered greatly as a result of being cut off from their German homeland for reasons largely beyond their control, or, at times, their ability to cope.  That said, one leaves this book with a profound sense of melancholy, and that seems to be intentional, as the author himself was an exile who pondered deeply on the relationship between his homeland of Germany and its historical crimes, something that appears here in sharp relief.

The four connected narratives of this novel take up about 240 pages or so.  The book begins a bit timidly, I would say, with a short narrative of Dr. Henry Selwyn, who settles from Germany in England, who has a wife that he is distant from and a daughter who at times laughs in a disturbing way.  The next narrative is of Paul Bereyter, a teacher who spent the Second World War in the military while his family was dispossessed and his mother sent to the concentration camps, and who commits suicide after going blind and never receiving the respect he was due, even to be called Mister, by his neighbors.  The third narrative looks at Ambros Adelwarth, an immigrant to the United States whose lengthy and interesting life, which included some successful gambling and travels throughout the Middle East, ended with his time in a New York sanitorium where he was depressed and isolated and determined to annihilate himself through psychiatric treatments.  The book ends with a narrative of Max Ferber, who is sent to England as a child by his parents who are unable to escape the horrors of the Holocaust and whose record from his mother haunts his existence and that of the person who tries to summarize it for posterity.

These stories are all connected in various ways.  For one, it appears that the titular emigrants are Jews whose fates in some way are connected with Hitler’s Germany.  Whether one is an educated person who escaped and was able to live a more or less decent life in exile or whether one was compelled to try to return home even if it never could be home again, these are people whose identity (likely Jewish or part-Jewish) continued to affect their lives even as they were abroad.  The characters as a whole have some overwhelming torments in their lives.  Many of them have some sort of death wish and all of them appear to be in deep suffering over what they have lost, be it family members or their own marriages and happiness or their peace of mind.  The characters here appear over and over again to be lonely and trapped within their memories and regrets even as they have left behind enough of a trail for the narrators of the various stories to long to know these people deeper and to try to reach out over the abyss that separates some souls from others.  One gets the sense that the author himself was a tormented soul trying to reach out over the chasms that separate thoughtful and suffering people from each other.  Whether he was more successful in literature than many are in their lives is impossible to say.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Emigrants

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Austerlitz | Edge Induced Cohesion

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