The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald x2

As promised,  I reread The Emigrants quite promptly.   Actually,  what happened was that I started another book,  (pulp crime) and it just didn’t cut it. Back to Sebald.

I’d like to note that one of the reasons the book is so beautifully rendered in English is that the translation was done by the masterful poet and translator,  Michael Hulse.   The magnificent cover art is by the renowned Peter Mendelsund. 



The Emigrants

by W.G. Sebald
1992 / 238 pages 
read by Mel Foster  7h 10m
rating 10 / historical fiction 
(both read and listened – again)

So even on the second reading the narrative overall got a bit confusing because the main narrator (who goes by the name of Sebald) travels around interviewing people or reading journals about memories who provide  further internal/interior? narrators.  And Sebald is writing this down much later so it’s his memories woven and layered in with the memories of others.   And the memories of others are sometimes the idea of their trying to remember the times when they were trying to remember.  For instance Ferber the painter is telling Sebald about when he saw the man with a butterfly net (Nabokov), but when he was back to his studio a few months later trying to paint the man,  he had had a hard time remembering.   And then there are dreams and remembering dreams to tell someone else who will write them down for us –  layers within layers.

So what seems like a  “collection of 4 stories”  is actually a novel and was first published as such.  The narratives  feature the same 1st person narrator named Sebald (but NOT the author) and are thematically as well as stylistically connected.  The impact of all four stories together is profound and much greater than the parts in that when taken  alone they each manage to capture an intense private sense of personal displacement,  but when they are put together that theme becomes the displacement of a group,  all fairly well off and well educated Jewish people,  originally from Germany.

The 4 parts to the novel are of increasing length and each has an eponymous title.  The opening narrative concerns Dr Henry Selwyn whom the unnamed narrator meets when Sebald and his companion are seeking an apartment in Hingham,  UK which is in Norfolk.  It looks to have been written in the very early 1990s (page 116 mentions 1991)  and was published in 1992 so the feeling is supposedly contemporary.   Sebald lives in Norwich but is from the German village of “W.”

The now aged Dr Selwyn tells our narrator about his life, immigrating from Lithuania to London (by accident),  his education,  how he Anglicized his name and became a doctor but he and his wife drifted apart.  There is a tragic end.


One Paul Bereyter is featured in the second narrative which starts in 1984 with Paul’s suicide,  but turns back to the time when the semi-fictional Sebald knew him and follows Sebald as he posthumously investigates this man who, although known so briefly and at such an early age, made such an impression.

After describing Bereyter’s teaching methods,  the narrative turns to others characters with whom the narrator is acquainted and who also knew the man.  First Sebald finds and talks to old fellow students,  but later meets a woman named Lucy Landeau.   In this way a rather oblique picture of Paul comes to the reader.

It was Lucy,  a close friend of Bereyter who arranged for his burial in the local churchyard.  Sebald gets a kind of biography of Paul via Lucy,  especially the summer of 1935 when Paul met Helen Hollander and after which his life fell apart with the new laws of the Nazi regime.  Helen was probably deported via “special train.”

It turns out that Bereyter was 1/4 Jewish and his family was subjected to “meanness and treachery” by the residents of the small town in which they lived,  but he apparently served in the Nazi army.  Later he became a gifted and sensitive teacher with considerable skills in math and music, but remained anti-religion until his sad death.


The story of Ambros Adelwarth is longer and more poignant somehow,  if that’s possible.  Adelwarth is apparently the narrator’s own uncle and after Amrbose’s death he gathers information from other old family members.

Ambros went to America in about 1900 where he found moderate success and happiness for many years working for/with a very rich young man named Cosmo Solomon, the son of wealthy Jews.  The two may have been lovers.  Adelwarth knew several languages and apparently ived quite the elegant life.  They were together many years before the gambler/heir died.  Then it was Adelwarth’s turn to be basically alone, taken to a sanitarium where he thinks he sees a butterfly man which would be Nabokov.  He dies.


The story goes on a bit about the architecture of Normandy and how different things are today as well as a bit more which he learns about Cosmo and others in Vienna and elsewhere.  He dreams weird dreams about them (Kafka? Borges?)  And the narrative is harder to really comprehend – read carefully!   And he finds Adelwarth’s journal – early 20th century – pre-WWI – 1915?  The diary gets even more dream-like.

I think perhaps Sebald is trying to get so close to the narrator, and the narrator is trying to get so close to Ambros,  inside them really,  that the distinctions between the narrator and his subejcts disappears –  to say nothing of the reader he wants to bring along for the ride (or he wants them to) and the blending of narratives with minimal paragraph breaks shows this.  Toward the end he’s reading Adelworth’s journal which includes dreams – er-Riha.

Jerusalem is presented as being totally yukky – this is back in 1915 or so.

This is the most dream-like/magical/fantastical story of them all but at the same time it is as close to one of the main characters as we get as it is Adelwarth’s journal – supposedly  getting inside him.


Max Ferber is the longest and the most directly memory-laden or maybe I’m just really in tune with that theme by now.  The Holocaust and Ferber’s lack of memory seem similar to the author’s own experience.  (See Wikipedia)   The discussion commences with nothing about the horrors because Ferber doesn’t volunteer on the first visits,  but on a trip many months later he does.  Then it’s over with him but he gives Sebald a manuscript which is a wonderful description of middle class Jewish life in Germany prior to the wars.

So then we get the manuscript of Lucy Ferber which really outlines this life of the European Jewish middle class before and between the wars.

The main memory of the book,  the one which connects all of the stories in some way, however slightly or indirectly,   is the Holocaust. But I suppose a point of the book is to remind us that these displaced Jews were individual people and worthy of note in their own right.

There’s a melancholy here which I often associate with Orhan Pamuk as in his nonfiction book “Istanbul,” his home town.

I could read it again and focus on something else – the allusions or references to the Hoolocaust for instance.  I suppose that’s the sign of a really great book.   Or highlight the actual narrator’s bits with one color and where the interior narrator with another –  I did that in the last two chapters of this reading.


“An Interview with W.G. Sebald” by James Wood – in Brick magazine

And Questia;

When man truly approaches the Other he is uprooted from history.
–Levinas, Totality and Infinity

And finally:

“However fleetingly, various incarnations of Vladimir Nabokov materialize within the four segments of W. G. Sebald’s hybrid 1992 work, The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten). To begin with some details: Nabokov appears photographically in the Henry Selwyn section of Tim Emigrants (Figure 1) in which Dr. Selwyn presides over a showing of glass slides, an activity which itself echoes a chapter in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1967); when Lucy Landau first meets Paul Bereyter, she “had been reading” precisely “Nabokov’s autobiography” (43); Ambros Adelwarth, following his self-incarceration in an Ithaca, New York sanatorium (a city where Nabokov once lived), is preoccupied with the apparition of “the butterfly man” (a title Nabokov might bear) who acquires for him a totemic significance; Max Ferber recalls being restrained from a self-destructive impulse on the Swiss peak Grammont by a man “carrying a large white gauze butterfly net” who becomes the subject of his agonized, unfinished painting, “Man with a Butterfly Net” (173-74); finally, embedded in the diary of Ferber’s mother, Luisa Lanzberg, is her recollection of “a boy of about ten who had been chasing butterflies” during a youthful encounter, whom she retrospectively characterizes as “a messenger of joy” (214). (1) Nabokov is named only once (in connection with the photograph, which is ambiguously designated), and after that, the apparitional “butterfly man” is never directly identified. The purposes of these individual moments are not immediately legible, nor are these appearances suggestive of any obvious cumulative or retrospective understanding.”

An excerpt of  a longer piece which is behind a paywall but:

Sebald’s life and works plus a bibliography:

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4 Responses to The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald x2

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I haven’t read all of this because I’d like to read this book one day, but even scanning it, I can tell that it’s exactly the sort of book I like to read. So thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carmen says:

    Great and thorough review, Becky! 🙂 This book sounds unique. Your review gave me a taste of what the book may be like.

    Liked by 1 person

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