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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Fiction and Other Facts

In Amazon’s system of classification, Emigrants is found under literature and biography, and the promotion says the book combines elements of biography with fiction. It is a somewhat jarring experience to begin reading the book, perhaps with the expectation that it is fiction, because the four stories, combined with the black and white photographs, that comprise the narrative have such a sharply realistic quality. The photographs in the Henry Selwyn section seem to follow the text closely—except for the enigmatic one of a misty church graveyard. It leaves you guessing: Were Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber real people? If not, who and what are the photographs of?

The first section, Dr. Henry Selwyn, concerns a man whom the narrator—who never mentions his own name—meets while looking for a place to live. The narrator refers to himself as “I” and curiously is accompanied by someone named Clara—the real Sebald’s wife’s name was Ute. In an interview with James Wood, Sebald says that Selwyn was a real person, and that Sebald met him and learned more about his life by interviewing family members. It would seem then that this is a story about an encounter with a real person, an account of what this person said about himself, of what others said about him, and of the thoughts and feelings he provoked in the narrator. Is any of it invented or fabricated? Yes. Does that make it fiction?

Maybe, best beloved. That is a difficult question that gets at the issue of what fiction is.

Jacques Ranciere in his book, The Edges of Fiction writes: “What distinguishes fiction from ordinary experience is not a lack of reality but a surfeit of rationality.” He goes on to discuss Aristotle who said that history presents how things happened as isolated, particular events, whereas fiction talks about events that do not occur at random but in consequence of a chain of cause and effect. The gods or fate do not cause this chain, the actions of the protagonist do. And these actions must be contrary to what the reader expects—there is always a reversal, a peripeteia that must be resolved.

There is nothing here about whether or not the events “really” occurred, rather that, in fiction, they are shown to be caused by humans.

By this definition, Emigrants begins to look more like fiction.

In Dr. Henry Selwyn, Dr. Selwyn reveals certain aspects of his life to the narrator. He welcomes the narrator and “Clara” into his home and allows them to observe his eccentric lifestyle. He tells the narrator about his life and how he is “homesick” for his childhood, spent in a different country. He was taken to England when he was seven and grew up there, assimilating in a successful manner, even changing his name. He erases his origins and marries, not telling his wife who he really was. And now, in old age, he mourns his past and is unable to be comfortable in the house he lives in, his place of exile. He feels he doesn’t fit anywhere and can only spend his time with animals and plants.

After the narrator moves on, Dr. Selwyn shoots himself.

One could describe this man’s life as a biographer or historian would—the significant events, the places lived. The people known. Sebald focuses on the way in which Dr. Selwyn adapted to a new country. He rejected his old one and changed his name and identity. He worked hard to become a physician and was successful. Reading this story, one might expect him to continue to meet success, have a family and a career. Happiness. But that is not the case. Dr. Selwyn gradually loses interest in his marriage and his work as a doctor. He becomes melancholy and reclusive, eventually retiring to the dilapidated estate where the narrator encounters him. His life does not go according to plan. He is unable to escape being from somewhere else and feeling, as a result, that he doesn’t belong anywhere.

In the interview with James Wood, Sebald responds to the question, is The Emigrants real?

“Essentially, yes, with some small changes…Dr. Henry Selwyn, for instance, lived in that house, not in Hingham, but in another village in Norfolk. His wife was just like that, Swiss and very shrewd. She’s still alive, I think and so is Elaine, their most peculiar maid.”

Selwyn did have a Swiss mountaineering friend but it was not Johannes Naegeli, whom Sebald read about in a magazine. “It just needed a tiny rapprochement to make it fit…The invention comes in at the level of minor detail most of the time, to provide l’effet du reel.”

In a piece about the process of translating Sebald, Michael Hulse shares a letter he wrote to “Max” as he calls him, where he expresses concern that Emigrants might be fiction. “That fiction and imagination are in some manner involved I do not question, but it matters to me to locate them within the documentary aspect of your texts, as a token of your dedication to your quest for these lives…where (does) the literal truth stop and your imaginative re-creation or addition begin?”

Sebald responds:

“Fictionalization, as I see it, is, in this text not a matter of substance, that is to say it is nothing to do with making up characters, events that befall them and complicated plots. Rather, the sense of fiction, the feeling that one is at a level removed, by a notch or so, from reality is meant to come out of adjusting the focus of the telescope one looks through, so that some things seem very distant and others (especially those which are in the past) quite close and immediate.


Next week, we’ll go deeper into the story. Till then.

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald


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