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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Hall of Mirrors

Last week, I wrote about how Emigrants can be seen as the story of a narrator’s reactions to encounters with four different people—except that reaction is not shown beyond a basic point, and must be inferred by the reader, which may, as a result, invite her/him to experience their own reactions. This post proved to be controversial, with strident demands for clarification and elaboration, so here goes.

Dr Henry Selwyn, the first section of the book, ends with the narrator saying, “When we received the news, (of Selwyn’s death) I had no great difficulty in overcoming the initial shock. But, certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.”

An interesting comment. After having shared seemingly profound things with Dr Selwyn, the narrator “had no great difficulty” in overcoming the shock of his death. There’s no explanation for this; perhaps the narrator was preoccupied with other pressing matters, perhaps the connection with Dr Selwyn wasn’t so important (that seems unlikely—why write about it then?). Perhaps Sebald is trying to convey the way Selwyn himself had lost his past by denial and forgetting. Sebald goes on to describe how years later he was traveling in Switzerland and saw particular mountains Dr Selwyn had shown him in slides from a vacation. “At that point, as I recall, or perhaps merely imagine, the memory of Dr Selwyn returned to me for the first time in a long while.” He glances at a local paper he’d bought and sees the story describing the discovery of the mummified remains of Johannes Naegli, an Alpine guide, missing since 1914, which have been exposed by a retreating glacier—the same man Dr Selwyn had described as his closest friend. The section ends, “At times they (the remains) come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”

An elegy perhaps—not so much for the hapless Naegli, but for Dr Henry Selwyn, although the narrator does not describe this reaction, leaving it to the reader.

Similarly, at the end of the next section, Paul Bereyter, the narrator is interviewing Lisa Landau, Paul’s companion later in life. She describes an anecdote Paul had told her about how an uncle had predicted Paul would “end up on the railways,” meaning that, due to his fascination with trains, he would eventually be somehow employed on them. The irony is enormous, as Paul killed himself by lying on a railroad track.

“When Paul told me this perfectly harmless holiday story, said Mme Landau, I could not possibly ascribe the importance to it that it now seems to have, thought even then there was something about that last turn of phrase that made me uneasy. The disquiet I experienced because of that momentary failure to see what was meant—I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death—that lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

That is the end. One can only imagine the narrator’s reaction listening as Mme Landau relates this tragic story—only imagine because we don’t really know how he felt. We are left with our own feelings—for me, both stories provoked a feeling of awe at the tragic irony of life. At the intensity of human connection and the pain of separation and how people recover from loss. And sometimes don’t.

Last week, I raised the question: Did Paul betray the narrator by suicide? We could ask the same question about Dr. Henry Selwyn. Last week, trying to “copy” Sebald’s method, I left the answer(s) open for the reader. A commendable maneuver, but perhaps more is needed.

In Emigrants, it’s no accident that Sebald described four lives that ended in suicide (okay, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber were a bit different but both have the theme of the narrator exploring their lives after their deaths—okay, Ferber is still alive at the end. Okay, stop). I believe what he was trying to show was that these four led lives of displacement and despair they could only escape by death. The suicides were certainly not directed at the narrator as acts of anger—so could the narrator experience them as betrayal? There is no direct reference to this.

As I read about Dr Selwyn and Paul Bereyter and their deaths, I feel sadness. To live one’s life and at the end, choose destruction seems particularly tragic. I think the people closer to Selwyn and Paul—perhaps Selwyn’s wife and Mme Landau—might indeed have felt betrayed.

But Emigrants provides layers of insulation so that we the readers are shown lives at two degrees of remove. We are reading the account of a narrator showing tragic lives. The stories are quite a bit about the narrator’s realization he didn’t really know the departed. We are not reading a novel that shows the intensity of their inner experience, their consciousness. All we have to go on are the photographs, the interview transcripts, and the stories, stories that show us things about ourselves.

Next time, we’ll move on to the curious exploration of the life of Ambros Adelwarth, Sebald’s actual great uncle. Till then.

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald


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