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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Laugh or Cry—Your Choice?

The last section in Emigrants is entitled Max Ferber. Here, our narrator is a youth in his early twenties who escapes life in Germany “for various reasons,” he says, by journeying to 1966-era Manchester, England to be an exchange student. Rather than the city he imagined, he finds himself in a bizarre, deserted, spectral place of ruined nineteenth-century buildings and grime. In keeping with the book’s theme of exile and emigration, he describes the eeriness of the plane flight from Germany, his first sight of Manchester: “By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city…inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.”

He has the anxiety-provoking experience of going through British customs in the middle of the night—this and the plane flight, and the first sight of a destination, are all experiences familiar to travelers and emigrants.

In the early morning, the city is described: “Views opened up across the wasteland toward the still immensely impressive agglomeration of gigantic Victorian office blocks and warehouses…that had once been the hub of one of the nineteenth century’s miracle cities, but, as I was soon to find out, were now almost hollow to the core…the city had long since been deserted, and was left now as a necropolis or mausoleum.”

A taxi driver takes him to the Arosa Hotel—Arosa is a town in Switzerland, but also means “gentle awakening” in Gaelic.

After a prolonged period of knocking, the hotel owner, Gracie, finally opens the door. She is described as having a Lorelei-like air. Lorelei— a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover and was transformed into a siren who lured fishermen to destruction. “And where have you sprung from?” she says to the narrator “…only an alien would show up on my doorstep at such an hour on a blessed Friday morning with a case like that.”

The hotel is described as “…a maze of dead-end corridors, emergency exits, doors to rooms, toilets and fire escapes, landings and staircases.”

Gracie brings him the “teas-maid” machine, a combination alarm clock and tea-maker. “…it has often seemed…as if the tea-maker brought to my room by…Gracie…that weird and serviceable gadget, with its nocturnal glow, its muted morning bubbling, and its mere presence by day, kept me holding on to life at a time when I felt a deep sense of isolation in which I might well have become deeply submerged.” Gracie calls it an “electrical miracle.”

Gracie would carefully count the hotel profits (cash in 1966) in an obsessive manner and leave Sunday morning to deposit it, not returning till Monday mid-day. The narrator reports: “…on those Sundays in the utterly deserted hotel I would regularly be overcome by such a sense of aimlessness and futility that I might go out, purely in order to preserve an illusion of purpose, and walk about the city.”

There are some very mixed messages here—is the Arosa a “gentle awakening,” and if so, awakening to what? Gracie is siren-like (dangerous) but gives the narrator a sort of magic artifact which saves him from despair.

Eventually in his wandering, the narrator comes upon the studio of Max Ferber. “In one of these deserted buildings was a studio which, in the months to come, I visited as often as I thought acceptable, to talk to the painter.” From here, the story swings into Max Ferber’s tale of escape from the Holocaust. At the end, things return to the narrator who receives a manuscript from the possibly dying Max Ferber and goes on a long walk around Manchester, searching for artifacts of Ferber’s life. The story concludes with the narrator describing a photograph in the manuscript of “three young women, perhaps aged twenty…I sense that all three of them are looking across at me…I wonder what the three women’s names were—Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuna and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread.”

Nona, Decuna and Morta were the three Roman goddesses of fate, who spun the web of human destiny. So the narrator is imagining the photo he’s observing is an image of them, with the implication that human destiny is controlled by fate instead of will—a significant philosophical stance, no?

What’s going on here? In technical terms, it could be said that the narrator’s story is a frame-story, in that it surrounds the chapter’s story of Max Ferber. The first chapter, Dr Henry Selwyn, also has this structure, wherein things begin and end with the narrator. There are considerable, almost alarming degrees of repetition and mirroring between the narrator and Max Ferber. Both men, of different ages, tried to flee the experience of the Holocaust but found themselves in Manchester, England, a city that curiously surrounds them with reminders of the horror and devastation they struggled to escape.

Is this perhaps the point of the story—that human lives are controlled, not by personal agency, but by fate?

P’rapps so, best beloved.

Next week, let’s look a bit more at Max Ferber’s story and summarize. Till then, you happy few!

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald


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