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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Make It Real Compared to What

A theme I’d like to pursue in thinking about this remarkable book, is that Emigrants is (among other things) about the effect on the narrator of learning the more complete lives of the four men in the story. However, that effect is not spelled out beyond the clear implication that the narrator was very moved by learning these fuller stories. It is left open, so that the reader’s own reaction is not constrained by the narrator’s.

In conversation with Dena, (always a pleasant activity), I got excited over the idea that maybe the character of Paul in the second section of Emigrants, is similar to the implied author of a novel. By way of review, the implied author is an entity “distinct from the author and the narrator, the term refers to the "authorial character" that a reader infers from a text based on the way a literary work is written.

Dena and I were talking about Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, who may have disappointed her readers by divorcing her husband—after the book’s warm climax of finding love with him—true love, the reader was led to believe. But apparently, the real Elizabeth was a different person than the persona or implied author she created in the book. Some might say this was treachery—maybe if you present a book as being your real story, you are vulnerable to being accused of lying if it isn’t. But Eat, Pray, Love was clearly marked as memoir, no?

Last week, we considered whether Emigrants is fiction or something else, as it’s based on “real” experience.

(Why do you keep putting the word “real” in parentheses? It’s annoying).

I concluded that there was a strong element of fiction in this work. Sebald himself talks about a process of “fictionalization” of “real” events and people.

(Please respond to my complaint.)

In Paul Bereyter, the reader is told a story by a narrator who receives disturbing news. “In January 1984, the news reached me from S that on the evening of the 30th of December, a week after his seventy-fourth birthday, Paul Bereyter, who had been my teacher at primary school, had put an end to his life.” A train came out of the darkness, and he had lain down on the railroad tracks outside of town. The narrator, who for years had thought of Paul as the best teacher ever, is devastated. “…in the end, I had to go beyond my own very fond memories of him and discover the story I did not know.” He sets out to learn what he can about Paul from family and friends, in order to understand how such a positive man could destroy himself.

And he discovers that Paul’s excellence as a teacher may have been an attempt to overcome a dark past. Paul was partly Jewish, and his family was persecuted by the Nazis; Paul himself was curiously drafted into the German Army and served during WWII. He suffered from mental health problems and deteriorating eyesight which eventually forced him to give up teaching. Like all the characters in Emigrants, he was afflicted by a feeling of not belonging anywhere.

Just as a reader might have a strong reaction to Elizabeth Gilbert’s being a different person than her character in Eat, Pray, Love, the narrator was disturbed that Paul Bereyter might be different from the image he had of him as the “author” of a significant part of his childhood. Of course, the narrator in Emigrants is not a “real” person.

(Oh, no. Here we go again. And in typical bully style, you’re ignoring me).

It’s an illusion that he’s “real” just as there was an illusion that Elizabeth Gilbert was “really” the protagonist of Eat, Pray, Love.


The narrator believes Paul was the same person he’d come to know in school, just as the reader of fiction thinks the author is the same person who wrote the book. But Paul’s death tips the narrator off to the illusion. He presents Paul’s more complete story, and the reader is invited to react.

Let’s revisit our old example of the Dick and Jane stories. I’ve written before about how, as a child reading those books in the first grade, I had no idea of and no interest in who the author, William S. Gray, was. I suppose I had a vague idea that Mr. Gray might actually be my teacher, Miss Schroeder (who I had a crush on, but we don’t have to get into that). What if I had learned, or learned in this present, that Mr. Gray was an alcoholic loner who finally killed himself? A survivor who wrote children’s books to deal with the trauma of intense WWII combat? How would this affect me?

I might feel betrayed. I might feel grief. I might decide it didn’t really matter, that the texts were what were important, no matter who wrote them. At least I learned how to read. If I were like the narrator of Emigrants, I’d embark on a program of research into Mr. Gray’s previously hidden life, trying to understand and document its complexity by interviewing his survivors.

Did Paul betray his students by hiding his pain? Did he betray them by killing himself?

Was what was of real importance the way he helped and inspired his students?

(A lot of questions).


#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald


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