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  • Alan Bray

Memory Lane

The third section of Emigrants, Ambros Adelwarth, is all about revenants, people who return, people who are thought of as dead but come back anyway. The section begins with the narrator speaking—almost as if he were being interviewed. “I have barely any recollection of my own of my great-uncle Adelwarth.” This distinction “of my own” is critical, as the narrator learns about his great-uncle—who died when he was a child—through other family members’ stories, photographs, and from a journal kept by Ambros Adelwarth himself that the narrator’s aunt gives him. Ambros lived in America at the end of his life, although he was the epitome of the emigrant, or exile, in that his life was characterized by constant re-location, going from Germany to France, to London and Japan, America, and a long trip to the Middle East, a return to Europe and finally to America where he died in Ithaca, New York in 1953. There are other reasons why he is the quintessential emigrant that we will delve into, best beloved.

The narrator describes not knowing much about Ambros till 1981, when the narrator received a photo album belonging to his mother that showed family members who had emigrated to America from Germany in the 1930s. The narrator says: “The more I studied the photographs, the more urgently I sensed a growing need to learn more about the lives of the people in them.” He takes a flight to Newark, rents a car, and drives to Lakehurst, New Jersey where his aunt and uncle live. It’s worth noting that this is twenty-eight years after Ambros’ death—a long time that the narrator does not account for. In other words, why now? Probably because of the needs of the book, the process of “fictionalization,” as Sebald calls it.

His aunt and uncle tell him about their experiences of emigration, his uncle saying, “I often come here, (a local beach)…it makes me feel that I am a long way away, even though I never quite know from where.” Gradually, his aunt reveals she is “haunted” by her uncle Ambros, and begins to tell the narrator about Ambros’ life.

He worked as a servant, albeit an elite one, for most of his life, traveling the world. He was employed by a wealthy Jewish-American family on Long Island, and became a sort of companion to the families’ eldest son, Cosmo. Ambros was gay—as Uncle Casimir relates, “Of course…he was of the other persuasion, as anybody could see.” In this way, he was doubly alienated—first as a non-Jew working for a Jewish family, and second as a gay man living in the first half of the twentieth century.

The narrator finally receives Ambros’ journal, which is an account of a trip he took with Cosmo to the Middle East. The journal is presented, and the verb tenses shift from past to present.

There are two types of memory addressed in Ambros Adelwarth, indeed in Emigrants in general. The first is somewhat implicit—regular utilitarian memory that allows the narrator to function in the world, remembering his plane tickets, his keys, the address of his aunt and uncle in New Jersey. This kind of everyday memory makes our worlds full, giving a sense of continuity through time. It is reassuring. It’s the kind of memory we associate with pleasant things, the stories we tell that give depth and meaning to our existence. “I remember the time I went to—"

Well, we don’t have to get into all that.

The second kind of memory is not so pleasant and preoccupies Emigrants. The end of the chapter and of Ambros’ journal says, “Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking down the receding perspectives of time, but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” This is the memory expressed by the revenant, the ghostly reminder of the unsettled past, which gives no relief or comfort. The experience of being haunted by specters or ghosts. The narrator’s Aunt Fini comments about Ambros…”the things he said he had witnessed…seemed so improbable that I supposed he was suffering from Korsakov’s syndrome…an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions…the more Uncle Adelwarth told his stories, the more desolate he became…After Christmas ’52 he fell into such a deep depression that although he plainly felt a great need to talk about his life, he could no longer shape a single sentence, nor utter a single word, or any sound at all…telling stories was as much a torment to him as an attempt at self-liberation. He was at once saving himself…and mercilessly destroying himself.”

What is going on here? Ambros exhibits a symptom of those who have survived trauma, an inability to let go of the past, an affliction that affects his sanity. Yet, as described by the narrator, he did not have a particularly traumatic life. He did not fight in wars, did not endure the Holocaust and WWII, which is a major theme of Sebald’s. I believe he is Sebald’s proxy for people who have suffered in these ways. His life, as presented in Emigrants, shows the discomfort of memory compulsively remembered.

Indeed, all the stories in Emigrants express this theme. Memory—for Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber—is a burden that cannot be carried. As the narrator says in Dr Henry Selwyn, “But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” A sentiment which could express something pleasant, or something ominous. Uncle Casimir has this kind of dark and weighty memory when he speaks of feeling that he’s a long way away, even though he never quite knows from where.

Aunt Fini describes how, after Ambros is unable to tell any more of his memories, he leaves his house in Mamorneck, New York, and voluntarily enters a private psychiatric hospital in Ithaca. Back in the present of the story, the narrator leaves his aunt and uncle’s house to travel there. Although the asylum has been closed for years, he meets Dr. Abramsky, who was the assistant to Dr. Fahnstock, the director of the hospital. The narrator learns that Ambros was treated for depression with electro-convulsive therapy, a treatment that gradually erased his memory.

“Kay. Next week, we’ll look at some aspects of the final section of Emigrants, Max Ferber. Don’t forget! Till then.

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald