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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Emigrants

This week, a new story, The Emigrants by the late German author W.G. Sebald.

I’m reading Michael Hulse’s 1996 translation of the 1992 original in German.

Austerlitz was the first book I’d read by Sebald, followed in rapid succession by The Emigrants and Vertigo, then later The Rings of Saturn and his essays. Although Sebald was fluent in English—he taught at a university in England most of his life—he left translation to others. Translation was key to the success of Emigrants in America and other English-speaking lands. Michael Hulse does a wonderful job—I’d have to speak German to appreciate all his artistry, but I offer the opening sentence of the first section of The Emigrants as an example:

“At the end of September 1970, directly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.”

A beautiful sentence, with great drive and rhythm. It very neatly answers the questions when, where, how, and why. It also introduces a key theme of the story—the search for a place to live. All the book’s characters are emigrants from somewhere else and struggle with feelings of not belonging.

The story has four sections of unequal length. Each presents a narrator—never named, but who seems to be rather like Sebald himself—telling the story of four men: Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. Each contains a similar theme of emigration from and loss of a homeland. I would like to examine each section in detail, but today, I want to consider some aspects of Sebald the writer.

Recently, I watched Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novak’s excellent documentary on Ernest Hemingway and learned about how Hemingway actively created a persona or avatar, as the filmmakers call it, who was the imaginary author of the writing, the imaginary Ernest Hemingway—different from the real human and,—by the way—immortal. Authors of fiction always do this creation, but some more so than others and more willfully. W.G. Sebald (called Max by those who knew him) seemed to be an author who actively created less of a persona but as a result, invited more speculation. In barebones, we know that Sebald was born in Germany in 1944 and grew up in the aftermath of WWII. He emigrated to England and taught European Literature in the city of Norwich, writing and publishing many fine works of literary criticism before his first work of fiction, The Emigrants, in 1992. This won the Berlin Literature Prize, the Literatur Nord Prize, and the Johannes Bobrowski Medal and met with considerable acclaim, particularly after it was translated into English in 1996. Sebald wrote three other works of fiction; his final book Austerlitz, is regarded as his masterpiece. He was married, had one daughter, and tragically died at age 57 in a car accident in 2001. That’s about it. There are some fascinating interviews available as well as several books of criticism and essays. But the Sebald or Max who exists as an imaginary writer the way Hemingway did is elusive. There are a number of photographs—in fact photography plays a major role in Sebald’s writing—something we’ll get to later. The pictures of him show a serious man of middle age, often wearing wire-rimmed glasses, chinos and a wrinkled shirt. He had a thick, graying mustache and was rarely smiling. Nothing heroic, or Hemingway-esque. An intellectual perhaps, someone who was very focused on memory and writing. He was sometimes shown studying a dog-eared paperback. The interviews with him focus on his writing, not his biography. He downplays who he was. There are no statements I can find of this sort: “Sebald loved to force his way into European libraries brandishing a camera and automatic pistol. He’d insist on copying the most delicate and treasured manuscripts, sometimes beating hapless staff members with a dog-eared paperback till he got what he wanted. However, he was equally skilled at charming his way out of the resulting trouble with the authorities, often by drinking them under the table.”

(Whiny voice. Mr. Big Shot, Avatar was a science fiction movie. I’ve got you this time, you literary bully. You made all this up, just like always).

What I’m attempting to talk about is how images of authors exist for their readers—whether they create them or not. Our society creates avatars of authors, partly as a way to sell their work, partly because readers want to get to know a version of who they’re reading.

(You have a mustache, so did Hemingway. You’re the one who’s copying.)

I can say for myself that while reading Emigrants, I was curious about who Sebald the author was. I learned what I could and essentially formed an impression of him as a scholarly man, someone who was very sensitive and not interested in celebrity. Someone who loved books and writing. Was this the image Sebald wished to present? Probably. Was it close to who he really was? I think so, but am not certain.

Next week, I want to talk about whether the form of the Emigrants is fiction or something else.

Till then.

And I do have a mustache and beard—they are mine, not Ernest Hemingway’s. I like to be fuzzy.

#TheEmigrants #W.G.Sebald


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