Posted by: Nathan | May 6, 2008

Sebald’s The Emigrants

The question of what writers from the current time period have written lasting works always faces scholars of literature. However, this issue is impossible to resolve. Most critics think that the best judge of a writer’s work is whether it survives its generation. Since we are in our generation, we’ll never know what lives on. Still, one likes to think that certain texts and authors are at least worthy of immortal consideration, and for me, one such writer is W. G. Sebald. I first read Sebald a year and a half ago in my postmodern class when  we read Austerlitz. It is fascinating. Thus, I was excited to read more Sebald last semester when I encounterd The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten).

Sebald is a German writer born just after the second world war. Fascinatingly, his topic is inevitably the Holocaust. Sebald himself emigrated to England to get away from what he saw as the widespread denial of the German people. One can say (and others have) that his obsession with the atrocities of World War II is a kind of penance. I don’t know about that, but his treatment of the subject is ever poignant, sensitive, attentive and powerful. In The Emigrants is divided into four sections, each named for the central character in that section: Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber.

With Sebald one always finds gravitas, beautiful prose, and haunting pictures. The gravitas is an extension of the subject matter, but it’s also more than that. Sebald is so careful in presenting portraits of those who have been destroyed by the after-effects of the war. All sections are told through “Max”*, a narrator who is and isn’t Sebald. He is compelled to track down the victims of the Holocaust and hear their stories. He seems so desperate for traces of understanding, and he seeks it in the lives of those who were overwhelmed by horror and loss.

The stories are fascinating and moving. These are people who loved, lived and then lost everything. All the characters are forever altered by the Nazi’s genocide. Though the sections are focused on their title characters, there are other characters whose lives the reader hears about also. Sebald plunges the reader into the past, moving from memory to memory–layers upon layers of reminiscence. The longest section (Adelwarth) has so many points of view that the reader gets lost; every character’s story merges into one flowing and compelling tale.

Sebald’s prose is uncompromisingly beautiful. One must also credit the translator of my volume, Michael Hulse. Sebald is masterful at portraying events and scenes vivdly and emotionally. As your eyes take in the words one sinks deeply into the lives and minds of the emigrants and those who know them. There are so many beautiful passages I could cite, but these two will serve. First, from the Ambros Adelwarth section:

Memory […] often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back 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 (145).

and another from the Max Ferber section, describing shipyards in Manchester:

[The ships] would slip slowly by, and as they approached the port they passed amidst houses, looming high above the black slate roofs. And in winter, said Ferber, if a ship suddenly appeared out of the mist when one least expected it, passed by soundlessly, and vanished once more in the white air, then for me, every time, it was an utterly incomprehensible spectacle which moved me deeply (166).

These moments of pure and tragic beauty are everywhere in Sebald. These are passages one feels.

Of course, I must mention the photographs for which Sebald’s prose is famous. Due to copyright reasons, I do not reproduce any here (you can get an idea from this post). The pictures are black and white, and usually feature objects rather than people: a curving railway, and tree in a cemetary, a journal, rafters in an enormous building, an empty drawing room, a polluted canal. The photos featuring people are also fascinating. From where Sebald got the pictures is a controversial issue, but it seems many came from pictures he found and purchased at random. The pictures alway appear in the midst of the text and usually pertain to the story or evoke a mood. To me, they further engross the reader in the world of the book.

The Emigrants is a wonderful piece of literature. It is a downer, as you may have surmised, but there are sporadic spots of humor that lighten the mood for a moment. I’m looking forward to reading more Sebald and definitely will return to this book and Austerlitz with zeal. 9.1/10, A.**

*”Max” was Sebald’s nickname. His use of it in the book, therefore, both unites (it’s his nickname) and distances him (it’s not his real name) from the narrator.

**In my journal I gave this book an 8.5 and an A-, which seems incomprehensibly low to me now.


  1. I am looking for an active forum on Sebald’s writings. His work is, to me, astounding.
    Are there active sites for discussions, is this one?
    Thanks, Joel

    • I’m a Sebald fan myself, Joel, but I’m afraid I don’t look into forums very much and so do not have a site to offer you. As for this humble blog, I write about a mish mash of things.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Dear Nathan,
    Thanks so much for your reply. I do see that there is much discussion of Sebald in the blog world, and wider discussions of photographs within literature, for example.
    I do maintain a Yahoo Group on Sebald, but no one has joined! If anyone reads this, you are welcome to join.

    Thanks again,

    Joel Lipset

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