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W G Sebald: Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants)

This book has been hailed as one of the great modern masterpieces and it is undoubtedly a very fine novel. As usual it is about memory and loss and German guilt. What he does is very interesting – he tells the stories of four emigrants (they are Jews though Sebald does not explicitly say that they are in all cases) as well as bits of his own story and, in particular, shows how they were affected by being German Jews. None of the four was sent to a concentration camp. One, indeed, fought for six years in the German army. All survived the war – more or less. And it is the more or less that which is the basis of Sebald’s narrative.

The four stories are relatively straightforward. The first is Dr Henry Selwyn who is, in fact, a Lithuanian Jew who came to England, changed his name and concealed his true identity, even from his wife. Paul Bereyter, the subject of the second part, is one of the two dead at the time of the narrative, having killed himself. He had always wanted to be a teacher and had finally obtained the necessary diploma. However, it was 1936 and, because he was a quarter Jewish, he was not allowed to be a teacher (though he was allowed to fight six years in the German army.) It is only long after the War that he realises that he is different and that is what drives him to suicide.

Sebald goes to New Jersey to interview his own relatives, to find out about his long-dead great uncle. He follows him and his lover, the wealthy Cosmo Solomon, to Europe and the Middle East, invoking memories of a lost life. The last portrait is of German artist, Max Aurach (his name in the German but the English translation calls him Max Ferber – apparently he was partially based on Frank Auerbach and the name was too close for comfort; interestingly enough Sebald was called Max by his friends). His parents were killed by the Nazis. Inspired by a painting by Tiepolo, he invokes the memories of that time (which may be false memories). His obvious sadness is, for me, the most moving part of the book. Linked with Max Aurach’s story is Sebald’s own exile, as he comes to England (twice) and eventually stays there.

Memory and loss of memory and false memories and how we deal with those memories are the themes of Sebald’s writing and this is nowhere more apparent than in this book. All of these characters are haunted by their memories, even though what they remember is long since past and even though they, as victims, suffered far less than many others. For bringing the dead back, there has not been a writer to do so since Proust.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Eichborn
First published in English in 1996 by New Directions/Harvill
Translated by Michael Hulse