Thursday 28 January 2010

'This is the edge of darkness.'

The Emigrants

by W G Sebald

One of the joys of starting this blog has been the book recommendations that have come from those of you who have commented below in the past, which may in turn have led me to your own blog and further ideas for reading. I have been introduced to authors and works that I would never normally have encountered or had the necessary nudge to read. As long as I make the effort to make good on those hints that is. Sometimes there's no substitute for having a book placed in your hand by someone. That's what was required to get me to finally read some Sebald, an author who has lurked menacingly in my peripheral vision for a while but has remained a daunting prospect for some reason. After I had made a gift of Simon Mawer's The Glass Room to someone they returned the favour by giving me a copy of what I believe is Sebald's first novel. I'll be honest straight away and say that I'm not sure I fully connected with it or got as much from it at the time of reading as could be hoped. Knowing that his later works The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz are considered to be better pieces of work makes such an admission easier to make of course but I'm prepared to admit that I might have failed to appreciate the strengths of this book until the time came to write up my thoughts. A bit more thought has revealed the subtleties and detail which have made him such a revered author.

The book is divided into four sections, each purporting to be a portrait of a real person's life, augmented by photographs that pepper the text. First is Dr. Henry Selwyn, the husband of our narrator's new landlady who talks frankly about his emigration from Lithuania to London (a city he arrived in, mistakenly thinking it was New York, but staying anyway) and how the revealed secret of his heritage has opened up some distance between him and his wife. As that distance grows he feels his memories of the past growing ever closer and reminisces about his friend Naegeli who disappeared on a trip into the mountains. It is only after our narrator hears of Selwyn's suicide that he comes across a newspaper article detailing the discovery of Naegeli's body, released by a glacier 72 years after his disappearance, a symbol of remembrance and proof that 'they are ever returning to us, the dead.'

It is news of suicide again that introduces us to a former teacher of Sebald's (sorry, the narrator) Paul Bereyter, an inspirational and brave teacher betrayed by his being 'one quarter Jewish', a figure who carries that burden with him almost physically, a sadness creeping through when memory takes over.

Paul, who was standing by the window as usual, far from being able to hide the emotion that young Brandeis's playing produced in him, had to remove his glasses because his eyes had filled with tears, As I remember it, he even had to turn away in order to conceal from us the sob that rose in him. It was not only music, though, that affected Paul in this way; indeed at any time - in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings - he might stop or sit down somewhere, alone and apart from us, as if he, who was always in good spirits and seemed so cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.

The third and fourth portraits provide more narrative for a first time reader like me. Ambros Adelwarth, is the narrator's great uncle who for many years was the travelling companion of Cosmo, a rich airman with a gambling streak and fragile mental health. There is a hint of homosexuality when Uncle Kasimir mentions that Ambros was 'of the other persuasion' and this alters slightly, perhaps even explains, the nature of their bond whilst travelling, the impact on Ambros of Cosmo's internment in a mental hospital and the hollowing out as he grows older that leaves him looking as though 'his clothes were holding him together'. At this stage the darker side of memory is exposed for when Ambros commits himself to a clinic and undergoes large bouts of voluntary shock therapy his doctor slowly realises that this may be a 'longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember.' Ambros's journal, with its minute and almost indecipherable text becomes a cause for study, another document that makes up memory, commenting on that very phenomena.

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 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.

It's important to mention I think that there is lightness too amongst these shattered pieces and even humour. For example, another relative, Aunt Theres, provides some comic relief with her visits from America back to the fatherland.

Three weeks after she arrived on every visit, she would still be weeping with the joy of reunion, and three weeks before she left she would again be weeping with the pain of separation. If her stay with us was longer than six weeks, there would be a becalmed period in the middle... but if her stay was shorter there were times when one really did not know whether she was in tears because she was at home at long last or because she dreaded having to leave again.

The last and longest section is about Max Ferber, an artist living now in Manchester, inspired by the real Frank Auerbach who similarly escaped Germany on the Kindertransport whilst his parents remained, were deported to the east and died in a concentration camp. As our narrator spends time with him in his studio he observes the artistic process, the constant application and removal of paint, the scratching out of faces that leaves their ghosts on the canvas, a haunting image of those left behind or lost.

Since he applied the paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure.

When Ferber passes on the diary of his mother Luisa Lanzberg, where she describes her childhood, Sebald's fiction convinces you that it is quite the opposite, you feel as though you are reading a real document. Her simple remembrance of the daily rites of a Jewish upbringing read as a testament, a preservation of culture, especially at the time of her writing, the country at war and her culture under threat of extinction.

A final mention for a recurring figure that runs through the separate narratives, the Nabokovian man with a butterfly net. He could serve as a symbol for so many things, the pursuit of something that remains out of reach for example; but for the moment it is a role I shall assume for myself. I didn't quite catch it this time, but I can see the allure and I shall keep trying.


Alex 28 January 2010 at 11:56  

William -
Do continue with Sebald. His style is initially difficult, lacking as it does so many of the things we take for granted in literature - a coherent narrative arc, an exposition of motives, an identifiable narrator. But his is the defining voice of the latter half of the twentieth century. The Emigrants is a clear response to the vaccuum of European history post the holocaust. If writers are unable to draw upon convential history to shape their narratives then we are left with the kind of ghostly, floating half-stories we find in The Emigrants or Austerlitz. Do read Will Self's Sebald Lecture which is reprinted in the current TLS. A really wise reading of the great man.

Trevor 28 January 2010 at 13:44  

Will, my next review will be of The Rings of Saturn, so I've been thinking about Sebald quite a bit lately! Great timing for us!

The Emigrants remains my favorite Sebald (though Rings might assume that position in time -- fantastic, it was). I had the benefit of starting my Sebald with Vertigo, though, Sebald's first "fiction." I think that prepared my palate for The Emigrants. It seems the book is already getting better in your estimation since you finished it -- that has been my experience too, though I enjoyed The Emigrants throughout. It begins to sink in, and the pieces begin to fit together. At least, that's been my experience. I'm on to Austerlitz; what Sebald will you try next?

Anonymous,  28 January 2010 at 15:56  

Will: Excellent review and a great reminder for me. I read Sebald all in a rush when I discovered him, a mistake that will require rereading to correct. While I remember Austerlitz very well (I do think it is his best book) and Saturn somewhat, the others have slipped in memory -- your thoughts did bring it back. I certainly think you should continue with Sebald; my only advice would be not to make the mistake that I did and approach him in a rush. Almost like a heavily impastoed oil painting, his novels need time to "set" before moving on.

William Rycroft 29 January 2010 at 06:39  

Alex, Trevor and Kevin - Thank you for your kind comments and considered encouragement. I certainly intend to read more Sebald, in fact with such a small oeuvre I intend to read all of Sebald but I will heed Kevin's advice and let this book settle before moving on to the next. Having messed up the order already I think I should go back to Vertigo before moving on to the other two. If he continues to mature well in my thoughts after each reading then I can see how he will assume the kind of significance for me as he clearly does for you Alex and many other critics and commentators (His work was mentioned in so many books of the decade lists at the end of last year). Thanks once again for taking the time to read and respond.

William Rycroft 29 January 2010 at 06:41  

Oh, and I'm off to read Will Self's lecture too now of course. For anyone else who wants to read it you can do so here

Trevor 29 January 2010 at 16:44  

Kevin's reminder helped me out too. I finished The Rings of Saturn a few weeks ago and wantd to pull Austerlitz right off the shelf (I also wanted to pull Rings off when I finished The Emigrants, and I withstood that for a few months). I don't know how long I'll be able to last though. Kevin's consideration of the book also makes me want to read it more.

William Rycroft 30 January 2010 at 12:05  

Be strong Trevor, be strong...

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