Thursday, August 4, 2016

The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"time [...] is nothing but a disquiet of the soul."

Another book for grown-ups, and I am not disrespectful to younger readers: simply, at a certain age, people lose interest in the whole silly idea of the future - which is just a mirage inexorably dwindling to nothingness - while the past becomes more and more interesting and important. Although I have heard praise about W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1998) is my first book of his and I am extremely grateful to my wife for giving me a set of his novels for my birthday whose number indicates that the late middle age is in my distant past. It is quite likely that W.G. Sebald will soon join J.M. Coetzee and Cees Nooteboom among the greatest writers I have been fortunate to discover in the prime of my geezerhood.

The Emigrants is a collection of four stories about Jewish Germans who emigrated from their homeland at various times between 1899 and 1939. Although it reads as non-fiction, a sort of documentary, this fascinating mix of memoir and travel diary is indeed a novel. W.G. Sebald creates the narrator - whose name is also W.G. Sebald - to write about the émigrés with whom he - the narrator - has personal connections: for instance, his great-uncle and his grade school teacher. In the three longer stories the narrator, seeking to retrace the protagonists' personal stories, travels to visit the places where they had lived. Although not real people, the characters are obviously based on real people, and the W.G. Sebald, the narrator, is modeled on W.G. Sebald, the author, also an émigré who left Germany in the mid-1960s. Clearly, the author deliberately blurs the distinction between "fact" and "fiction". The whole metafictional exercise is similar to J.M. Coetzee's approach in his Diary of a Bad Year where he writes about a South-African writer, "C", or Summertime , where J.M. Coetzee writes about deceased writer J. Coetzee. But W.G. Sebald uses an additional device in telling the stories: they are accompanied by black-and-white, grainy, old photographs that enhance the feeling of authenticity and the documentary mood.

Any attempt of mine to summarize the stories would trivialize their intricate structure so I will just mention a few fragments that I find most captivating. The narrator's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth leaves Germany at the beginning of 20th century, becomes a room service apprentice in a hotel in Montreux and ends up working as a butler for the Solomons, one of the wealthiest banking families in New York. He also serves as a valet and traveling companion for the Solomons' son, with whom he travels to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and the city of Jerusalem. Uncle Ambros' 1913 agenda book, preserved by the narrator's family, is the source of fascinating passages about the journey. We also learn about Uncle Ambros' sad later years: the narrator retraces his uncle's life in the sanatorium in Ithaca, N.Y. The doctor who is currently overseeing the decaying site talks about the old times of the electro-shock therapy and helps the narrator construct haunting images of Ambros' last years.

The fourth story is about Max Ferber, a painter, who emigrated from Munich to Manchester. The description of the dusty Ferber's studio in the Manchester port area is so vivid that I have it in front of my eyes:
[...] the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell [...] which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything in the world. He felt closer to dust [...] than to light, air or water."
One of the most fascinating fragments of the book is Luisa's - Max Ferber's mother - account of her family life and people's daily habits and events in Bad Kissingen in the early years of the 20th century. The extremely rich portrait of the times is captivating not only to the reader but also to the narrator who decides, almost a hundred years later, to retrace Luisa's steps in Bavaria. My grandmother's year of birth happens to be the same as Luisa's and I would give a lot to be able to read a similar account of her daily life...

While emigration, restlessness, loss, and decay are the main themes of the novel, to me its most important aspect is how clearly it shows that nothing is more realistic than well-written fiction. The rich texture of stories told by Sebald, Coetzee, Garcia Marquez or any other great writer, and the power of their fiction convey the truth about the human condition. Since the stories they create transcend the particulars of actual people they offer a higher degree of realism than could ever be provided by documentaries, which are skewed by the normal biases of the documentary writers and their subjects. Of course it takes a great writer to create realistic fiction as the efforts of lesser ones are often lamentable.

I have not yet read enough of and about G.W. Sebald the author to determine with certainty what his reasons for emigrating from Germany were. He was not Jewish - in fact his father had been a Wehrmacht soldier during the Second World War and had fought on the Eastern front - yet almost all characters in The Emigrants are Jewish or have Jewish roots. I suppose the painful history of German-Jewish issues had a lot to do with the author's emigration.

A great book and thanks to my wife I have several more Sebald's works to look forward to.

Four and a quarter stars.

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