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Posted June 3, 2002
A Sublime Work of Art
'The Emigrants' is a fictional account of four men, and, more importantly, their journey through space and time and the effects of memory on their lives. Although I read this book in German in 1992, as 'Die Ausgewanderten,' I only recently read Michael Hulse's brilliant and luminous translation into English. In my opinion, the English work retains the originality, the tragedy, the delicacy and the ephemeral qualities of the original...qualities so perfect for the subject matter. Although the four subjects of 'The Emigrants' are not known to one another, they are related in that each explores the significance of living his life in a land that is not his own. Their stories dramatize, through the memories of each of the four emigrants, the relationship between historical accuracy and memory, a relationship that cannot be denied. The first section belongs to the retired Dr. Henry Selwyn. Ourwardly, Dr. Selwyn is an elderly Englishman and devoted gardener, but, as with all of Sebald's books, things are not what they might, at first, seem to be. Dr. Selwyn, our narrator learns, is not really English, by birth or by ethnicity. He is, instead, a man who has become quite homesick, and home turns out to be, not surprisingly, a small village in Lithuania that Selwyn has not seen since the date of his departure in 1899. The second section belongs to Paul Bereyter, a man whose suicide comes to interest the narrator since Paul Bereyter had been the narrator's favorite school teacher in his childhood Germany. The narrator finds, that although he thought he knew Bereyter, he really knew very little about him. And, more interestingly, he finds that Bereyter, for so many years, really didn't know himself. When Bereyter finally finds out who he really is, the truth of the revelation is something he cannot face. Perhaps the most playful section belongs to Ambros Adelwarth, the long-dead great-uncle of the narrator. Adelwarth is the only one of the four emigrants who fled to the United States, becoming a butler for an ultra-wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. When Ambros becomes the valet and lover of polo-playing Cosmo Solomon, however, he returns to Europe where the narrator traces him from Deauville to Constantinople to Jerusalem. In a lovely dream sequence, the narrator himself, returns to Deauville and the dinner party of the Prince de Guermantes. There, among the assembled aristocrats, are Ambros and Cosmo, sharing a romantic lobster dinner. The fourth narrative, however, may be the very best. It belongs to one Max Ferber, a Manchester artist, who, in 1939, at the age of 15, was sent by his parents from his native Germany to live in England. Memory plays an important part in Ferber's life as well, and he spends much time studying a book on Tiepolo and the Wurzburg frescoes so that he may more fully recall the summer of 1936, unpleasant as his memories of that summer are. At the heart of this book, of course, lies the Holocaust, something Sebald's characters feel so deeply, yet never seem to be able to address directly. These are tormented characters, yet they cannot let go of their torment because it forms an integral part of who, and what, they are. Lose that torment and, sadly, they lose themselves. Sebald is never without his playful, even absurd, side, and it is present in this book as well. Running through his narratives, and culminating in the memoir of Max Ferber's mother, Luisa, are allusions to 'the butterfly man.' In Ferber's section, 'the butterfly man' is a boy of about 10 who chases butterflies in the German resort town of Bad Kissingen. This man is clearly Vladimir Nabokov, for the scene described is exactly the same as one described in Nabokov's own memoir, 'Speak, Memory.' Whether muse or mentor, 'the butterfly man' holds great significance for each of Sebald's characters. And, who but Sebald would have had the imagination and creativity to braid, like a silken thread, the spirit of the most celebrated
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Posted May 7, 2008
Posted January 11, 2012
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