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"A masterpiece."—Richard Eder, The New York Times.
Published to enormous critical acclaim in the US, The Emigrants has been acclaimed as "one of the best novels to appear since World War II" (Review of Contemporary Fiction) and three times chosen as the 1996 International Book of the Year. The poignant and acclaimed novel about the beauty of lost things, while the protagonist traces the lives of four elderly German/Jewish exiles. The Emigrants is composed of four long narratives which at first appear to be the ...
"A masterpiece."—Richard Eder, The New York Times.
Published to enormous critical acclaim in the US, The Emigrants has been acclaimed as "one of the best novels to appear since World War II" (Review of Contemporary Fiction) and three times chosen as the 1996 International Book of the Year. The poignant and acclaimed novel about the beauty of lost things, while the protagonist traces the lives of four elderly German/Jewish exiles. The Emigrants is composed of four long narratives which at first appear to be the straightforward accounts of the lives of several Jewish exiles in England, Austria, and America. The narrator literally follows their footsteps, studding each story with photographs and creating the impression that the reader is poring over a family album. But gradually, Sebald's prose, which combines documentary description with almost hallucinatory fiction, exerts a new magic, and the four stories merge into one. Illustrated throughout with enigmatic photographs.
At the end of september 1970, shortly before I took up myposition in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara insearch of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometres the roadruns amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oaktrees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hinghamappears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetopsbarely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad andlined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not takeus long to find the house the agents had described. One of thelargest in the village, it stood a short distance from the churchwith its grassy graveyard, Scots pines and yews, up a quietside street. The house was hidden behind a two-metre walland a thick shrubbery of hollies and Portuguese laurel. We walkeddown the gentle slope of the broad driveway and across theevenly gravelled forecourt. To the right, beyond the stablesand outbuildings, a stand of beeches rose high into the clearautumn sky, its rookery deserted in the early afternoon, thenests dark patches in a canopy of foliage that was onlyoccasionally disturbed. The front of the large, neoclassicalhouse was overgrown with Virginia creeper. The door waspainted black and on it was a brass knocker in the shape of afish. We knocked several times, but there was no sign of lifeinside the house. We stepped back a little. The sash windows,each divided into twelves panes, glinted blindly, seeming to bemade of dark mirror glass. The house gave the impression thatno one lived there. And I recalled the chateau in the Charentethat I had once visited from Angouleme. In front of it, two crazybrothers — one aparliamentarian, the other an architect — hadbuilt a replica of the facade of the palace of Versailles, anutterly pointless counterfeit, though one which made apowerful impression from a distance. The windows of thathouse had been just as gleaming and blind as those of thehouse we now stood before. Doubtless we should have drivenon without accomplishing a thing, if we had not summoned upthe nerve, exchanging one of those swift glances, to at leasttake a look at the garden. Warily we walked round the house.On the north side, where the brickwork was green with dampand variegated ivy partly covered the walls, a mossy path ledpast the servants' entrance, past a woodshed, on through deepshadows, to emerge, as if upon a stage, onto a terrace with astone balustrade overlooking a broad, square lawn bordered byflower beds, shrubs and trees. Beyond the lawn, to the west,the grounds opened out into a park landscape studded withlone lime trees, elms and holm oaks, and beyond thatlay the gentle undulations of arable land and the whitemountains of cloud on the horizon. In silence we gazed at thisview, which drew the eye into the distance as it fell and rosein stages, and we looked for a long time, supposing ourselvesquite alone, till we noticed a motionless figure lying in theshade cast on the lawn by a lofty cedar in the southwestcorner of the garden. It was an old man, his head propped onhis arm, and he seemed altogether absorbed in contemplationof the patch of earth immediately before his eyes. We crossedthe lawn towards him, every step wonderfully light on thegrass. Not till we were almost upon him, though, did he noticeus. He stood up, not without a certain embarrassment. Thoughhe was tall and broad-shouldered, he seemed quite stocky,even short. Perhaps this impression came from the way hehad of looking, head bowed, over the top of his gold-rimmedreading glasses, a habit which had given him a stooped, almostsupplicatory posture. His white hair was combed back, but afew stray wisps kept falling across his strikingly high forehead.I was counting the blades of grass, he said, by way of apologyfor his absentmindedness. It's a sort of pastime of mine.Rather irritating, I am afraid. He swept back one of his whitestrands of hair. His movements seemed at once awkward andyet perfectly poised; and there was a similar courtesy, of astyle that had long since fallen into disuse, in the way heintroduced himself as Dr Henry Selwyn. No doubt, hecontinued, we had come about the flat. As far as he could say,it had not yet been let, but we should have to wait for MrsSelwyn's return, since she was the owner of the house and hemerely a dweller in the garden, a kind of ornamental hermit. Inthe course of the conversation that followed these openingremarks, we strolled along the iron railings that marked offthe garden from open parkland. We stopped for a moment.Three heavy greys were rounding a little clump of alders,snorting and throwing up clods of turf as they trotted. Theytook up an expectant position at our side, and Dr Selwyn fedthem from his trouser pocket, stroking their muzzles as he didso. I have put them out to grass, he said. I bought them at anauction last year for a few pounds. Otherwise they woulddoubtless have gone straight to the knacker's yard. They'recalled Herschel, Humphrey and Hippolytus. I know nothingabout their earlier life, but when I bought them they were in asorry state. Their coats were infested with lice, their eyeswere dim, and their hooves were cracked right through fromstanding in a wet field. But now, said Dr Selwyn, they'vemade something of a recovery, and they might still have ayear or so ahead of them. With that he took his leave of thehorses, which were plainly very fond of him, and strolled onwith us towards the remoter parts of the garden, pausing nowand then and becoming more expansive and circumstantial inhis talk. Through the shrubbery on the south side of the lawn,a path led to a walk lined with hazels, where grey squirrelswere up to their mischief in the canopy of branches overhead. Theground was thickly strewn with empty nutshells, and autumncrocuses took the weak light that penetrated the dry, rustlingleaves. The hazel walk led to a tennis court bounded by awhitewashed brick wall. Tennis, said Dr Selwyn, used to bemy great passion. But now the court has fallen into disrepair,like so much else around here. It's not only the kitchengarden, he continued, indicating the tumble-down Victoriangreenhouses and overgrown espaliers, that's on its last legsafter years of neglect. More and more, he said, he sensed thatNature itself was groaning and collapsing beneath the burdenwe placed upon it. True, the garden, which had originallybeen meant to supply a large household, and had indeed, bydint of skill and diligence, provided fruit and vegetables for thetable throughout the entire year, was still, despite the neglect,producing so much that he had far more than he needed forhis own requirements, which admittedly were becomingincreasingly modest. Leaving the once well-tended garden toits own devices did have the incidental advantage,said Dr Selwyn, that the things that still grew there, or whichhe had sown or planted more or less haphazardly, possessed aflavour that he himself found quite exceptionally delicate. Wewalked between beds of asparagus with the tufts of green atshoulder height, rows of massive artichoke plants, and on to asmall group of apple trees, on which there were an abundanceof red and yellow apples. Dr Selwyn placed a dozen of thesefairy-tale apples, which really did taste better than any I haveeaten since, on a rhubarb leaf, and gave them to Clara,remarking that the variety was aptly named Beauty of Bath.
Two days after this first meeting with Dr Selwyn wemoved in to Prior's Gate. The previous evening, Mrs Selwynhad shown us the rooms, on the first floor of the east wing,furnished in an idiosyncratic fashion but otherwise pleasantand spacious. We had immediately been very taken with theprospect of spending a few months there, since the view fromthe high windows across the garden, the park and the massedcloud in the sky was more than ample recompense for thegloomy interior. One only needed to look out, and the giganticand startlingly ugly sideboard ceased to exist, the mustardyellow paintwork in the kitchen vanished, and the turquoiserefrigerator, gas-powered and possibly not without itsdangers, seemed to dissolve into nowhere, as if by a miracle.Elli Selwyn was a factory owner's daughter, from Biel inSwitzerland, and we soon realized that she had an excellenthead for business. She gave us permission to make modestalterations in the flat, to suit our taste. Once the bathroom(which was in an annexe on cast-iron columns and accessibleonly via a footbridge) had been painted white, she even cameup to approve our handiwork. The unfamiliar look promptedher to make the cryptic comment that the bathroom, whichhad always reminded her of an old-fashioned hothouse, nowreminded her of a freshly painted dovecote, an observationthat has stuck in my mind to this day as an annihilating verdicton the way we lead our life, though I have not been able tomake any change in it. But that is beside the point. Ouraccess to the flat was either by an iron staircase, now paintedwhite as well, that rose from the courtyard to the bathroomfootbridge, or (on the ground floor) through a double door intoa wide corridor, the walls of which, just below the ceiling,were festooned with a complicated bell-pull system for thesummoning of servants. From that passageway one couldlook into the dark kitchen, where at any hour of the day afemale personage of indeterminable age would always bebusy at the sink. Elaine, as she was called, wore her hairshorn high up the nape, as the inmates of asylums do. Herfacial expressions and movements gave a distraughtimpression, her lips were always wet, and she was invariablywearing her long grey apron that reached down to her ankles.What work Elaine was doing in the kitchen, day in, day out,remained a mystery to Clara and myself; to the best of ourknowledge, no meal, with one single exception, was evercooked there. Across the corridor, about a foot above thestone floor, there was a door in the wall. Through it, oneentered a dark stairwell; and on every floor hiddenpassageways branched off, running behind walls in such away that the servants, ceaselessly hurrying to and fro ladenwith coal scuttles, baskets of firewood, cleaning materials,bed linen and tea trays, never had to cross the paths of theirbetters. Often I tried to imagine what went on inside theheads of people who led their lives knowing that, behind thewalls of the rooms they were in, the shadows of the servantswere perpetually flitting past. I fancied theyought to have been afraid of those ghostly creatures who, forscant wages, dealt with the tedious tasks that had to beperformed daily. The main access to our rooms was via thisrear staircase, at the bottommost level of which, incidentally,was the invariably locked door of Elaine's quarters. This toomade us feel somewhat uneasy. Only once did I manage tosnatch a glance, and saw that her small room was full ofcountless dolls, meticulously dressed, most of them wearingsomething on their heads, standing or sitting around or lying onthe bed where Elaine herself slept — if, that is, she ever slept atall, and did not spend the entire night crooning softly as sheplayed with her dolls. On Sundays and holidays weoccasionally saw Elaine leaving the house in her SalvationArmy uniform. She was often met by a little girl who wouldthen walk beside her, one trusting hand in hers. It took a whilefor us to grow used to Elaine. What we found particularlyunsettling was her intermittent habit, when she was in thekitchen, of breaking into strange, apparently unmotivated,whinnying laughter that would penetrate to the first floor.What was more, Elaine, ourselves excepted, was the soleoccupant of the immense house who was always there. MrsSelwyn was frequently away on her travels for weeks at atime, or was about her business, seeing to the numerous flatsshe let in town and in nearby villages. As long as the weatherpermitted, Dr Selwyn liked to be out of doors, and especially ina flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the garden, whichhe called his folly and which he had furnished with theessentials. But one morning just a week or so after we hadmoved in, I saw him standing at an open window of one of hisrooms on the west side of the house. He had his spectacles onand was wearing a tartan dressing gown and a white neckerchief.He was aiming a gun withtwo inordinately long barrelsup into the blue. When atlast he fired the shot, afterwhat seemed to me aneternity, the report fell uponthe gardens with a shatteringcrash. Dr Selwyn laterexplained that he had beenfinding out whether the gun,which was meant forhunting big game and whichhe had bought many yearsago as a young man, was stillin working order after decades of disuse in his dressing room.During that time, as far as he could remember, it had beencleaned and checked over only a couple of times. He told mehe had bought the gun when he went to India to take up hisfirst position as a surgeon. At that time, having such a gunwas considered obligatory for a man of his caste. He hadgone hunting with it only once, though, and had evenneglected to put it to inaugural use on that occasion, as heought to have. So now he had been wondering if the piecestill worked, and had established that the recoil alone wasenough to kill one.
Otherwise, as I have said, Dr Selwyn was scarcely everin the house. He lived in his hermitage, giving his entireattention, as he occasionally told me, to thoughts which on theone hand grew vaguer day by day, and, on the other, grewmore precise and unambiguous. During our stay in the househe had a visitor only once. It was in the spring, I think, aboutthe end of April, and Elli happened to be away inSwitzerland. One morning Dr Selwyn came up to tell us thathe had invited a friend with whom he had been close for manyyears to dinner and, if it was convenient, he would bedelighted if we could make their twosome a petit comite. We wentdown shortly before eight. A fire was blazing against thedistinct chill of evening in the vast hearth of the drawing room,which was furnished with a number of four-seater settees andcumbersome armchairs. High on the walls mirrors with blindpatches were hung, multiplying the flickering of the firelightand reflecting shifting images. Dr Selwyn was wearing a tieand a tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbows. Hisfriend Edwin Elliott, whom he introduced to us as awell-known botanist and entomologist, was a man of a muchslighter build than Dr Selwyn himself, and, while the latterinclined to stoop, he carried himself erect. He too waswearing a tweed jacket. His shirt collar was too large for hisscrawny, wrinkled neck, which emerged from itaccordion-style, like the neck of certain birds or of a tortoise;his head was small, seeming faintly prehistoric, some kind ofthrowback; his eyes, though, shone with sheer wonderful life.At first we talked about my work and our plans for the nextyear or so, and of the impressions we had, coming frommountainous parts, of England, and particularly of the flatexpanse of the county of Norfolk. Dusk fell. Dr Selwyn stoodup and, with some ceremony, preceded us into the dining roomnext door. On the oak table, at which thirty people could havebeen seated with no difficulty, stood two silver candelabra.Places were set for Dr Selwyn and Edwin at the head andfoot of the table, and for Clara and me on the long side facingthe windows. By now it was almost dark inside the house, andoutside, too, the greenery was thickening with deep, blueshadows. The light of the west still lay on the horizon, though,with mountains of cloud whose snowy formations remindedme of the loftiest alpine massifs, as the night descended.Elaine pushed in a serving trolley equipped with hotplates,some kind of patented design dating from the Thirties. Shewas wearing her grey full-length apron and went about herwork in a silence which she broke only once or twice to muttersomething to herself. She lit the candles and shuffled out, asshe had come in, without a word. We served ourselves,passing the dishes along the table to one another. The firstcourse consisted of a few pieces of green asparagus coveredwith marinated leaves of young spinach. The main course wasbroccoli spears in butter and new potatoes boiled with mintleaves. Dr Selwyn told us that he grew his earlies in the sandysoil of one of the old glasshouses, where they reached the sizeof walnuts by mid April. The meal was concluded withcreamed stewed rhubarb sprinkled with Demarara sugar.Thus almost everything was from the neglected garden.Before we had finished, Edwin turned our conversation toSwitzerland, perhaps thinking that Dr Selwyn and I would bothhave something to say on the subject. And Dr Selwyn didindeed, after a certain hesitation, start to tell us of his stay inBerne shortly before the First World War. In the summer of1913 (he began), he had completed his medical studies inCambridge, and had forthwith left for Berne, intending tofurther his training there. In the event, things had turned outdifferently, and he had spent most of his time in the BerneseOberland, taking more and more to mountain climbing. Hespent weeks on end in Meiringen, and Oberaar in particular,where he met an alpine guide by the name of JohannesNaegeli, then aged sixty-five, of whom, from thebeginning, he was very fond. He went everywhere withNaegeli — up the Zinggenstock, the Scheuchzerhorn and theRosenhorn, the Lauteraarhorn, the Schreckhorn and theEwigschneehorn — and never in his life, neither before norlater, did he feel as good as he did then, in the company ofthat man. When war broke out and I returned to England andwas called up, Dr Selwyn said, nothing felt as hard, as Irealize now looking back, as saying goodbye to JohannesNaegeli. Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met atChristmas in Berne and married after the war, did not causeme remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli. Ican still see him standing at the station at Meiringen, waving. But I mayonly be imagining it, Dr Selwyn went on in a lower tone, tohimself, since Elli has come to seem a stranger to me over theyears, whereas Naegeli seems closer whenever he comes tomy mind, despite the fact that I never saw him again afterthat farewell in Meiringen. Not long after mobilization,Naegeli went missing on his way from the Oberaar cabin toOberaar itself. It was assumed that he had fallen into acrevasse in the Aare glacier. The news reached me in one ofthe first letters I received when I was in uniform, living inbarracks, and it plunged me into a deep depression that nearlyled to my being discharged. It was as if I was buried undersnow and ice. But this is an old story, said Dr Selwyn after alengthy pause. We ought really, he said, turning to Edwin, toshow our guests the pictures we took on our last visit toCrete. We returned to the drawing room. The logs wereglowing in the dark. Dr Selwyn tugged a bell-pull to the rightof the fireplace, and almost instantly, as if she had beenwaiting in the passage for the signal, Elaine pushed in a trolleywith a slide projector on it. The large ormolu clock on themantelpiece and the Meissen figurines, a shepherd andshepherdess and a colourfully clad Moor rolling his eyes,were moved aside, and the wooden-framed screen Elaine hadbrought in was put up in front of the mirror. The low whirr ofthe projector began, and the dust in the room, normallyinvisible, glittered and danced in the beam of light by way of aprelude to the pictures themselves. Their journey to Crete hadbeen made in the springtime. The landscape of the islandseemed veiled in bright green as it lay before us. Once ortwice, Edwin was to be seen with his field glasses and acontainer for botanical specimens, or Dr Selwyn inknee-length shorts, with a shoulder bag and butterfly net. One of the shotsresembled, even in detail, a photograph of Nabokov in themountains above Gstaad that I had clipped from a Swissmagazine a few days before.
Strangely enough, both Edwin and Dr Selwyn made adistinctly youthful impression on the pictures they showed us,though at the time they made the trip, exactly ten yearsearlier, they were already in their late sixties. I sensed that, forboth of them, this return of their past selves was an occasionfor some emotion. But it may be that it merely seemed thatway to me because neither Edwin nor Dr Selwyn was willingor able to make any remark concerning these pictures,whereas they did comment on the many others showing thespringtime flora of the island, and all manner of winged andcreeping creatures. Whilst their images were on screen,trembling slightly, there was almost total silence in the room.In the last of the pictures we saw the expanse of the Lasithiplateau outspread before us, taken from the heights of one ofthe northern passes. The shot must have been taken aroundmidday, since the sun was shining into our line of vision. Tothe south, lofty Mount Spathi, two thousand metres high,towered above the plateau, like a mirage beyond the flood oflight. The fields of potatoes and vegetables across the broadvalley floor, the orchards and clumps of other trees, and theuntilled land, were awash with green upon green, studded withthe hundreds of white sails of wind pumps. We sat looking atthis picture for a long time in silence too, so long that the glassin the slide shattered and a dark crack fissured across thescreen. That view of the Lasithi plateau, held so long till itshattered, made a deep impression on me at the time, yet itlater vanished from my mind almost completely. It was notuntil a few years afterwards that it returned to me, in aLondon cinema, as I followed a conversation between KasparHauser and his teacher, Daumer, in the kitchen garden atDaumer's home. Kaspar, to the delight of his mentor, wasdistinguishing for the first time between dream and reality,beginning his account with the words: I was in a dream, and inmy dream I saw the Caucasus. The camera then moved fromright to left, in a sweeping arc, offeringa panoramic view of a plateau ringed by mountains, a plateauwith a distinctly Indian look to it, with pagoda-like towers andtemples with strange triangular facades amidst the greenundergrowth and woodland: follies, in a pulsing dazzle of light,that kept reminding me of the sails of those wind pumps ofLasithi, which in reality I have still not seen to this day.
We moved out of Prior's Gate in mid May 1971. Clara hadbought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment. Atfirst we missed the view, but instead we had the green andgrey lancets of two willows at our windows, and even on dayswhen there was no breeze at all they were almost never atrest. The trees were scarcely fifteen metres from the house,and the movement of the leaves seemed so close that attimes, when one looked out, one felt a part of it. At fairlyregular intervals Dr Selwyn called on us in our as yet almosttotally empty house, bringing vegetables and herbs from hisgarden — yellow and blue beans, carefully scrubbed potatoes,artichokes, chives, sage, chervil and dill. On one of thesevisits, Clara being away in town, Dr Selwyn and I had a longtalk prompted by his asking whether I was ever homesick. Icould not think of any adequate reply, but Dr Selwyn, after apause for thought, confessed (no other word will do) that inrecent years he had been beset with homesickness more andmore. When I asked where it was that he felt drawn back to,he told me that at the age of seven he had left a village nearGrodno in Lithuania with his family. In the late autumn of 1899,his parents, his sisters Gita and Raja, and his Uncle ShaniFeldhendler, had ridden to Grodno on a cart that belonged toAaron Wald the coachman. For years the images of thatexodus had been gone from his memory, but recently,he said, they had been returning once again and making theirpresence felt. I can still see the teacher who taught thechildren in the cheder, where I had been going for two yearsby then, placing his hand on my parting; I can still see theempty rooms of our house. I see myself sitting topmost on thecart, see the horse's crupper, the vast brown earth, the geesewith their outstretched necks in the farmyard mires and thewaiting room at Grodno station, overheated by a freestandingrailed-off stove, the families of emigrants lying around it. I seethe telegraph wires rising and falling past the train window,the facades of the Riga houses, the ship in the docks and thedark corner on deck where we did our best to make ourselvesat home in such confined circumstances. The high seas, thetrail of smoke, the distant greyness, the lifting and falling ofthe ship, the fear and hope within us, all of it (Dr Selwyn toldme) I can now live through again, as if it were only yesterday.After about a week, far sooner than we had reckoned, wereached our destination. We entered a broad river estuary.Everywhere there were freighters, large and small. Beyondthe banks, the land stretched out flat. All the emigrants hadgathered on deck and were waiting for the Statue of Libertyto appear out of the drifting mist, since every one of them hadbooked a passage to Americum, as we called it. When wedisembarked we were still in no doubt whatsoever thatbeneath our feet was the soil of the New World, of thePromised City of New York. But in fact, as we learnt sometime later to our dismay (the ship having long since cast offagain), we had gone ashore in London. Most of the emigrants,of necessity, adjusted to the situation, but some, in the teeth ofall the evidence to the contrary, persisted for a long time inthe belief that they were in America. SoI grew up in London, in a basement flat in Whitechapel, inGoulston Street. My father, who was a lens-grinder, used themoney he had brought with him to buy a partnership in anoptician's business that belonged to a fellow countryman fromGrodno by the name of Tosia Feigelis. I went to primaryschool in Whitechapel and learnt English as if in a dream,because I lapped up, for sheer love, every word from the lipsof my beautiful young teacher, Lisa Owen. On my way homefrom school I would repeat everything she had said that day,over and over, thinking of her as I did so. It was that samebeautiful teacher, said Dr Selwyn, who put me in for theMerchant Taylors' School entrance examination. She seemedto take it for granted that I would win one of the scholarshipsthat were available every year to pupils from less well-offhomes. And as it turned out I did satisfy her hopes of me; asmy Uncle Shani often remarked, the light in the kitchen of ourtwo-room flat in Whitechapel, where I sat up far into the nightafter my sisters and parents had long since gone to bed, wasnever off. I learnt and read everything that came my way, andcleared the greatest of obstacles with growing ease. By theend of my school years, when I finished top of my year in theexams, it felt as if I had come a tremendous way. Myconfidence was at its peak, and in a kind of secondconfirmation I changed my first name Hersch into Henry, andmy surname Seweryn to Selwyn. Oddly enough, I then foundthat as I began my medical studies (at Cambridge, again withthe help of a scholarship) my ability to learn seemed to haveslackened, though my examination results were among thebest. You already know how things went on from there, saidDr Selwyn: the year in Switzerland, the war, my first yearserving in India, and marriage to Elli, from whomI concealed my true background for a long time. In theTwenties and Thirties we lived in grand style; you have seenfor yourself what is left of it. A good deal of Elli's fortune wasused up that way. True, I had a practice in town, and was ahospital surgeon, but my income alone would never havepermitted us such a life style. In the summer months wewould motor right across Europe. Next to tennis, said DrSelwyn, motoring was my great passion in those days. Thecars are all still in the garage, and they may be worthsomething by now. But I have never been able to bring myselfto sell anything, except perhaps, at one point, my soul. Peoplehave told me repeatedly that I haven't the slightest sense ofmoney. I didn't even have the foresight, he said, to provide formy old age by paying into a pension scheme. That is why I amnow practically a pauper. Elli, on the other hand, has madegood use of the not inconsiderable remainder of her fortune,and now she must no doubt be a wealthy woman. I still don'tknow for sure what made us drift apart, the money orrevealing the secret of my origins, or simply the decline oflove. The years of the second war, and the decades after,were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not saya thing even if I wanted to. In 1960, when I had to give up mypractice and my patients, I severed my last ties with what theycall the real world. Since then, almost my only companionshave been plants and animals. Somehow or other I seem toget on well with them, said Dr Selwyn with an inscrutablesmile, and, rising, he made a gesture that was most unusual forhim. He offered me his hand in farewell.
After that call, Dr Selwyn's visits to us became fewerand further between. The last time we saw him was the dayhe brought Clara a bunch of white roses with twines ofhoneysuckle, shortly before we left for a holiday in France. Afew weeks after, late that summer, he took his own life with abullet from his heavy hunting rifle. He had sat on the edge ofhis bed (we learnt on our return from France) with the gunbetween his legs, placed the muzzle of the rifle at his jaw, andthen, for the first time since he bought the gun beforedeparting for India, had fired a shot with intent to kill. Whenwe received the news, I had no great difficulty in overcomingthe initial shock. But certain things, as I am increasinglybecoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, oftenafter a lengthy absence. In late July 1986 I was in Switzerlandfor a few days. On the morning of the 23rd I took the trainfrom Zurich to Lausanne. As the train slowed to cross theAare bridge, approaching Berne, I gazed way beyond the cityto the mountains of the Oberland. At that point, as I recall, orperhaps merely imagine, the memory of Dr Selwyn returnedto me for the first time in a long while. Three quarters of anhour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around LakeGeneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, Iwas just laying aside a Lausanne paper I'd bought in Zurichwhen my eye was caught by a report that said the remains ofthe Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing sincesummer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier,seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us,the dead. At times they come back from the ice more thanseven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine,a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.
There is mist that no eye can dispel
In January 1984, the news reached me from S that on theevening of the 30th of December, a week after hisseventy-fourth birthday, Paul Bereyter, who had been myteacher at primary school, had put an end to his life. A shortdistance from S, where the railway track curves out of awillow copse into the open fields, he had lain himself down infront of a train. The obituary in the local paper was headed"Grief at the Loss of a Popular Teacher" and there was nomention of the fact that Paul Bereyter had died of his ownfree will, or through a self-destructive compulsion. It spokemerely of the dead man's services to education, his dedicatedcare for his pupils, far beyond the call of duty, his great loveof music, his astonishing inventiveness, and of much else inthe same vein. Almost by way of an aside, the obituary added,with no further explanation, that during the Third Reich PaulBereyter had been prevented from practicing his chosenprofession. It was this curiously unconnected, inconsequentialstatement, as much as the violent manner of his death, whichled me in the years that followed to think more and moreabout Paul Bereyter, until, in the end, I had to get beyond myown very fond memories of him and discover the story I didnot know. My investigations took me back to S, which I hadvisited less and less since leaving school. I soon learned that,right up to his death, Paul Bereyter had rented rooms there, ina house built in 1970 on the land that had once been DagobertLerchenmuller's nursery and market garden, but he hadseldom lived there, and it was thought that he was mostlyabroad, no one quite knew where. His continual absence fromthe town, and his increasingly odd behaviour, which had firstbecome apparent a few years before his retirement, gave himthe reputation of an eccentric. This reputation, regardless ofhis undoubted pedagogic ability, had clung to Paul Bereyterfor some considerable time, and had, as far as his death wasconcerned, confirmed the belief among the people of S(amidst whom Paul Bereyter had grown up and, albeit it withcertain interruptions, always lived) that things had happenedas they were bound to happen. The few conversations I hadin S with people who had known Paul Bereyter were not veryrevealing, and the only thing that seemed remarkable was thatno one called him Paul Bereyter or even Bereyter theteacher. Instead, he was invariably referred to simply as Paul,giving me the impression that in the eyes of hiscontemporaries he had never really grown up. I was remindedthen of how we had only ever spoken of him as Paul atschool, not without respect but rather as one might refer to anexemplary older brother, and in a way this implied that he wasone of us, or that we belonged together. This, as I have cometo realize, was merely a fabrication of our minds, because,even though Paul knew and understood us, we, for our part, had littleidea of what he was or what went on inside him. And so, belatedly, Itried to get closer to him, to imagine what his life was like inthat spacious apartment on the top floor of Lerchenmuller'sold house, which had once stood where the present block offlats is now, amidst an array of green vegetable patches andcolourful flower beds, in the gardens where Paul often helpedout of an afternoon. I imagined him lying in the open air on hisbalcony where he would often sleep in the summer, his facecanopied by the hosts of the stars. I imagined him skating inwinter, alone on the fish ponds at Moosbach; and I imaginedhim stretched out on the track. As I pictured him, he hadtaken off his spectacles and put them on the ballast stones byhis side. The gleaming bands of steel, the crossbars of thesleepers, the spruce trees on the hillside above the village ofAltstadten, the arc of the mountains he knew so well, were ablur before his short-sighted eyes, smudged out in thegathering dusk. At the last, as the thunderous soundapproached, all he saw was a darkening greyness and, in themidst of it, needle-sharp, the snow-white silhouettes of threemountains: the Kratzer, the Trettach and theHimmelsschrofen. Such endeavours to imagine his life anddeath did not, as I had to admit, bring me any closer to Paul,except at best for brief emotional moments of the kind thatseemed presumptuous to me. It is in order to avoid this sort ofwrongful trespass that I have written down what I know ofPaul Bereyter.
In December 1952 my family moved from the village of Wto the small town of S, 19 kilometres away. The journey duringwhich I gazed out of the cab of Alpenvogel's wine-redfurniture van at the endless lines of trees along the roadsides,thickly frosted over and appearing before us out of thelightless morning mist — seemed like a voyage halfway round theworld, though it will have lasted an hour at the very most.When at length we trundled across the Ach bridge into S, atthat time no more than a small market town of perhaps ninethousand souls, I was overcome by a powerful feeling that anew life filled with the bustle of cities would be starting for usthere. The blue enamel street names, the huge clock in frontof the old railway station, and what seemed to me then thetruly magnificent facade of the Wittelsbacher Hof Hotel,were all, I felt, unmistakable signs of a new beginning. It was,I thought, particularly auspicious that the rows of houses wereinterrupted here and there by patches of waste land on whichstood ruined buildings, for ever since I had once visitedMunich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to theword city as the presence of heaps of rubble, fire-scorchedwalls, and the gaps of windows through which one could seethe vacant air.
On the afternoon that we arrived, the temperatureplummeted. A snow blizzard set in that continued for the restof the day and eased off to an even, calm snowfall onlytowards the night. When I went to the school in S for the firsttime the following morning, the snow lay so thick that I felt akind of exhilaration at the sight of it. The class I joined wasthe third grade, which was taught by Paul Bereyter. There Istood, in my dark green pullover with the leaping stag on it, infront of fifty-one fellow pupils, all staring at me with thegreatest possible curiosity, and, as if from a great distance, Iheard Paul say that I had arrived at precisely the rightmoment, since he had been telling the story of the stag's leaponly the day before, and now the image of the leaping stag,worked into the fabric of my pullover, could be copied ontothe blackboard. He asked me to take off the pullover and takea seat in the back row beside Fritz Binswanger for the timebeing, while he, using my picture of a leaping stag, wouldshow us how an image could be broken down into numeroustiny pieces — small crosses, squares or dots — or elseassembled from these. In no time I was bent over myexercise book, beside Fritz, copying the leaping stag from theblackboard onto my grid-marked paper. Fritz too, who (as Isoon learnt) was repeating his third grade year, was takingvisible pains over his effort, yet his progress was infinitelyslow. Even when those who had started late were longfinished, he still had little more than a dozen crosses on hispage. We exchanged silent glances, and I rapidly completedhis fragmentary piece of work. From that day on, in thealmost two years that we sat next to each other, I did most ofhis arithmetic, his writing and his drawing exercises. It wasvery easy to do, and to do seamlessly, as it were, chieflybecause Fritz and I had the self-same, incorrigibly sloppyhandwriting (as Paul repeatedly observed, shaking his head),with the one difference that Fritz could not write quickly and Icould not write slowly. Paul had no objection to our workingtogether; indeed, to encourage us further he hung the case ofcockchafers on the wall beside our desk. It had a deep frameand was half-filled with soil. In it, as well as a pair ofcockchafers labelled Melolontha vulgaris in the old Germanhand, there were a clutch of eggs, a pupa and a larva, and, inthe upper portion, cockchafers were hatching, flying, andeating the leaves of apple trees. That case, demonstrating themysterious metamorphosis of the cockchafer, inspired Fritzand me in the late spring to an intensive study of the wholenature of cockchafers, including anatomical examination andculminating in the cooking and eating of a cockchafer stew.Fritz, in fact, who came from a large familyof farm labourers at Schwarzenbach and, as far as wasknown, had never had a real father, took the liveliest interestin anything connected with food, its preparation, and theeating of it. Every day he would expatiate in great detail onthe quality of the sandwiches I brought with me and sharedwith him, and on our way home from school we would alwaysstop to look in the window of Turra's delicatessen, or to lookat the display at Einsiedler's exotic fruit emporium, where themain attraction was a dark green trout aquarium with airbubbling up through the water. On one occasion when we hadbeen standing for a long time outside Einsiedler's, from theshadowy interior of which a pleasant coolness wafted out thatSeptember noon, old Einsiedler himself appeared in thedoorway and made each of us a present of a whitebutterpear. This constituted a veritable miracle, not onlybecause the fruits were such splendid rarities but chieflybecause Einsiedler was widely known to be of a cholericdisposition, a man who despised nothing so much as servingthe few customers he still had. It was while he was eating thewhite butterpear that Fritz confided to me that he planned tobe a chef; and he did indeed become a chef, one who couldbe said without exaggeration to enjoy international renown.He perfected his culinary skills at the Grand Hotel Dolder inZurich and the Victoria Jungfrau in Interlaken, and wassubsequently as much in demand in New York as in Madridor London. It was when he was in London that we met again,one April morning in 1984, in the reading room of the BritishMuseum, where I was researching the history of Bering'sAlaska expedition and Fritz was studying eighteenth-centuryFrench cookbooks. By chance we were sitting just one aisleapart, and when we both happened to look up from our workat the same moment we immediately recognized each otherdespite the quarter century that had passed. In the cafeteriawe told each other the stories of our lives, and talked for along time about Paul, of whom Fritz mainly recalled that hehad never once seen him eat.
Copyright © 2001 Forrest Gander. All rights reserved.
|Dr. Henry Selwyn||1|
Posted June 3, 2002
'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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