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by Charlotte Turner Smith
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A meditation on memory and loss. Sebald re-creates the lives of four exiles--five if you include his oblique self-portrait--through their own accounts, others' recollections, and pictures and found objects. But he brings these men before our eyes only to make them fade away, "longing for extinction." Two were eventual suicides, another died in an asylum, the fourth still lived under a "poisonous canopy" more than 40 years after his parents' death in Nazi Germany.
Sebald's own longing is for communion. En route to Ithaca (the real upstate New York location but also the symbolic one), he comes to feel "like a travelling companion of my neighbor in the next lane." After the car speeds away--"the children pulling clownish faces out of the rear window--I felt deserted and desolate for a time." Sebald's narrative is purposely moth-holed (butterfly-ridden, actually--there's a recurring Nabokov-with-a-net type), an escape from the prison-house of realism. According to the author, his Uncle Ambros's increasingly improbable tales were the result of "an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions." Luckily for us, Sebald seems to have inherited the same syndrome. --Kerry Fried
From Publishers Weekly
Composed of four compelling portraits of Jewish emigres whose lives have been scarred by exile, dislocation and persecution, this unusual work of fiction is pervaded by a sensibility and a degree of circumstantial detail so authentic that it could pass for historical documentation. That Sebald has invested his fictional creations with both dignity and pathos is a mark of his achievement here. A narrator provides perspective on the lives he relates. Retired surgeon Henry Selwyn was born Hersch Seweryn and changed his name after arrival in England; his disclosure of his true origins to his Swiss wife causes an irreparable rift in their marriage and an essential loss of identity in the now aimless man. Paul Bereyter, fired from his post as schoolteacher in Germany because he is one-quarter Jewish, serves six years in the Germany army and is haunted by the bestial violence he witnesses. Ambros Adelwarth escapes Germany, finally settling in the U.S. Concealing his traumas from family members, he commits himself to a sanitarium at age 67 and undergoes electroshock therapy, longing for extinction. German-born artist Max Ferber, a recluse in Manchester, England, suffers claustrophobia stemming from the deportation and murder of his parents by Nazis. Though none of the protagonists is thrown into a concentration camp, they are all haunted by the effects of the Holocaust. Two of them eventually commit suicide, all suffer shame and guilt, claustrophobia and depression. Photographs interwoven with the restrained text add to the cumulative effect, which is that of an eerie memento. Long after the Nazis have fallen, these exiled individuals endure existential agony and emotional breakdowns. German novelist and literary scholar Sebald, who has lived in England since 1970, won the Berlin Literature Prize for this remarkable work.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The New York Times Book Review, Larry Wolff
A profound and original work . . . W. G. Sebald has created an end-of-century meditation that explores the most delicate, most painful, most nervously repressed and carefully concealed lesions of the last hundred years. Illuminatingly engaged with the history and literature of the modern era, Mr. Sebald's book gains power through its poetic obsessions with the past.
Review of Contemporary Fiction
One of the best novels to appear since World War II.
Published to enormous critical acclaim in the US and sold out immediately in its first hardcover edition, 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 the1996 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.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German
About the Author
W. G. Sebald, born in the Allgau, Germany, in 1944, is an "emigrant," too. After finishing his studies, he went to French Switzerland and England; he has been a teacher in St. Gallen and a lecturer at Manchester University. Since 1970 he has lived in Norwich, where he is Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia.
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