Category Archives: Letters

Heroic Mothers

Gabrielle Burton’s Impatient with Desire is a beautifully written fictional account of the Donner party’s epic journey of 1846.  It is a journey whose tragic and gruesome finale is familiar to most Americans.  Burton uses years of solid research and a disciplined imagination to fill in the less sensational but still moving details of the trip that began in Illinois and ended in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada. Burton gives us a flesh and blood Tamsen Donner, brave, independent, kind, and determined to make her way west both for the adventure of it all and for the advantages she was sure awaited her family in California.

The party of George Donner, Tamsen, their five children, and eighty other pioneers traveled by wagon going west across miles of meadows, mountains, and deserts.  Tamsen’s journal entries and letters to her sister back east, imagined by Burton, detail their journey in all its hardships and pleasures.  Although only two of Tamsen’s letters while on the trail still exist and her journal was never recovered, Burton uses the facts she does have to evoke the heart and soul of Tamsen, and to record her motivations in beginning the trip, her delights in the journey, and her heroism in the snows of Truckee Meadows. Tamsen kept her five children alive and sane through a regimen of hygiene, chores, and meals (only at the very end was human meat prepared and then it was only for the youngest of the group).  In addition to taking care of their bodily needs as best she could, Tamsen inspired them — and now, us —  with her own unquenchable spirit, her awe and gratitude for the beauty she saw while crossing the country, and her firm sense of destiny as one who would settle the United States for future generations.

Searching for Tamsen Donner is Burton’s riveting memoir of the trip she took one summer  tracking both the trail of the Donner party across the United States and the personal story of Tamsen Donner. Burton’s journey took her to Newburyport Massachusetts, where Tamsen was born, south to North Carolina where she taught school, married, had two children, and then lost all three; and north to Springfield, Illinois where Tamsen met George Donner and from where they began their westward migration.  Burton followed the old Oregon-California trail up to the  Truckee Meadows, where she slept out beneath the tree then believed to be the tree against which the Donners built their winter shelter over a century earlier.  Burton undertook the massive cross country trip with her husband and five children.  Her details of life on the road interspersed with facts and questions about the Donner party and memories from Burton’s own life as a writer, mother, and feminist combine to make this an inspiring memoir of fully-engaged motherhood, a riveting history of self-discovery, and a further homage to the spirit and the legacy of Tamsen Donner.

Kressman Taylor: Poisoned Pen

Yesterday I read Address Unknown by Kressman Taylor, a novel composed of a series of letters between partners in an art gallery, one a German Jew in San Francisco and one a German Gentile who has returned to Germany.  The first letter is dated in the year 1932 and the last in 1934.  The novel first came out in the magazine Story in the year 1938 and was published by Simon and Schuster in 1939.  The dates are important:  Taylor’s novel exposes the invidious evil of Nazism when the world was still holding its breath — and its judgment — on Hitler and his National Socialist party.

Max Eisenstein stays in San Francisco to sell art while his close friend and partner Martin Schulse returns to German with his wife and children to find more art to sell. Their first letters are warm with remembrances and renewed vows of friendship; as Martin becomes enamored with the Nazi party, the friendship suffers.  When Max’s sister, an ex-lover of married Martin, is threatened in Germany, the friendship fails and vengeance begins.

This is a short work but gut-punching and back-chilling; it is also utterly mournful in its portrayal of not only friendship denied, but humanity forsaken and savagery triumphant.

Life on the Island: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a good book, engaging and charming and moving; only someone with a heart of stone could remain unmoved by the people of Guernsey and their sufferings during German occupation in World War II.  The intertwined stories are told through a series of letters, most of them to and from Juliet  Ashton, a writer from England who is beguiled by the islanders and their Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  She becomes determined to write a book about them: the crusty men, the scrappy women, the handsome loner, the orphan, and the rebel heroine who disappears into German custody after harboring a child slave worker.

I loved the way Shaffer and Barrows portrayed the different islanders as they take to reading, first as a ploy to fool the German occupiers, and then as true book addicts. I loved the many references to great works of writing, everyone from Wilfred Owen, poet of World War One (with a wrenching quote from him, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?  Only the monstrous anger of the guns“), to Charles Lamb (he has been popping up in a lot of my reading lately), to Hemingway, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Catullus, and Wilkie Collins. Oscar Wilde plays a wonderful cameo role in the book and all the Brontes appear at one time or another.

The problem with this book, and what keeps it from being a great book, is that the characters do not stand with the flesh and bones of reality.  They are instead held up by notice signs, “I’m good” or “I’m bad” pastiches of charm or selfishness, barbarism or near saintliness.  The characters were not so much flat — this book is engaging because both plot and characters come alive against a fascinating background — but rather just too simple.  They were romantic and moralistic representations of people, and not real people.  In the end, the main characters and their story are all too romantic to be true.

A great book delves beyond the black and white — the romantic — representations of people and of life, and recognizes the complexity of human actions, motivations, loves, and modes of survival.  Neat endings worked for Jane Austen (another great writer who pops up in the book and makes her mark in more ways than one) but only because Austen’s characters were complex, and evolved over her books’  pages; they worked hard for their neat endings. The characters in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society are each headed in one direction (quite easy to foretell for the main characters) and as much as I enjoyed reading about them, I was never anxious or worried about them; perhaps a sign of a great book is that feeling of uncertainty and anxiety produced when characters we care about are heading off in ways we cannot quite anticipate.  We chew on such plots, we worry over what is the right course for our new friends to take, we debate their choices and praise the good decisions, condemn the bad ones; we grow wiser (sadder or happier) alongside the characters.  Such characters are very real, and engaged in real lives that have parallels to our own.

The background story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is what elevates this book out of the realm of the romance novel (where its main characters reside) and gives it substance.  The German occupation of Guernsey during World War Two is very real, based on true facts, and it is inspiring and fascinating. The endurance of the islanders, the sacrifices they made (including the horrible choice of sending their children away for safe-keeping in England or keeping them insight on the island), and their determination to rebuild and go on after the war is one story among  hundreds of wartime stories, and all of these stories, from across Europe and throughout Japan and China, have something to tell us about our human capability to not self-destruct but to endure.

Life is full of possibility, and of goodness and evil.  For the characters of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, good and bad are clearly labeled (the authors’ attempts at muddling rang false); if life were like that, we would all find the right man, the right island, and the right child.  But life is complex, and even at its best we do not find the right anything. We create what is right for us by working our way through genuine and difficult problems.  If we are lucky we emerge with true companions and some lessons learned, and maybe a bit of rest before the next hurdle comes along.

The Open Door: Women Writing About Life

I read an amazing book yesterday. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire is a fictionalized account of the life of Constance Fenimore Woolson (grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper).  She was a nineteenth century “women’s” writer, and very popular in her time.  After the mother she’d cared for and supported for years (with her writing) died, Woolson set off to Europe for adventure and new sights.  She also hoped to finally meet her hero, Henry James.  They met, they became friends, they were close for years.  When Woolson died, James made sure all letters between them were burned.  And so we have the makings of a novel.  Was Woolson as portrayed by James’ fans, a second-rate writer and spinster who wanted James to marry her and hounded him to do so?  Or was she as presented here, an independent thinking, free-wheeling and free-loving, wholly honest and admirable, and very American woman?

At first it bothered me that I could not tell what was fiction and what was fact but as the novel went on, I didn’t care.  For me, now, Woolson will always be as Maguire made her for me, an amazing woman I wished I had known, and who had a fabulous life.  Without a man, or kids, or admiration of the literary world, but with what she valued most: her freedom, her independence, and her own true self.  According to Maguire, Woolson always kept a copy of the works of the Stoic Epictetus at her side and one favorite quotation was “Is freedom anything else other than the right to live as we wish?  Nothing else.”  Woolson did live as she wished, often solitary, always busy, and wholly herself.

Maguire captivated me early on in the novel (but after a somewhat silly scene involving swimming naked off Mackinac Island) by giving me a personal and intimate audience with Woolson.  Woolson’s thoughts come across as a conversation, a story told with lyrical yet simple phrasing: “Have you ever been heartbroken to finish a book?  Has a writer kept whispering in your ear long after the last page is turned?  Did you ever long to meet that person who sees the world with your eyes, so that you can continue the conversation?”  Yes, Yes, Yes!  I yelled.  And I understood her explanation of why she set off to Europe to meet Henry James.

Maguire imagines scenes between James and Woolson that seem very true and spontaneous.  For example, Woolson is excusing her simple apartment in Rome to the visiting James (who has more opulent tastes) by saying, “All I need are the things I love and a table to write on.”  He responds, “Well, you have surrounded yourself with so many things, Fenimore, that one can only surmise you possess an extremely promiscuous heart.”  Yes, she loved many things, and people, and places.

I think that Maguire (who tragically died at the age of 48 from cancer) had a really good time writing this novel.  She seems to have fun with Woolson’s words and thoughts and she did a good job giving us the woman and the writer.  She has Woolson express so many wishes and desires and satisfactions that I understood down through my spine, like, when she asks, “Is there anything more luxurious than selling descriptions of pink villas and terraces and the gorgeous Bay of Naples to a magazine?”  I cannot imagine anything better than to travel and be paid for it, and I bet Maguire felt the same way.  Woolson lived that way, writing for Harpers and Atlantic magazine, writing her stories and novels and travel pieces, and making her way through the world.

Maguire also had fun portraying James as a priggish jerk, his sister Alice as self-absorbed, and Woolson’s lover Clarence King as “the most purely American creation, more devoted to personal freedom than any creature….”, all the while having her heroine accept the people in her life, foibles and all.  Woolson was forgiving; Maguire perhaps not so much.

The title of this novel, “The Open Door”, refers to a nasty review James wrote of her work (but couched in terms of friendship and admiration) in which he spoke of  “the way the door stands open between the personal life of American women and the immeasurable world of print” and how the “conservative” nature of Woolson’s  writing ensures she wants nothing more than to stay inside a women’s life, restricted and ruled by those with power over her. Nothing could have been further from the truth, according to Maguire, according to biographers of Woolson, and according to the heroines of her own short stories and novels.  Her most famous story, “Miss Grief”, is about a female artist of talent and drive who comes up against  a male power player whom she has admired, and from whom praise or advice would be welcome; instead he shuts her down and refuses to admit that her genius is as real and full as his own. Written before her friendship with James developed, it was however uncannily correct in its forecast of how she herself would be treated by him.

Woolson wrote liberally but tactfully about social issues many male writers were afraid to address; in addition, her acceptance of the equality of blacks and whites, and her understanding of the tensions in Europe, the problems with class distinctions and ethnocentricity, were indications of her broad and brilliant mind.  Constance Fenimore Woolson is definitely on my list of people from the past I would like to invite to dinner.  Elizabeth Maguire is too, for that matter.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa: Through the Eyes of a Gecko

Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s novel, The Book Of Chameleons, is the first I’ve read by this Angolan born writer.  I loved it so much I  will definitely read his earlier ones, including Creole and My Father’s Wives. Agualusa is an original and imaginative storyteller, with lovely lines of description, such as “[he] ate with a glowing appetite, as though he weren’t tasting the firm flesh of the snapper but its whole life, the years and years slipping between the sudden explosions of a shoal, the whirling of the waters, the thick strands of light that on sunny evenings fall straight down into the blue abyss“, and with tossed-in nuggets of observation that took my breath away  — or made me laugh out loud — with their acuity.

In this novel, a gecko is the narrator.  In a previous life he was a man hauntingly  similar to Jorge Luis Borges.  In his present form of gecko-ness he attempts to understand his past life by exploiting his present qualities of observation and understanding; he is wiser as a gecko but only because he uses what he learned as a man with what he sees as a gecko to draw astute conclusions about life and love.  “The greatest sin is to never have loved” he says at one point, quoting another but now the wisdom for himself.  He then proceeds to tell us a story about the cost of love, through dreams and long, lovely ( and some brutal) moments of past and present.

The book is about memory and responsibility, and how we rework our memories to rework our sense of responsibility, either taking on more or less, but rarely the true measure.  We create false memories to take on guilt, or absolve ourselves of guilt, or to shield ourselves from what is too painful to admit.  And what is a real memory anyway?  Who can verify it?  Two characters in the book seek to document memories through photographs, one of the dark (war and other horrors) and one of the light (clouds and sky and sunlight off water). When faced with a question of identity (is the President real or a double, a fake?), they seek verification through old newsreels; was he left-handed or right-handed?

And yet the main character is a creator of memories.  Felix Ventura  is the owner of the house in which the gecko lives, and magnet for the two photographers, who are fated to meet. One of them comes to him, as many people come to him, in search of a new past.  Most seek a grander pedigree and he offers them a full lineage, complete with photos and documents to prove they’ve descended from a great Portuguese leader or from an ancient Angolan clan.  The war photographer only wants to wipe his own past completely away, replaced in full by one provided by Ventura and which the photographer takes on maniacally as his own.  The novel moves out of its intoxicating and dreamlike pace when the true identity of the war photographer and his relationship to the photographer of light is revealed, and the desire for revenge comes out as the true reason he wanted a new past from Ventura.

In addition to being a meditation on memory and love and responsibility and also a tautly drawn mystery, this book is also a paean to literature.  The gecko recalls how in his earlier life he wanted to commit suicide.  He bought himself  a gun, a bottle of gin, and a crime novel:  “I thought that the gin, in combination with the tedium of a pointless plot, would give me the courage to put the gun to my head and pull the trigger.”  But then the book turns out to be not “bad at all” and he keeps reading to the last page, the falls asleep, and never kills himself.   Saved by a book.    And there are frequent and reverent references to great writers like Jorge Amado, Camilo Sesto, Borges, Coetzee (“despair totally free of self-indulgence“), and Eca de Querioz.

Some good lines from The Book of Chameleons:

I still shudder each time I hear someone say “duvet,” a repulsive gallicism, rather than ‘eiderdown’, which to me seems to be a very lovely, rather noble word.  But I’ve resigned myself to ‘brassiere.’ ‘Strophium’ has a sort of historical dignity about it, but it still sounds a little odd — don’t you think?”  And yes, “strophium” means a band of cloth or leather to support the breasts.  I bet you didn’t know that!

And, in writing about emails, Agualusa has a character say (in an email) “I always feel horror, physical horror, metaphysical and moral horror, when I see that ‘Hi!’ — how can we possibly take seriously anyone who addresses us like that?”  versus letters:  “I feel a flicker of nostalgia for those days, when the postman used to bring out letters to the house, and we were glad, surprised to see what we’d received, what we opened and read, and at the care we took when we replied, choosing each word, weighing it up, assessing its light, feeling its fragrance, because we know that every word would later be weighed up, studied, smelled, tasted, and that some might even escape the maelstrom of time, to be reread many years later.

This book was written with such care and can be read again and again, now and in the future.  The Book of Chameleons is a gem of writing.

The Book of Chameleons was translated by Daniel Hahn.

The Splendid Charles Dickens

Yesterday I read Charles Dickens, one in a series of “Brief Lives” biographies.  This is not to say that Dickens’ life was brief, because it was not, but this biography is.  Nevertheless, the two authors, Melisa Limaszewski and Melissa Gregory (both academics and it shows in the somewhat dry writing) are successful in portraying the amazing person that was Charles Dickens.  He was amazing in his rise from genteel poverty (his own words) to becoming perhaps the best known author in the world; as well as in his productivity, his energy, his vision for the world and of the world, and his management of a very complex and large family network, as well as his maintenance of true and long friendships, working relationships, and reform projects.

Dickens wrote a lot (he wrote books, letters, articles, plays, and notes for periodicals, working on many pieces all at the same time) and he wrote well.  He walked up to twenty miles a day and he was big on socializing and theater-going, as well as writing for the theater and performing on stage in plays and reading his own works out loud to enthralled audiences. He had one wife, two devoted sisters-in-law, one lover, many children, and many friends.  How did he do it all?

Dickens was truly a superhero, a super being I’d like to see when I look in the mirror.  But I don’t.  It’s enough for me to read my beloved book-a-day, scribble out these few sentences, and burn another dinner.  I admire Dickens and I love his writing.  He makes me laugh so hard and he reaches deep inside me to get at what I care about and dream of and wish for, for myself and my family and the world.  And I would love to throw just one party as good as the Christmas party thrown by Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol.

Some of Dickens’ best books were written as serials, with new installments coming out every month and sometimes even weekly.  The fast pace of his writing did nothing to dilute the richness and depth of his characters, the fascination of his plots, and the strength of his philosophical and moral themes.  Those themes were so strongly conveyed within a context that was so recognizable and genuine, that they are still persuasive and moving and applicable to us today, reading Dickens almost two centuries after his birth.

Many of Dickens’ contemporaries are writers that we know (Thackeray, my favorite Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, and don’t forget Mark Twain) and yet I argue that it is only Dickens who still reads as fresh and vital as new fiction.  Often in the novels of the other authors, the problems faced by the characters are borne out of societal conventions and proprieties, as well as legal and political constrictions, of that era and that now seem silly or old fashioned or strange.  Dickens employs many of the same threats against his characters but also portrays the underlying problems that are still with us today: poverty, abuse of the poor and disenfranchised, corruption of power, duplicity, and pretension in all its worst and most damaging forms.

For this same reason, Dickens’ characters are still so alive, and so funny (when meant to be) or horrible; we recognize the vices of hypocrisy and greed, avarice and affectation.  Even his stock characters are deeper than their defining traits; they are drawn as real human beings, good and bad within.

And no author ever has been such a master of the name:  the evil teacher called M’Choakkumchild in Hard Times, the sniveling backstabber Uriah Heep inDavid Copperfield, the conniving and twisting Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop, the hypocrite Seth Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit (Martin Chuzzlewit for heaven’s sake!), the very good Cheeryble brothers of Nicholas Nickleby, John Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth to name just a very few of the fantastic names Dickens came up with.

The underlying theme of Dickens’ books is the rarity and value of the genuine: that which is truly felt and presented and persevered with, is what ultimately prevails.  Truth, in other words, will out.  In the case of Dickens, he wrote very genuinely of the times he had lived in and was living in, and matched that truth with absolute genius at conveying plot and character. What results are simply perfect books that are a joy to read, funny and tear- jerking and inspiring.  Rather than read the biography of his life, read again his very own writings: Great ExpectationsDavid CopperfieldBleak HouseThe Old Curiosity Shop,Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas NicklebyA Christmas CarolA Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend.

I plan on reading more of his Christmas Tales (“A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire”, “The Seven Poor Travellers”, “The Holly-tree Inn”, “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”, “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners”, and “A House to Let”) as we approach December 25th: look here for my reviews!

Edith Wharton’s Touchstone

Yesterday I read The Touchstone (published in 1900) by Edith Wharton. What does touchstone mean?  I thought it meant a personal marker, a reminder of who you are. I looked it up and found that it meant “a test or a criterion for determining the quality of a thing” or “a fundamental or quintessential part or feature.”  So it can be a reminder of who you are:  in life you will sometimes face a situation that requires you to act on your own, using your own judgment, and how you behave in that situation, either for good or for bad, reveals the truth of who you are.

In this wonderful early novel, Edith Wharton presents the case of a young man who faces a test of what kind of man he is.  The outcome of that test and is exquisitely portrayed in all its nuances, its contradictions of pleasure and pain, and the difficulties and differences between private and public knowledge of the man’s character in the face of his situation.

Edith Wharton writes beautifully.  She creates each person of her novel with precise prose, illuminating metaphors, and humor; they are elucidated through commonplace situations as well as tragedy, making them very real, alive and breathing and thinking people. The four pivotal players are Glennard, our man whose character is on the line; his wife; his former lover whose letters he possesses and whose posthumous fame have made them quite valuable; and the friend who assists Glennard in his profiting from the letters.  All the characters fit together like pieces of a puzzle to give a breathtaking portrait of Glennard’s morality and of his painful spiral through recognition that he has failed morally and acceptance that he is not what he thought himself to be.

Edith Wharton is not telling a conventional moral tale. Glennard fails to pass the test of character and yet he flourishes nonetheless, marrying the woman he dreams of marrying and living the life he imagined for himself always in his perfect suburban house (notice the baby who “never cries” — Wharton is so funny):

“The little house seemed no more than a gay tent pitched against the sunshine.  It had the crispness of a freshly starched summer gown and the geraniums on the veranda bloomed as simultaneously as the flowers in a bonnet.  The garden was prospering absurdly.  Seed they had sown at random – amid laughing counter-charges of incompetence – had shot up in fragrant defiance of their blunders.  He smiled to see the clematis unfolding its punctual wings about the porch.  The tiny lawn was smooth as a shaven cheek, and a crimson rambles mounted to the nursery window of a baby who never cried.  A breeze shook the awning above the tea table, and his wife, as he drew near, could be seen bending above a kettle that was just about to boil.  So vividly did the whole scene suggest the painted bliss of a stage setting that it would have been hardly surprising to see her step forward among the flowers and trill out her virtuous happiness from the veranda rail.”

Outwardly Glennard has profited but he still he suffers, primarily because he knows he is not the man he thought he was. Through Glennard, Wharton is warning us that although we may not consider ourselves capable of great heroism, we never question that we are incapable of the opposite; we believe we will not stoop to acts of baseness or cowardice or avarice when faced with a tough situation but when the shit hits the fan, we very well might:

“It was from the unexpected discovery of his pettiness that he chiefly suffered.  Our self-esteem is apt to be based on the hypothetical great act we have never had occasion to perform; and even the most self-scrutinizing modesty credits itself negatively with a high standard of conduct.  Glennard had never thought himself a hero; but he had ben certain he was incapable of baseness.  We all like our wrong-doings to have a becoming cut, to be made to order, as it were; and Glennard found himself suddenly thrust into a garb of dishonour surely meant for a meaner figure.”

Wharton also explores the differences between public and private knowledge: in other words, if I can keep my inadequacies and failures to myself, will I suffer less than if the public knows what I truly am capable (or incapable) of?  Wharton suggests that the suffering is different, but not less.

When Glennard laments that he has gained so much from his former lover and yet he never gave her anything, his wife replies that he did give her something, he gave her “the happiness of giving.”  Irony?  No, the truth is that it is easier, morally, to give than to receive.  In receiving there is a debt owed, a moral contract of behavior. In giving, there is only the honor of having offered and delivered the gift.  But in life we have to do both, give and receive, and in this truly wonderful novel, Wharton asks what are standards, both public and private, that humans should meet in the give and take of life.

Love Letters: A Celibate Season

Yesterday I read A Celibate Season (published 2000) by Carol Shields (Republic of Love) and Blanche Howard, an epistolary tale of caution against spending too much time away from your spouse.  In the novel, a married couple with 2 teenage kids spend ten months apart with the whole of Canada between them; communicating almost wholly by letter they deal with financial strain, in-law angst, temptations, desires, and personal ambition.

This book is really funny and provoking.  It raises issues about the durability of marriage, now versus in previous generations; the pain of separation and the excitement of novelty; the desire for companionship and, ultimately, sex; and the need for connections of any kind as a buffer against loneliness.

The letters pass between husband and wife.  I won’t reveal whose side I was on in the marital battle than ensues.  I’ll leave it to you, readers, to decide which spouse was the more honorable during the separation.  Read the book and let me know what you think!

Despite A Celibate Season‘s basic hilarity,  there are some moments of genuine gravity, beautifully captured,  as quoted here:

“And if anyone were to ask him what is the meaning of life…he would have to say that it is bringing into consciousness those ancient and
primitive stirrings that are the building blocks of creativity.  By doing so one gradually realizes the self, and that is the purpose of life.”

This view of the meaning of the life,  to find oneself through one’s own internal ability to create, is very different from The Elegance of the Hedgehog,where it is the observation of beauty and the capturing of moments of beauty for internal safekeeping — an outward turning for inner sustenance — that is the meaning of life.  And we can contrast it again to The Emigrants where the meaning of life is life itself, our purpose being the span of our lifetime  within the gigantic history of mankind.

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

Yesterday I read The Emigrants (published in 1996) by W.G. Sebald.   Sebald tells us the stories of four men, all emigrants from Germany, two from Germany to England (one first from Lithuania to Germany and then  on to England), one went to France, and one came all the way to America.

Using artifacts such as photographs, journals, letters, and notes of his own imagined visits with the men, and embedding the facts within fiction, Sebald presents compelling stories and histories (how much is true, how much is not, we don’t know) of alienation and survival.

Through Sebald’s descriptions of devasted places and people, I felt overwhelmed by human history, by the realization – a profound and scary realization — of how many millions of people have lived and experienced daily adventures and trivial happenings, and misery.  We all experience misery.  We see the evidence of misery in in Sebald’s abandoned factories and warehouses and fields, in boarded up homes and decrepit hotels, and in long canals built for huge ships where no ships venture any more.  At one time in history, there was life, abundant and hopeful, in these now abandoned places; Sebald tells us the story of both the then and the now, of the beauty and of the misery.  Both exist, at different points in time, and humans and the landscape reflect the existence of both states of being.

Sebald writes of visits throughout the world, as he imagines tracking down the lives of the four emigrants.  Each man is very different but they share the same alienation: three of the men lost their sense of identity as a German, either through force or choice,  through the horrors of World War Two, and one lost his identity through sublimating his will to that of his employer.  All struggle to forge a new existence and identity in their new land; two finally choose suicide, another chooses to annihiliate himself through electroshock therapy, and a third is saved only by painting in an abandoned warehouse, the dust of which will eventually kill him through its toxicity.

This is not a happy book with its landscapes of abandonment and the personal histories of loss and alienation and a kind of dismemberment (torn from their country of identification). And yet the book is not miserable or pessimistic.  Ultimately, it is a portrayal of what humans do: they survive.  They are not happy all day long, ever, but they can and they do survive.  It is a characteristic of Americans to think that happiness is a birthright; perhaps Sebald is more realistic in his belief that this is not true.  The gift of life is existence itself; you get to be alive, for a brief time in history, and you do what you can to find what you can in your alloted time.  Connections are made and art is created and adventures are pursued, and all this to prove to ourselves that we are alive.

Sebald writes in long sentences, longer than any I have ever written, and sometimes they are hard to follow.  But this just plunged me deeper into the mind of Sebald; I was thinking along with him, observing along with him, and experiencing dreams of his (although I hate dream sequences in books unless summed up in five lines or less; this goes for dreams in books as well as those related to me by friends or family. And strangers for that matter).  I became as enthralled as Sebald was with the portrayed emigrants, caught by his brutally truthful and yet largely imagined portrayals of their lives far away from Germany.

The Emigrants was translated by Michael Hulse.