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.