Last Christmas I bought for the husband Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues played by Nikolayeva and a night for two in the Lake District. Both were safe choices. Johannes had been playing Nikolayeva on YouTube for some weeks, and the Lake District is Alpine enough for Johannes to feel at home, yet close enough to our actual home (Durham) to make it viable. Then I thought I’d take a risk with a third gift: a book. Johannes and I converge on some literature, mostly of the ancient Greek variety, but otherwise do not seem to share our preferences. I like novels; Johannes does not read anything much AD. Excepting Whymper’s Scrambles amongst the Alps (which he must have read at least four times), he generally sticks to things that have matured for a couple of millennia; cuneiform literature is, currently, in favour. I suspect that Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics may be next, but there is no knowing. Anyway, I decided to chance it and go for Sebald. I ordered Die Ausgewanderten because Johannes sometimes talks of himself as an emigrant, or even an exile (which irritates me). Then, abandoning the pretence that this was a present for Johannes, I also ordered the English translation, The Emigrants: I would find that easier to read.

I started on the book as soon as it arrived, but then realised impatience would not do for Sebald. I had to slow down, take in the conversations that extended over decades and centuries, the photographs, the extracts from diaries, the oblique first, second and third-person reports. I took every word at face value: patchwork people, distorted memories, but genuine people and true memories nonetheless. There was a high degree of coincidence: a conversation in England about an Alpine guide who had disappeared during a crossing in 1914; and then, years later, a Swiss newspaper reporting that the man’s remains had been released by a melting glacier. Four different men, all talking about visions they’d had of a man with a butterfly net (a shadow of Nabokov). Surely this was Sebald’s vision, not the actual vision of four unrelated men, refracted also through one woman’s diary. And yet. Such coincidences do happen. It may be possible to collect people’s visions in the net of writing, rather than make them up in a fiction. The very genre of fiction started to seem impatient to me.

As I was reading in the days before Christmas, Johannes must have noticed my absorption because he (uncharacteristically) asked what I was reading. ‘Sebald,’ I said, giving up on my plan for a surprise gift. ‘What is it like?’ (also uncharacteristic). ‘Slow – I don’t think he can have been a very prolific writer.’ Finally, a characteristic response: deep irritation. He only gave me the shorthand look, but the meaning was clear: ‘Your obsession for getting things done. Now you can’t even read a book without passing judgment on the author’s rate of work.’ A whole bitter argument laid out in that look: I had been setting the pace while we were writing together a commentary on Iliad 6 (which describes a fraught encounter between a husband and wife). It took us seven years to finish that commentary and, according to Johannes, we had rather rushed it.

I reverted to reading: Sebald was more interesting than the husband. Except that the two started, somehow, to echo each other. There were the place names: Lake Constance, Lindau, Ulm, the Bernese Oberland – the settings of childhood memories and Alpine excursions. There was the shock of encountering the British city: ‘I looked out in amazement at the rows of uniform houses.’ And there was a Jewish artist remembering his arrival in 1939: ‘My first night in England was sleepless not so much because of my distress as because of the way that one is pinned down … by bedding which has been tucked under the mattress all the way round.’ Johannes pulls out all the sheets and blankets when confronted with a tucked-in bed. There was the emigrant’s remarkable ease with languages, bought at the cost of personal silence. A peasant boy who had left Germany at the turn of the century: ‘He had the special gift of acquiring a foreign language, without apparent effort and without any teaching aids, within a year or two, solely by making certain adjustments (as he once explained to me) to his inner self.’ I remembered how Johannes learned ancient Greek, then classical Hebrew and Akkadian: a quick read through the grammar (not quite without teaching aids), then hours and hours and days and months and years reading through the extant texts, muttering phrases while making tea or walking to work – Versenkung (as he once explained to me), an immersion in the ancient language, until you get the jokes. The past did not seem a matter of covering ground, but of finding some ground, in the first place, on which to stand.

The most interesting character in The Emigrants is the narrator. He is also the most reticent. About his decision to move to England in 1970, he says almost nothing, only one short paragraph:

I left the city [Manchester] in the summer of 1969 to follow a plan I had long had of becoming a schoolteacher in Switzerland. On my return from the soot-blackened city that was drifting steadily towards ruin, I was deeply moved by the beauty and variety of the Swiss countryside, which by then had almost slipped my memory, and the sight of the snowy mountains in the distance, the high-lying forests, the autumn light, the frozen watercourses and fields, and the fruit trees in blossom in the meadows, touched my heart more powerfully than I could have anticipated; but nevertheless, for various reasons partly to do with the Swiss attitude to life and partly to do with my position as a teacher, I did not care to stay in Switzerland for long. A bare year had passed when I decided to return to England and to take up the offer of a post I found attractive from several points of view, in Norfolk, which was then considered off the beaten track.

I immediately recalled Johannes’s disappointing experiences as a schoolteacher; his elated love of the Alps; his habit of checking, online, the rate at which the Swiss glaciers are melting; his mysterious reasons for moving to England. Johannes generally says that he decided to apply for an MPhil at Cambridge because his girlfriend studied there – but she had left him months before he was due to move to England. I have heard his mother say: ‘Du und Deine Frauengeschichten’ (‘You and your stories about/affairs with women’). The emigrants in Sebald’s book all have good reasons for leaving: poverty or persecution. The narrator (and Sebald himself) is less intelligible in his decision to move to Manchester and then to East Anglia – though the Holocaust looms large in the background, as do other memories that predate his birth. Johannes is a generation younger than Sebald. I checked some photographs, and Sebald actually looks a bit like Johannes’s father (similar ironic moustache). Johannes’s grandfather was tried at Nuremberg. Perhaps some memories have a very slow release, like melting glaciers leaving corpses in their trail. Or perhaps it really was as his mother says: stories about, or affairs with, women.

Memories from our trip to the US, in 2011. When I met my publisher Sara Bershtel in New York, she visibly lit up on hearing that our children practise their classical instruments with a degree of commitment. ‘Good! I did too, and that is the language I passed on to my son.’ German, her other native language, did not make the cut. A detour to Princeton, to teach a class on ancient and Renaissance biographies of artists, and how they mirror each other. Before that class, I had a coffee with Constanze Güthenke and Anthony Grafton: we were meant to plan our joint lesson, but the conversation quickly derailed when I again mentioned our children. Tony remembered the languages of his childhood, especially Yiddish, the forgotten language. That night I laughed with Johannes about it: ‘Do you know, to these intellectual giants in the US, we look like first-generation immigrants. They see us, and start talking about their parents.’ Perhaps we lag two generations behind, perhaps more. Johannes hasn’t read Sebald yet: at the moment, he is trying to work out what Xerxes thought when he crossed the Hellespont to conquer Greece. It seems Xerxes wanted to bridge the Bitter River that encompassed the earth (as some cuneiform tablets suggest), and annex the lands that unaccountably, untidily, lay beyond it. There is, in all that, some affinity with people on the wrong side of history, the Bitter River.

After I finished The Emigrants, I said: ‘Such a shame Sebald died in that car crash, you might have liked talking to him.’ An eminently stupid thing to say. Sebald’s book is all about communing with the dead. I just wanted to make the husband happy, and quickly, in order to move on and focus on work. New Year, new job: director, for the Arts and Humanities, of our embattled Institute of Advanced Study, at Durham University. I knew I’d need to make the case for the humanities, again and again; ensure we have measurable impact, and demonstrate value for money. I’d need to cultivate my love of the quick fix. Find some snappy words. Look positive. Secure more funding. And meanwhile, keep that doubt open – that perhaps the case for the humanities is made elsewhere, in the impossible connections between people and places. In patience bordering on silence.

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