Jonathan Coe

  • The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse
    Harvill, 237 pp, £14.99, June 1996, ISBN 1 86046 127 1

This curious, mesmerising book, a hybrid of fiction and memoir which tells the life stories of four unhappy exiles, is the work of a German writer until now almost unknown in this country. It has already scooped up prizes in continental Europe and been published to great acclaim both in Britain and America. The epithets which have been flung at it include sober, delicate, beautiful, moving, powerful, mysterious, civilised and a hundred others: but it would be hard to praise The Emigrants more highly than by saying that it is a supremely tactful book.

Why isn’t tact invoked more often, I wonder, in the hierarchy of literary virtues? It can appear in so many different guises: in the kinds of choice that authors make – what they choose to tell, and what they choose to withhold; in their mode of address to the reader, their willingness to allow for the fact that readers come to a book with different expectations, different sensibilities; in their use of material from real life – how carefully they handle the delicate process by which remembered experience (their own and other people’s) is transformed into fictional incident; and, of course, in their choice of tone, the establishment of an authorial voice which the reader can recognise and trust.

It’s in these last two areas that the peculiar tactfulness of The Emigrants is most apparent. The book frames a large question about memory, asking to what extent it is possible for individuals to live with the memory of enormous suffering, and how it is possible for an entire nation, on the other hand, to forget it so quickly. Its more specific themes are displacement and homesickness, as experienced by a number of characters – some real and some imagined, some Jewish and some not – who are forced to leave their countries of birth and who find it almost (or in some cases entirely) insupportable to settle elsewhere. Sebald’s tact – in choosing when to record, and when to invent, and in finding a suitable voice (neither too timid nor too intrusive) in which to register his characters’ pain – informs each of the four discrete episodes.

First of all we encounter Henry Selwyn, an old doctor living outside Norwich, in whose house the narrator – Sebald himself – decides to rent a flat. Selwyn is remote, dreamy, abstracted (when Sebald first meets him he is lying on the lawn in the back garden, counting the blades of grass, and explains, ‘It’s a sort of pastime of mine’), but one day, quite abruptly, he decides to share his family history, and reveals that he and his parents left their village outside Grodno, Lithuania, in 1899, intending to sail to America but never getting any further than London. Increasingly homesick, and visited in old age by vivid memories of his childhood home and of a youthful walking tour in the Alps in the company of a beloved guide, Johannes Naegeli, he despairs and commits suicide. Years later, Sebald is travelling by train from Zurich to Lausanne, and reads in a newspaper that the body of Johannes Naegeli has been recovered, intact, from the glacier into which he fell 72 years earlier. He writes: ‘And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.’

The second episode also ends in suicide, and tells of Sebald’s own schoolteacher in the Fifties, Paul Bereyter. Although only one-quarter Jewish, Bereyter was expelled from his first job in a German primary school in 1935: over the next few months his father died (terrorised by pogroms in his native town of Gunzenhausen), the family business was confiscated, his mother also died and his girlfriend was deported. Bereyter fled to France, then returned to Germany in 1939 only to find himself conscripted. After the war, he went back to his village and taught in the local school, but could never reconcile his conflicting feelings about Germany, became obsessed with railways, made frequent visits to France and finally, in 1984, put an end to his own life at the age of 74 by laying his head on a railway line.

Sebald’s great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth, the subject of the third section, did not kill himself, although his story in some ways is even bleaker. Many of Sebald’s aunts and uncles emigrated to America in the Twenties, establishing an extended, mutually supporting family network in which German Jews and non-Jews co-existed happily, in bitter contrast to the situation then unfolding back home. Adelwarth worked as a servant for a wealthy Long Island family, eventually becoming a companion to their unstable son Cosmo, who took him around the casinos of Europe and on a long, extensively documented trip across the deserts to Jerusalem, before attempting to hang himself and being committed to a sanatorium in Ithaca, New York. Sebald hints, very delicately, that Cosmo and Adelwarth might have been lovers: certainly the rapturous excitement of that friendship, and those journeys, continued to haunt his great-uncle, who ended up committing himself to the very same sanatorium where Cosmo had died, and submitting docilely to a fatal course of electric shock therapy, possessed by a ‘longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember’.

The subject of the final narrative, Max Ferber, is the book’s only composite figure: Sebald has said that he is based both on his own landlord in Manchester in the Sixties and on a well-known painter whom some have identified as Frank Auerbach. Having arrived in Manchester as a research student, Sebald chances on Ferber’s studio during one of his long, solitary, weekend walks around the city’s soot-blackened ruins, the haunted mansions of its industrial past. The artist’s method is to apply paint thickly to the canvas, and then repeatedly to scratch it off until the floor of the studio is thick with a mixture of paint scrapings and coal dust, ‘several centimetres thick at the centre and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava’. This dust, according to Ferber, is ‘the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure’. Sebald and Ferber strike up a friendship but they never discuss their reasons for leaving Germany: not until almost a quarter of a century later, when the painter has become famous and entrusts Sebald with a number of letters telling the story of his mother’s life. In this way Sebald learns that, although Ferber found safety as a refugee in England, his parents, who were supposed to follow him, failed to obtain the necessary visas. In 1941 they were deported to Lithuania and killed.

Max Ferber’s story, the longest in the book, is an unconsoling parable about the consolations of art. Like the others, it is narrated with scrupulous diffidence, and shot through with Sebald’s pressing anxieties about the legitimacy of his project. In fact, Sebald’s uncertainty as to whether he has any right to probe and publicise the secret anguish of another man and another man’s family reduces him to a kind of editorial hyper-selectivity which has echoes of his subject’s own frenzies of erasure at the canvas:

During the winter of 1990/91 ... I was working on the account of Max Ferber given above. It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking tighter hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a ‘final’ version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

These words appear towards the very end of The Emigrants. Not only do they convey an impression of Sebald’s habitual tone – measured, reflective and beautifully served by Michael Hulse’s translation – but they illustrate his tact in a wider sense. It is only at this point in the book that we have finally been challenged by an explicit reference to the Holocaust, an event adumbrated by the other narratives, casting its noisome cloud over them, but never named or directly confronted. It seems typical of this (non-Jewish) writer that he should choose this moment to express his severest reservations: to recognise that any address to the great trauma of our century, the one that has wreaked the worst havoc with his own country’s capacity to remember, must even now be accompanied by any number of revisions, erasures and backtrackings. It’s not that the Holocaust is unmentionable in this sort of context: simply that it is, as Sebald here makes us realise, the ultimate test of a writer’s tact.

And then there’s the form in which Sebald has chosen to cast this book: literary form as another instance of tact. It’s become a commonplace to suggest that literature is no longer possible after Auschwitz. Certainly there is no shortage of bad novels which purport to concern themselves with the Holocaust and its post-traumatic effects, and then grimly fail to rise to the occasion. To take only one of the most recent and wretched examples, D.M. Thomas’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a lurid tale of concentration camp abuse and its psychosexual fall-out among the victims in later life, was not only guilty of failures of tone (in its head-on, hysterical revelling in excess) but also exposed the sheer puniness of the conventional, third-person novel of manners as a vehicle for the treatment of such material.

Tactfully, Sebald has realised this: and indeed, his book can be seen as a marker not just of the state of post-Holocaust writing, but of the point at which the novel itself seems to have arrived in the closing decade of this century. The slow death of the imagination, our palpable erosion of faith in stories as a way of explaining the world, might be epitomised by this writer with his rigorous preference for fact over invention wherever it is available. On one level our awareness, at almost any given moment during The Emigrants, that we are reading truth rather than fiction, chimes with the book’s thesis about memory, its insistence that remembered fact is indelible. In his chapter on memory and the Holocaust in The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi was at pains to stress that memory is unreliable, and that ‘even under normal conditions a slow degradation is at work, an obfuscation of outlines, a, so-to-speak, physiological oblivion, which few memories resist.’ But Sebald’s book shows us that there are some things which can never be forgotten, and then goes further, arguing that they can never be fictionalised, either. Indeed, it even implies that these two processes might amount to the same thing, and that a writer’s desire to weave a web of invention around the sufferings of his real-life models is as distorting, and as dishonest, as the collective amnesia Sebald continues to identify among his countrymen – the ‘mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up’ – which by the end of his investigations ‘were beginning to affect my head and my nerves’.

Any resemblance between The Emigrants and, say, D.M. Thomas’s exploitative fable begins and ends with its subject-matter. In many ways a more fruitful point of comparison might be with Seamus Deane’s recent novel/memoir Reading in the Dark. The two books share the same sobriety, the same reasonableness of tone; both are about the ways in which lives – whole generations of lives – can be paralysed by the memory of suffering and injustice; and both are committed to the notion that novelistic shape can be given to remembered experience (patterns observed, narratives traced, symmetries teased out) without falsifying it. My own view was that Reading in the Dark faltered whenever it tried to become too novelistic: that somewhere deep beneath its immaculate surface lay two competing narrative forms – the family history and the fictional ‘plot’ – which the book itself was not supple enough to reconcile. The Emigrants is a more nearly perfect work because it is more formally radical. It is, in fact, an unclassifiable book, not least because the text itself stands in complex relationship to a series of photographs, appearing on almost every page: pictures of faces, household objects, buildings, notices, family groups, the pages of a diary, landscapes, cityscapes, old postcards. These photographs are never captioned. They offer themselves up to the reader placidly, mute but eloquent, bolstering the sense of documentary reality but also reminding us that even in a book which is crammed full of words, beautifully chosen, beautifully organised words, there should also be a place for wordlessness. Another instance, it would seem, of the tact for which this short but momentous book is so remarkable.