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.’

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