The Emigrants

Kurt Jensen reviews W.G. Sebald's novel "The Emigrants".

By Kurt Jensen
Published December 12, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Germany's argument with history has been -- and will continue to be -- as complex and as long as the lives that country's past has disfigured. Degrees of complicity, the raw burden of guilt and the proper gestures of contrition have produced, among other things, an astonishing body of literature in the past 50 years. W.G. Sebald, a native German novelist now living in England, has made an original and vital contribution to this literature with this remarkable novel.

Born in 1944 and the author of two previous, as-yet-untranslated novels, Sebald has written what at first appears to be a straightforward, almost nonfictional, account of the lives of several Jewish exiles in Austria, England and America. (Each story is illuminated with historical photographs.) But as these stories progress and occasionally merge, the novelist in Sebald emerges as he digs into the ways these four lives were ravaged by history. They have suffered not annihilation, but from the memory of the Holocaust era and its consequences.

"The Emigrants" is a breathtaking meditation on loss and longing, and on the strange, melancholy beauty of having had to give everything away. Expelled both from their country and from any sense of a promising future, Sebald's characters are spiritually irradiated by the past; they walk and speak like veritable ghosts, and their stories are told in spare, lean prose. Yet while despair lives in them, it doesn't overwhelm them -- they're each makers of one kind or another, fashioning lives, stories, a yard of cloth, puttering in an apiary alone, persisting.

"The Emigrants" is clearly an homage of sorts to one of Sebald's literary heroes, Vladimir Nabokov. At one point we are introduced to an enigmatic Butterfly Man, at another to a Russian boy "leaping about the meadows with his butterfly net." "I saw him," one woman recalls, "as a messenger of joy, returning from that distant summer day to open his specimen box and release the most beautiful red admirals, peacock butterflies, brimstones and tortoiseshells to signal my final liberation."

While Sebald's prose lacks the exuberant flourish of Nabokov's best work, a fragile sense of optimism mingles with the sadness in "The Emigrants." It's a ravishing book about the ravishments of history.

Kurt Jensen

Kurt Jensen is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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