Monday, July 30, 2012

Emigration (Illustrated)

I am coming to the end of W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, which is a sort of novel made up of four narratives that tell the life stories of four Jewish emigrants who left Germany (and maybe Austria, too) to escape the Nazi regime. Some of them ended up in America, some in England though The Emigrants travels over a large swath of the globe to follow the diaspora. Sebald includes pictures in the book, alleged photos of the characters, bits of their property, photos of where they lived, etc. The images are, I imagine, attempts to increase the verisimilitude of the fictional biographies. I'm just going to admit that for me, the pictures added nothing to the experience.

Over the course of the four biographies we also get the story, in bits and pieces, of the narrator's own life and we're shown how his emigration from the Continent mirrors the experiences of his predecessors. The primary forces in the emigrant experience being a sense of historical disconnection and a growing feeling of despair. Little by little, the air escapes from the narrative and even while we're reading descriptions of beautiful mountain landscapes the book becomes ever more claustrophobic and hopeless.

Which, maybe, is the point Sebald was trying to make: that the experience of Jewish emigrants from Germany during the rise of National Socialism is a form of death, a separation--or perhaps an amputation is better--from not only the basic idea of "home" but from a sense of belonging to reality itself. The images of the characters accumulate and overlap and begin to build a sort of picture (the final story in the book revolves around a painter who builds up pigment on the canvas and then scrapes it off and then adds more paint, layering residue while amassing a mound of paint chips in the center of his studio; this is all a vivid metaphor for what Sebald seems to be doing with the novel) that remains unfocused and incomplete, possibly because the emigrant experience renders one incomplete.

It's interesting reading this book on the heels of Nabokov's Pnin, also a book about emigrants and separation from one's "home" culture. Nabokov himself, as it happens, makes recurring cameo appearances in The Emigrants in his guise as butterfly collector.

So this is an interesting book and no mistaking, and a good deal of the last half of it seems to be about writing (or the act of creating art, maybe) as much as it's about identity, and how (maybe) the act of creation is put into a tailspin when the creator's identity is itself in question. As I say: maybe. I don't know. I really am unsure what this book thinks it is. Is it a commentary on Nabokov? Surely it is, at least in part, Nabokov being probably the most famous 20th-century novelist to live as an emigre after having fled a repressive regime. But what's the comment? I don't know. Does the famous emigre author with a butterfly net represent the quest to capture something? That seems a bit hamfisted as a metaphor, so I just don't know.

I also regret that the prose (at least in this translation) retains the same tone for the length of the narrative and after a while the unchanging manner of telling the story began to put me to sleep. I've had some rough stretches where I really had to work to keep my attention on the page. Sebald doesn't vary his speech over the 200-odd pages of The Emigrants. It's lovely speech, but after a while the sameness of his manner began to turn the prose into an invisible substance I could no longer see. So while this is an intriguing narrative (I hesitate to call it a novel), I can't go so far as to join the chorus proclaiming it a masterpiece. I have the feeling that this is going to be one of those books that becomes more important to me as time passes, whose influence I feel over time, long after I've finished reading. We'll see. For now, I admit that I just don't get this book. Is that what I've been trying to say all this time? Yes: I just don't get this book.

Meanwhile, Mighty Reader has given me her final comments on the soon-to-be-edited-by-the-publisher novel The Astrologer. She is a very helpful reader and explained to me how my protagonist's timeline actually works. I am awful with timelines and even thinking about it now gives me a sort of fuzzy headache. But Mighty Reader is able to approach my novels with the eye of a non-fiction editor (as well as with the eyes of a smart fiction reader) so she can spot the continuity errors I've introduced. I do however invoke my authorial veto power and will be leaving the Achilles episode in the final chapter. Because there can never be too many references to the classics of antiquity.


  1. The images are, I would suggest, attempts to undermine the verisimilitude.

  2. When the faked photo of the book burning was introduced, I began to suspect all the other images. However, that doesn't help me understand what Sebald is doing. It's a book about forgetfulness and the falsity of memory, maybe? People claim to have forgotten everything but then supply the narrator with highly-detailed memories they shouldn't have? Is this a book about rewriting our pasts? Did the travels of the rich gambler and his older gay butler/partner happen or not? I have no idea at all. I don't know what all these signifiers signify.