A reading group guide for The Emigrants

An introduction of sorts
If you’ve been visiting this site for a while, you know I am drawn to Anselm Kiefer’s extraordinary painting Midgard. Last year, when I read The Emigrants for the first time, I connected the ways in which W.G. Sebald’s prose moved me to the ways in which Midgard acts on my imagination; both works are now housed in the same room in my imagination.

Not one to be content with simply sensing the artistic pairing, though, I poked around a bit. Plenty on this topic can be found in academic article databases, but here’s something succinct from The Nation (August 2016):

“The link between artistic creation and failure is intimate in the best of cases, but nowhere is this sense of inadequacy more acute than in literature or art about the Holocaust, which erects, by its own lights, a series of failed monuments to an event that is fundamentally illegible. To memorialize a tragedy, one must inscribe unmistakable significance into reticent materials, attempting to curb the natural processes of forgetting and obsolescence. In this way, acts of aestheticization are exercises in misrepresentation, requiring us to arrange neutral resources into artificially beautiful or meaningful configurations. But can we misrepresent without also misleading, mangling? These questions rightfully obsess a generation of postwar German-language writers and artists, most notably the author W.G. Sebald, who was born in 1944 in Bavaria and died in the UK in 2001, and the visual artist Anselm Kiefer, born one year later in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg, and since 1992 a resident of France.” [Emphasis added]

Naturally, I then spent more time with Kiefer’s work. If you’re interested in how artistic expressions can intersect, give Anselm Kiefer a google. Does his work evoke in you the same unease Sebald’s prose does?

Speaking of unease, in many of the reading groups in which I have participated in the last few years, we have been exhorted to focus exclusively on the text we share. I hear that, but as a former teacher and as an engaged reader, I can also see numerous shortcomings in such a reading, not the least of which would be the disadvantages of a lack of context. If I were in the middle of a deserted island and The Emigrants fell from the sky and thwocked me in the head, presuming I knew enough of the world, I could glean a great deal from the text alone. But wouldn’t a bit of a frame enrich the reading? For example, doesn’t the information from The Nation article quoted above provide helpful context? 


It has been suggested that what writers and artists say about their own work — in interviews, for example, or autobiographies – is largely unreliable, primarily because much of their “interpretation” is simply storytelling (or, in the case of, say, Ernest Hemingway, mythologizing) or reinterpreting past work to dovetail current efforts. In her biography of Sebald (Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald, 2022), Carol Angier dismantles many of the lies Sebald perpetrated stories Sebald told not only about his own life but about the sources of his work — and the latter in particular is kind of a big deal. Authors are invariably asked some version of, “Where do you get your ideas?” Sebald was (beyond) slippery in his answers, and simply skimming a few articles (here, here, and here) provides some clues as to why. Were these stories his to tell?

Context has its merits.

What follows next are a few questions that may prove helpful in a discussion of The Emigrants. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

What do we make of the epigraphs? They’re unattributed and enigmatic.

DR HENRY SELWYN: “And the last remnants memory destroys” (Doesn’t memory preserve?)

PAUL BEREYTER: “There is a mist that no eye can dispel” (Blindness, memory, trauma?)

AMBROS ADELWARTH: “My field of corn is but a crop of tears” (Trauma?)

MAX FERBER: “They come when night falls to search for life” (Ghosts? Memories? Dreams?)

What is the purpose of the photographs? Typically, we consider photographs “evidence” or “fact.” (Apparently, a line of philosophical inquiry disputes this, which is cool, but I am talking about our general experience of physical photographs. After all, when someone shares a school photo of her granddaughter, we don’t ordinarily enter into a discussion about the truth-value of representational photography.) The inclusion of photos in works of non-fiction tends to lend credibility and truth to the work because photos are customarily the fruits of research: They are “proof.” 

But The Emigrants is a work of fiction. So what’s with the photographs? More, what is with their quality? Yes, quality. Many are fuzzy, hard to see. A publisher would make every effort to improve or enhance the reproducibility of images in a text, so the lack of clarity is certainly by design. Look at the images on pp. 7, 27, and 49, or on pp. 158, 159, and 168, for example. You need to work hard to discern the subject. More, the images are uncaptioned. Grab a few books from your shelves and look at the photos and images. If you find one that fails to caption (and credit) those photos and images, either directly on that page or in a section collecting that information, let me know.

Many readers simply ignore photos, but the photos’ inclusion alone would still inform such readers’ experience of the text. Why? As I said above, we consider photographs to be evidence, fact, truth.

So, what is the point of the photos in The Emigrants? And if the point is to lend a fictional narrative a sense of truth, how do we reconcile the fact that this is clearly a work about the Holocaust? And consider all of this while rereading the section in Max Ferber in which Uncle Leo asserts that the photo of the book burning on the Residenzplatz in Würzburg is a forgery (p. 1830: “In other words, the photographic document in the paper was a fake. And just as that document was a fake, said Uncle, as if his discovery were the one vital proof, so too everything else has been a fake, from the very start.” If we use photos to signal truth, don’t faked or forged photos deny truth?

Finally, note that The Emigrants concludes with an extended meditation on pictures from an exhibition the narrator of the Ferber section saw in Frankfurt (pp. 235-237): “color photographs, tinted with a greenish-blue or reddish-brown.” 

Who is the narrator of The Emigrants? Is it the same person in all four sections? Is the narrator a stand-in for Sebald, or is something more complicated occurring? In the margin of p. 75, I wrote, “Oral histories,” which made me think of singers in the Iliad and the Odyssey and the way in which stories are passed in an oral tradition. Passages to consider:

From Bereyter, p. 29: “And so, belatedly, I tried to get closer to him, to imagine what his life was life….” Why? The writer’s instinct? This whole page is sort of depressing, right? It’s as if the narrator is colluding in Paul’s destruction. He (the narrator) is moved to empathy and connection “belatedly” and with the object of parlaying it into a story, his story. His medium is others’ pain, trauma.

Also on that page: “It is in order to avoid this sort of wrongful trespass that I have written down what I know of Paul Bereyter.” And with that we are introduced to a narrator who thinks there is a “rightful” trespass of someone else’s story.

And on p. 224, this: “[A]nd now as I write these lines, it feels as if I had lost her, and as if I could not get over the loss.” So. Let’s revisit the question from the piece I linked above: Can one misrepresent without also misleading, mangling? 

What is this work saying about nature? From Selwyn, p. 7: “Nature itself was groaning and collapsing beneath the burden we placed upon it.” It seems as if this is one of Sebald’s chief themes – nature brutalized by man (e.g., Manchester and industrialization in Max Ferber); nature reasserting itself amid the ruins of man’s architecture (the hospital in Ambros Adelwarth); nature as largely inscrutable. Passages to consider:

From Bereyter, p. 45: “… [O]n this occasion, Paul, in a conjecture she felt to be most daring, had linked the bourgeois concept of Utopia and order, as expressed in the designs and buildings of Nicolas Ledoux, with the progressive destruction of natural life.”

From Adelwarth, p. 110: “… I have spent my life out of doors here, in the boathouse or the apiary, depending on the weather, and I no longer concern myself with what goes on in the so-called real world. No doubt I am now, in some sense, mad; but, as you may know, these things are merely a question of perspective.” Dr Abramsky lives on the decaying site of the hospital; nature is reclaiming the horror man built. (Side note: Why might the narrator know that these things are merely a question of perspective?)

p. 137: “Decay, nothing but decay, marasmus, and emptiness. Not a sign of any business of industry.”

p. 140: “Cosmo says repeatedly that he is horrified by the city.”

From Max Ferber, p. 150: “… a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.”

p. 151: “One might have supposed that the city had long since been deserted, and was left now as a necropolis or mausoleum.”

p. 156: “On those wanderings, when winter light flooded the deserted streets and squares for the few hours of real daylight, I never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see.” Perhaps this will interest no one but me, but does the “its” in that perfect if bleak sentence refer to the city or industrialization? How well it works as either!

Similarly, what is this work saying about trauma and despair? Passages to consider:

From Selwyn, p. 21 (Selwyn is speaking): “But I have never been able to bring myself to sell anything, except perhaps, at one point, my soul.” __ and __ “The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to.”

From Selwyn, p. 23 (the narrator is speaking): “But certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence.” __ and __ “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found on the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”

From Bereyter, p. 42: Describing Paul as “… desolation itself.”

p. 44: “… Paul, who was almost consumed by the loneliness within him….”

p. 55: “… and doubtless saw more than any heart or eye can bear.”

p. 58: “Paul copied out hundreds of pages, mostly in Gabelsberg shorthand because otherwise he would not have been able to write fast enough, and time and again one comes across stories of suicide. It seemed to me, said Mme Landau, handing me the black oilcloth books, as if Paul had been gathering evidence, the mounting weight of which, as his investigations proceeded, finally convinced him that he belonged to the exiles and not to the people of S.”

p. 61: “It is hard, said Mme Landau, when I told her about those railway lessons, in the end it is hard to know what it is that someone dies of.”

From Adelwarth, p. 99: “At that time he had no interest in talking about the past at all.” (This section opens with depiction upon depiction of sorrow and loss in his extended family.)

p. 102: “At any rate, the more Uncle Adelwarth told his stories, the more desolate he became.”

p. 111: Dr Abramsky describes Adelwarth: “Nonetheless, even when he was simply standing at the window looking out he always gave the impression of being filled with some appalling grief. I do not think, said Dr Abramsky, that I have ever met a more melancholy person than your great-uncle; every casual utterance, every gesture, his entire deportment (he held himself erect until the end), was tantamount to a constant pleading for leave of absence.”

p. 113: Dr. Abramsky on Adelwarth: “… [T]hat docility, as I was already beginning to suspect, was in fact due simply to your great-uncle’s longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember.”

From Max Ferber, p. 161: “There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.”

p. 170: Max Ferber is speaking: “… I gradually understood that, beyond a certain point, pain blots out the one thing that is essential to its being experienced – consciousness – and so perhaps extinguishes itself; we know very little about this. What is certain, though, is that mental suffering is effectively without end. One may think one has reached the very limit, but there are always more torments to come. One plunges from one abyss into the next.”

p. 191: “Naturally, I took steps, consciously or unconsciously, to keep at bay thoughts of my parents’ sufferings and of my own misfortune, and no doubt I succeeded sometimes in maintaining a certain equability by my self-imposed seclusion; but the fact is that that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years.”

What is Sebald saying about memory (which is, of course, inextricably linked to any discussion of trauma and despair)? Passages to consider:

From Selwyn, p. 17: “Kaspar, to the delight of his mentor, was distinguishing for the first time between dream and reality, beginning his account with the words: I was in a dream, and in my dream I saw the Caucasus.”

From Bereyter, p. 50: “Do you know, she said on one of my visits to Yverdon, the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget, is nothing more than the other side of the perfidious way in which Schöferle, who ran a coffee house in S, informed Paul’s mother Thekla, who had been on stage for some time in Nuremberg, that the presence of a lady who was married to a half Jew might be embarrassing to his respectable clientele….”

p. 51: “He said that he could see things with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams, things he had not thought he still had within in him.”

p. 63: “The disquiet I experienced because of that momentary failure to see what was meant – I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death – lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

From Adelwarth, p. 100: “… Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself access to it. For that reason, telling stories was as much a torment to him as an attempt at self-liberation. He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself.”

p. 145: “Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the crowds.” (Consider this powerful observation in light of the work Uncle Kasimir did (p. 85). “Have you got a head for heights?”)

From Max Ferber, p. 181: “Ferber commented that, purely in terms of time, I was now as far removed from Germany as he had been in 1966; but time, he went on, is an unreliable way of gauging these things, indeed it is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither a past nor a future. At least, not for me. The fragmentary scenes that haunt my memories are obsessive in character. When I think of Germany, it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head. Probably the reason why I have never been to Germany again is that I am afraid to find that this insanity really exists.”

p. 207: In Luisa’s memoir: “Only when you hold your own breath do they return from death to life, only then does time begin to pass again. Time. What time was all that? How slowly the days passed then! And who was that strange child, walking home, tired, with a tiny blue and white jay’s feather in her hand?”

p. 225: “…I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.”

What did you make of the work’s editorial style and the appearance of the pages? Did you notice the length of the paragraphs? Their arbitrary divisions or lack thereof (e.g., the bottom of p. 176)? The unusual punctuation breaks (e.g., the em dashes on pp. 38 and 220, which could have simply been paragraph breaks)? I wonder if the appearance or form of the pages – the lengthy paragraphs, the enigmatic punctuation “pauses,” the uncaptioned, blurry images – is meant to convey the shape of memory and/or dream, which would not be as, for lack of better words, rigid or strictly shaped as a lived event. Did you also notice that nothing is quoted? Long passages of people telling the narrator stories occur sans quotation marks. Why? What effect does that produce?

Did you notice the nods to Nabakov? See. pp. 16, 43, 104. It is possible that most of the references to men and butterflies regard Nabakov (e.g., pp. 115, 174, 214).

Other notes and questions

  • Apart from all of the other trauma they have experienced, the notable loves of both Selwyn and Adelwarth were men – men they then lost. 
  • What do you make of the narrator’s elaborate dream in the Ambros Adelwarth section, beginning on p. 121?
  • Sebald relied on lists (e.g., p. 130 (“Acacias, cork oaks, sycamores, eucalypts, junipers, laurels…”). Take a look at the list of religious institutions beginning on p. 137 and continuing through p. 140 or of occupations and surnames on p. 191 and 192. Is it an affectation, or is he making a point? If the latter, what is it? 
  • Max Feber’s work in charcoal (pp. 161 to 162) resembles the narrator’s writing process (p. 230).
  • References to a mental asylum, pigeons, and an anarchic school teacher in the Ferber section (p. 189) neatly anchor the narrative to the Abelwarth, Selwyn, and Bereyter stories, respectively.
  • Why are Elaine (Selwyn) and Kathinka (Ferber) such diminished, broken characters?
  • Dr Abramsky gestures with a goose wing (Abelwarth, p. 115), Kathinka wears a bonnet featuring a seagull wing (Ferber, p. 196), and Luisa carries a jay feather (Ferber, p. 207). I don’t like to Mrs.-Grimm-the-English-teacher every symbol, but this seems significant, particularly when one considers the passage from the Bereyter section (p. 63), quoted above and repeated here: “The disquiet I experienced because of that momentary failure to see what was meant – I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death – lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”

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