Faced now with an abundance of W.G.Sebald's writing it was a question of where to begin and The Emigrants seemed like a perfect end to another special reading year and the beginning of a new one, when I shall be In Pursuit of Sebald at every opportunity.This is travel, time, memory, experience, displacement and more all between two covers.
W.G.Sebald it would seem was generally accepted to be a Nobel Laureate in the making and perhaps it's a sadness to deal with and dispel early on in my reading of him, because as you read you can only begin to think what literary greatness he would have gone on to had his life not been abruptly cut short by the road accident in East Anglia in December 2001 at the age of fifty-seven.
Thus, at the rate I'm feasting, my abundance could rapidly become a famine. What we have is what there is and the richness of Sebald's writing strikes me as a distilled and finely refined oeuvre, why covet more when it just may possibly have diluted that which is there to be savoured?
Savoured time and again too because it's already clear that Sebald's writing is multi-layered and will bear repeated readings.I am also acutely aware, having listened to this interview with Sebald, that I am but a novice, and one reading his work with a vast innocence and naivity that is waiting to become informed. There is so much contained therein and I will doubtless tumble into many of the usual pitfalls.
I usually spot emperor's new clothes a mile away and I have no sense of that with Sebald, but I am mindful of a critical piece by one of my favoured translators, Michael Hofmann, who is not a fan and finds Austerlitz 'inevitably trite'.
More about that soon but I am quickly discovering that I do need my wits about me to read Sebald.
The Emigrants documents the lives of four twentieth century Jewish emigres.
The writing is sober, melancholy (the covers are monochrome, hurrah) unconsoling, restrained, meditative, name that word and it applies and Sebald uses countless devices to assist in the telling of his stories.
A diary facilitates a return to a past shrouded in silence, dreams constantly blur the thin veil between reality and truth, embedded photographs allow a picture to tell the story, a snapshot of a moment captured and preserved.I suspect the narrator should not always be assumed to be Sebald yet so often you feel sure it's him, and there is a constant blurring of the narrative voice as the reader shares in the crossing of boundaries between past and present with the narrator and the character.
Acres of silent history, the unspoken, the unsayable are slowly traversed and glimpses revealed and often the narrator will return to the location many years later as if to verify the memories and offer himself and thus the reader confirmation. Sebald notoriously scorned holocaust writing and preferred to challenge the silence that he observed amongst his German countrymen in true Emily Dickinson fashion.
Well he might not have made that exact connection but I was bound to, it's one of my favourites.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
Embedded photographs perhaps the most startling method of enticing a reader to immerse themselves at several different levels with the text, visual, imaginative, speculative as you look carefully and try to pick up the clues from the surrounding narrative.
What exactly does the author want me to see in this picture?
At a very fundamental level, is this picture genuine?
They are often grainy and indistinct, do they offer truth or lead me further into the fiction?
There is a moment in the final story, Max Ferber, when I had been led through one character's story in great depth to the point when I knew them well, then I turned the page and there it was, a photograph apparently of Luisa Lanzberg, looking right at me, a stunningly yet quietly beautiful woman, is this really Max's mother? I was stopped in my reading tracks yet again.
And then that final moment when the tables are turned, the device is reversed in the final paragraphs of the book with a detailed description of a photograph,
'The young woman in the middle is blonde and has the air of a bride about her. The weaver to her left has inclined her head a little to one side, whilst the woman on the right is looking at me with so steady a relentless gaze that I cannot meet it for long. I wonder what the three women's names were...'
I frantically turn the page, desperate to see this picture, and it's not there.
I feel slightly cheated out of something that should have been mine, taunted by the blank pages and suddenly I am left with a strange mood that descends unbidden, a yearning for something denied, and in that instant I understand, completely and utterly, exactly what the emigrants themselves and this book have been trying to tell me.