31 July 2013

An unexpected return

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (New Directions, 1996)

W. G. Sebald's subjects in The Emigrants, and elsewhere in his fiction, seem to be not themselves. They are loners and eccentrics, old and weary. Exiled souls wandering through life as if already dead. Take the first of four character portraits in The Emigrants. At the twilight of his life, Dr. Henry Selwyn starts to confide to the narrator certain moments of his life. (The best summary of Dr. Selwyn's story is contained in the review of Gabriel Josipovici in the Jewish Quarterly, reprinted in the Vertigo blog, here).

I think of Dr. Selwyn as a continuation of the Sebald persona in "Il ritorno in patria", the final section of Sebald's first novel Vertigo, the prose work immediately preceding The Emigrants. The narrator of that section, when he finally visited his village W. after a long time, was able to remember the past with stunning clarity (just like Dr. Selwyn). The eponymous character in Sebald's final novel Austerlitz, too, suddenly remembered all the obscured details of his transport on a train at a very young age. So, in a sense, Dr. Selwyn is a representative Sebaldian figure who was jolted from his zombie-like reverie, confronted by momentous events of the past, every fine detail of his recollection recalled in all its hyper-real color, contour, and texture. Memory lapse was lifted like a veil, or a dam releasing huge amounts of water.

Max Sebald's stories are often about memory and storytelling. For him, forgetting is like losing the substance of one's humanity. Put in another way, if one was without memory then one might as well be dead. As long as we commemorate the dead, they are alive within us or in us. Throughout the narrator's several encounters with him, Dr. Selwyn was depicted almost like a ghost already. His ghostly presence, however, is belied by the fascinating stories of his past. Up to a certain point, the doctor seems to resist death through remembering. And in imparting his story to the narrator, the doctor is now a part of the narrator's memory and so he (the narrator) remembers the old man and he (Dr. Selwyn) is fully alive in the narrator's memory.

Dr. Selwyn yearns for the past that was initially like a blank wall to him. But gaps in his memory are suddenly being filled with details he thought he'd lost. He has fond memories of his friend Johannes Naegeli, a mountain guide who went missing and was believed to have met a certain accident by falling into a crevasse of a glacier.

Yet the transference of memory does not stop between the narrator and Dr. Selwyn. The narrator is also passing it on to us, enlisting our confidence. Sebald has implicated us, the reader, in the old man's story. We become privy to Dr. Selwyn's past, and so even if he's dead (in the story), things that concern the doctor concern us now too.

Naegeli is one of the dead who returned in the story, but miraculously through an accident too, a natural process at that – the melting of the glacier that covered him for more than seventy years. At that point of the discovery of the frozen body, no one would have remembered the long buried Naegeli anymore (the only one who had the capacity to do so – Dr. Selwyn – was already dead, by his own hands, at that point in the story) were it not for the remembrance imparted by Dr. Selwyn to the narrator. And from the narrator to us, readers.  – "Certain things, as I am increasingly becoming aware, have a way of returning unexpectedly, often after a lengthy absence."

We now remember the dead, his humanity, even if we didn't know him personally because we have learned a part of his history. In a way, Sebald here demonstrated the power of sharing stories, of storytelling, of fiction in general, to preserve memories. To memorialize history and people against the eternal forgetting. Against the irreversible.


  1. Nice conclusion; Sebald probably admired 'Urn-Burial' as did Borges, for its acute observations on memory and oblivion.

  2. he wonderfully mixed the remebered ,memories and the story ,I felt that is what gave his books such a personal feel to use the reader that sense of being part of the book as thou what we read was part of us in some way ,all the best stu

  3. Thanks for reminding me about 'Urn-Burial', Kevin. Sir Thomas Browne is indeed a touchstone writer for Sebald.

    Perfectly said, Stu. In some mysterious way, we participate in his books.

  4. Well done. This is of course the first piece of Sebald I read, back when it first cam out in English. What is this, what is this, and then - oh, wow, I have never read this before.

    I love the idea that it is not he narrator but Selwyn who logically continues the story from Vertigo.

  5. Tom, thanks. I had the same reaction as you when I first read it, also in the 1990s. I remember hunting all reviews I can find of it so I can make sense of what I'm reading.