Book Reviews

The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an unusual novel, and reads more like a writer’s search for real lives destroyed by the Holocaust. When supplemented with a number of photographs, the novel transcends fiction into biography. But yet, is this a novel as the cover suggests, or a collection of real-life stories?

The four character-stories that make up the novel embrace the lives of a doctor, a teacher, a butler, and a painter, all assimilated Jews in a Germany that is going Nazi, all chronicled by a younger writer (Sebald, presumably) who takes a deep interest in them. The four characters lived either on the German side of Switzerland, or in Germany, prior to the Second World War. Let me try to cover some highlights of their lives:

Henry Selwyn (doctor) is living out his last days, estranged from his younger, richer, more active wife, in a hermitage located on the grounds of the large manor house owned by her. Love and matrimonial life have faded. Dr. Selwyn pines for the mentor from his youth who was lost in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps. He keeps practicing firing a gun on the grounds, one he purchased when he was an army surgeon in India. He intends to use the gun on himself one day.

Paul Bereyter (teacher) is only a quarter Jewish by birth, but is subject to the same anti-Jewish laws of 1935 in the Swiss/German border area he lives in, laws that prevent him from practicing his profession. His family’s emporium is sold for a song when his father dies of “fire and fury” for being discriminated against and his mother follows a few weeks later, succumbing to depression. Cataract surgery loses him his eyesight but provides him with an internal vision he has never exercised before.

Ambrose Adelwarth (butler) emigrates to America with many of his multi generational family members, where they make a living in the ghettos of New York City, grabbing any job, legal or illicit, to survive. Ambrose becomes the personal assistant to Cosmo Solomon, heir of the wealthy Solomon family. When his employers die out, Ambrose is unemployed though well provided for, and slumps into a depression that can only be treated with electro-shock therapy. In the early days of this form of therapy, it was hit and miss, and Ambrose suffers progressive paralysis from the cure. What is salvaged by the writer of this chronicle is Ambrose’s diary in which he and Cosmo take a colourful trip through Turkey to Israel and down to the Dead Sea.

Max Ferber (painter) lives in Manchester, a city he chose when he fled Germany in 1939, leaving the rest of his family behind. Manchester, at the time, was the largest indoor port in the world, the Industrial Jerusalem, but it began its death spiral in 1930 and reached rock bottom in the late 1950’s. Max is drawn to dust and decay and lives in a studio full of it, painting and sketching relentlessly despite gaining fame internationally for his work.

The narrator paints vivid pictures of life among assimilated Jews in Germany and surrounding Europe who were dislocated from their comfortable existence during the Nazi era and gradually reduced to lives of quiet desperation. As this novel is an exercise in capturing and freezing memory of a lost time, the author is detailed to a fault, perhaps too detailed, and in the absence of dialogue, the reading is heavy. The absence of dialogue must not be confused with the absence of voices, for the voice of the first person narrator morphs between young Sebald, the four principal characters, and key members in their lives like wives, mothers and sisters, all seamlessly woven into the narrative. There is also the motif of a man with a butterfly net who flits in an out, and represents a grim reaper in some stories and a saviour in others, depending on the frame of mind of the observer.

The ending left me wanting more, for the lives being exposited, stop abruptly. Perhaps the author was trying to conjure what it must have been for the millions whose lives were snuffed out suddenly with a barrage of gas pellets surreptitiously dropped into a locked chamber they had mistaken for a communal shower.

View all my reviews