“What a true work of art looks like”

This is my review of The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald.

Like the recent French Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, author W.G. Sebald was preoccupied with memory, nostalgia for the past and a haunting sense of loss. In a superb, sensitive translation from the German, "The Emigrants" comprise four freestanding sections, each recording the life of a man forced to leave Germany at some point in the last century, either to find employment in the States or to evade Nazi persecution.

Sebald has a very distinctive style, often described as dreamlike – and in the course of his meandering he sometimes resorts to recalling in detail real or imagined dreams, and tends to merge plain fact with probable invention. Slotted into the text to illustrate points, the frequent small, grainy photos of people, houses, scenery and objects are in some cases evocative and compelling, in others just quirky, such as a couple of keys for opening a cemetery gate, which in fact do not work. The first person narrator often finds out about his emigrants through the memories of others – perhaps emigrants themselves – but slots their commentary into his text without any inverted commas, creating in the process a stream of consciousness.

Opinions will differ, but I was most impressed by the final section on "Max Ferber". for which I would give five stars. In this, Sebald reveals himself to be an immigrant: a young German postgraduate student who came to Manchester in the `60s and found that he preferred not to return permanently to his homeland with its amnesia over the recent guilty past. Sebald "never ceased to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-coloured Manchester, the city from which industrialisation had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation". But the most moving part is his friendship with the reclusive Jewish painter Ferber, who was sent on a flight to England by his once wealthy parents before they were themselves deported. Ferber inspires some of the author's most magical prose. The artist's method was to apply paint in a thick layer, only to spend hours scratching it off, leaving "a hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings mixed with coaldust..in places resembling the flow of lava". Ferber "never felt more at home than in places where matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness." He reflects: "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". Ferber gives to Sebald the journal kept by his mother, which the author incorporates into his account – how much of this he actually writes himself is unclear. In any event it is a fascinating description of an ordered, carefee life in the one-third German village of Steinach at the start of the C20, all the more poignant since, "It goes without saying there are no Jews in Steinach now".

This strange account of people damaged by loss has the power to alter one's perception of life and is worth rereading for the quality of the writing and the insights expressed.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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