The Emigrants. Winfried Georg Sebald, Author, Michael Hulse, Translator New Directions Publishing Corporation $ (p) ISBN At first The Emigrants appears simply to document the lives of four Jewish émigrés in the twentieth century. But gradually, as Sebald’s precise, almost dreamlike. A masterwork of W. G. Sebald, now with a gorgeous new cover by the famed designer Peter Mendelsund. The four long narratives in The Emigrants appear at .
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I emigrangs interviewed Max Sebald in September, one of his reluctant concessions to publicity that he discharged with kindliness and deadpan humour. In his cramped, defiantly emiigrants room at the University of East Anglia, where he was professor of European literature, he showed me a sepia photograph of a young boy from his mother’s Bavarian clan, who was destined to return mentally disturbed from the first world war.
Those words struck me after I learned of his death last Emigrnts, at the age of 57, in a car accident in Norwich.
In old photographs he had given me, the boy Max his third name was Maximilian stands before the Bavarian Alps, clad in the lederhosen he detested, unaware both of the late flowering of his literary talent he began writing “prose fiction” only in his midsand that sebals career would be shockingly cut short at the height of his powers.
He had just moved from the small publisher Harvill to a lucrative deal with the Penguin group. This edited conversation, published here for the first time, was a rare public appearance by Sebald – his last in Sebaldd – and took place on September 24, in partnership with the South Bank Centre, before a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
Although Sebald came to Britain in the mids, and lived with his wife Ute in an old rectory outside Norwich, he wrote only in German. Yet he felt at home in neither country. How would you describe your family background? Wertach was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, in a valley covered in snow for five months a year. It was a silent place. I was brought up largely by my grandfather, because my father only returned from a prisoner-of-war camp inand worked in the nearest small town, so I hardly ever saw him.
I lived in that place until I was about eight. My parents came from working-class, small-peasant, farm-labourer backgrounds, and had made the grade during the fascist years; sebzld father came out of the army as a captain. For most of those years, I didn’t know what class we belonged to. Then the German “economic miracle” unfolded, sebqld the family emigrant again; my father occupied a “proper” place in lower-middle-class society.
It was that social stratum where the so-called conspiracy of silence was at its most present.
Until I was 16 or emigdants, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. There it was, and sfbald somehow had to get our minds around it – which of course we didn’t. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out what had happened.
In the mids, I could not conceive that these events had happened only a few years back.
It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country [in ], because in Manchester, I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people.
There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin, but in a provincial town in south Germany Jewish people didn’t exist. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places, as doctors, cinema ushers, owners of garages, but they had disappeared – or had been disappeared.
So it was a process of successive phases of realisation. Your work combines genres – autobiography, travel, meditative essay – and blurs boundaries between fact and fiction, art and sebalf. You’ve said the big events are true while the emigrnts is invented.
What inspired your latest novel, Austerlitz, and the character of Jacques Austerlitz? Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, or perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons. One is a colleague of mine and another is a person about whom I happened to see a Channel 4 documentary by sheer chance.
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
I was captivated by the tale of an emigtants English woman [Susie Bechhofer] who, as it transpired, had come to this country with her twin sister and been brought up in a Welsh Calvinist household. One of the twins died and the surviving twin never really knew that her origins were in a Munich orphanage.
The story struck home; it cast my sebadl back to Munich, the nearest big city to where I grew up, so I could relate to the horror and distress. Jacques Austerlitz recovers memories in his 50s of having arrived in Britain from Prague on the Kindertransport.
Much of your work is about memory: Does literature have a special role to play in remembrance? The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life.
Without memories there wouldn’t be any writing: Emigants work is very oblique and tentative in its approach to the Holocaust; you avoid the sensational. What do you think the dilemmas are of fiction writers tackling the subject.
In the history of postwar German writing, for the first 15 or 20 years, people avoided mentioning political persecution – the incarceration and systematic extermination of whole peoples and groups in society.
Then from this became a preoccupation of writers – not always in an acceptable form. So I knew that writing about the subject, particularly for people of German origin, is fraught with dangers and difficulties.
The last word
Tactless lapses, moral and aesthetic, can easily be committed. It was also clear you could not write directly about the horror of persecution in its ultimate forms, because no one could bear to look at these things without losing their sanity. So you would have to approach it from an angle, and by intimating to the reader that these subjects are constant company; their presence shades every inflection of every sentence one writes.
If one can make that credible, then one can begin to defend writing about these subjects at all. Your books have a documentary feel, using captionless black-and-white photographs, but their status is unclear, or whether portraits correspond to people in the text. What’s your interest in photography, and why do you strive for uncertainty in the reader about what’s true? I’ve always been interested in photographs, collecting them not systematically but randomly.
They get lost, then turn up again. Two years ago in a junk shop in the East End of London, I found a postcard of the yodelling group from my home town.
That is a pretty staggering experience. These old photographs always seem to have this appeal written into them, that you should tell a story behind them. In The Emigrants there is a group photograph of a large Jewish family, all wearing Bavarian costume.
That one image tells you more about the history of German-Jewish aspiration than a whole monograph would do. I have lived in this country far longer than in Bavaria, but reading in English I become self-conscious about having a funny accent.
Unlike Conrad or Nabokov, I didn’t have emigtants which would have coerced me out of my native tongue altogether. But the time may come when my German resources begin to shrink.
It is a sore point, because you do have advantages if you have access to more than one language. You also have problems, because on bad days you don’t trust yourself, either in your first or your second language, and so you feel like a complete halfwit.
Emigranrs do you continue to write in German? Topics Arts and humanities.