Gabriel Josipovici on W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants
March 23, 2010
It is customary now to quote Susan Sontag when praising W.G. Sebald, but perhaps the earliest and most prescient notice of Sebald’s promise came from Gabriel Josipovici, the British novelist, playwright, and critic. Sometime shortly after May 1996, when Harvill published The Emigrants – the first of Sebald’s quirky prose narratives to appear in English – Josipovici wrote a review entitled The Forces of Memory, which was published in Jewish Quarterly (volume 43 number 4, 1996/7). Many months ago a reader of Vertigo sent me a text of the review that he had re-typed himself from the original pages, so I am not able to confirm the complete accuracy of the version below. However, a recent post over at This Space prompted me to retrieve my copy and post it here, with the kind permission of Gabriel Josipovici. (Thanks to Stephen for the help.)
The Forces of Memory
By GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI
A review of W.G Sebald, The Emigrants, trans. From the German by Michael Hulse.
A title: Dr Henry Selwyn, and, beneath it, a mysterious epigraph with no acknowledged source: “And the last remnants memory destroys.” On the next page: a photo of an English country churchyard dominated by a large yew tree. Beneath it, the text begins: ‘”At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.”
The jacket has told us that W.G Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau in Germany in 1944 and has been a lecturer at the University of East Anglia since 1970; ‘Clara’ rather than ‘my wife’ suggests that this is a personal memoir, not one addressed to the general public. The text goes on:
For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst the fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland. The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described. One of the largest in the village, it stood a short distance from the church with its grassy graveyard. Scots pines and yews, up a quiet side-street.
Now we know what the photo represents. But why is it there? Because the writer of this personal memoir slipped it in to remind him of the place? Or, since this is after all a printed book we are reading, in order to persuade us of the truth and accuracy of what he is describing? Or is it perhaps out of some kind of postmodern attempt to make us realize that the whole thing is an invention, since the photo after all proves nothing and need not even be of that churchyard at Hingham, if there is such a place? None of these explanations quite seems to fit. Rather, the quietness emanating from the photo, placed without any caption above the text, corresponds in some sense to the quietness of the prose which in turn reflects the silence of the East Anglian country-side and of the village itself.
The evenly-paced narrative continues, describing the house with its broad driveway, graveled forecourt, stables and outbuildings, the Virginia creeper growing over the façade and the black front door with “a brass knocker in the shape of a fish,” the sash windows glinting “blindly” in the sun, “seeming to be made of dark mirror glass.” Again, is this simply a careful description of a specific place visited by Sebald one day in September 1970, or is it, like Poe’s House of Usher, heavily symbolic? The narrative refuses to come to rest on one side or the other: the fish-shaped knocker may be significant or it may not, the house may reflect the mind of its owner or of the narrator, or it may not.
After wandering round the grounds for some time without seeing anyone the visitors eventually come across an old man lying face downwards on the lawn. He gets up hurriedly and introduces himself as Dr Henry Selwyn. He has, he explains, a habit of counting the blades of grass on his lawn, an irritating pastime, he admits.
Since the house belongs to his wife he cannot say whether or not the flat has been let. However, he shows them round the grounds, past the disused tennis court and the decaying kitchen garden (photos provided), talking all the while. But we never hear the words directly, they remain embedded in the smooth flow of the narrator’s account, thus adding to the silence that seems to engulf the place. The flat is available, and the couple move in and meet Mrs. Selwyn, who is Swiss and rarely at home since she is always seeing to her many properties in the neighborhood. There is, however, an old female servant who looks and behaves like the inmate of an asylum, thus maintaining the tension between the ordinariness of an autumn in 1970 and the hidden horrors of the Gothic novel. Dr Selwyn keeps to himself, spending most of the time in a flint-built hermitage in a remote corner of the estate (photo provided), though he is once glimpsed at a window of the big house holding a hunting gun to his shoulder and firing up into the sky. One day, Mrs. Selwyn being away, their landlord invites them to dine with him and an old friend, an entomologist called Edwin Elliott. Dinner is served in the vast dining room by the old servant and consists entirely of produce from the garden. Dr Selwyn recounts the story of his stay in Berne shortly before the First World War and of his great fondness for an old Alpine guide, Johannes Naegeli, with whom he undertook numerous expeditions, and who disappeared in the early days of the war, presumed to have fallen into a crevasse. After dinner an old slide-projector is wheeled in and the guests are shown slides of a trip Dr Selwyn and his friend took to Crete. One of the photos reminds the narrator, down to the tiniest detail, of a picture of Nabokov in the mountains Gstaad which he had only recently cut out of a Swiss magazine (a photo is reproduced, but whether it is of Nabokov or Dr Selwyn we are not told). Another slide, a view of the Lasithi plateau taken at noon from high up, makes a deep impression on the narrator and is then immediately forgotten, only to be recalled years later when watching Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser, the scene in which Kaspar tells Daumer of his dream of the Caucasus (no still reproduced).
A few months later the narrator and his wife move out, having bought a home of their own. Dr Selwyn, however, is a frequent caller, bringing them vegetables from his garden. One day, when Clara is out, he happens to ask the narrator if he is not homesick, and then suddenly launches into the story of his life (though again his own words are embedded in the narrative). Recently, he confesses, he has become more and more homesick. In 1899, at the age of seven, he and his family left a village near Grodno in Lithuania, and though he has never been back he has taken to seeing details of that village in his head, the teacher at the cheder, the house they lived in, then the journey, Riga, the ship that was to take them to the New World but landed them in London instead. There he grew up, he says, in Whitechapel, a brilliant student, winning a scholarship to Merchant Taylors’ School and then to Cambridge to study medicine. That was the moment, he says, when he changed his name from Hersch Seweryn to Henry Selwyn. And it was at this moment too that his ability to learn seemed suddenly to slacken, though he went on doing well in his studies. Then came the visit to Berne, where he met his future wife, the war, his marriage to Elli, from whom he concealed his background for a long time. Her wealth enabled them to live a life of comfort, almost luxury, with frequent trips through Europe by car in the summers. But, perhaps because of the disparity in their wealth, his revealing his origins to her or “simply the decline of love,” they drifted apart:
The years of the second world war and the decades after were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to. In 1960, when I had to give up my practice and my patients, I severed my last ties with what they call the real world. Since then, almost my only companions have been plants and animals, said Dr Selwyn with an inscrutable smile, and, rising, he made a gesture that was most unusual for him. He offered me his hand in farewell.
Later that summer they learn that he has taken his own life, sitting on the edge of his bed with the gun between his knees and blowing off his head. Many years later the narrator, in Switzerland for a few days, comes upon an item in the local paper: the Bernese Alpine guide Johannes Naegeli, missing since the summer of 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier seventy-five years after he had fallen in (the page on which the item occurs is reproduced).
I have spent so long describing what is only a twenty-page story because it is not every day one is sent a masterpiece to review (I suppose one is lucky if it happens more than once or twice a lifetime). And this story is what it is because, like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.
The use of unattributed photographs and epigraphs, of reported speech and narratorial restraint which holds the borderline between sober fact and high fantasy, is in evidence also in the other three stories of this volume. The second, twice as long as the first, is just as masterly and just as moving, telling the story of the narrator’s primary school teacher in an Alpine village and his eventual return to commit suicide there, another victim of his past. The last two stories, twice as long again, seem to me less successful (though only when set against the high standard of the other two). The third concerns a German “gentleman’s gentleman” who, after a long and rich life, eventually dies in a sanatorium in upstate New York; the last a painter vaguely reminiscent of Frank Auerbach, met by the narrator in Manchester. Both stories make use of diaries, and the direct access to the subject somehow lessens their impact. For all four stories depend ultimately on Sebald’s ability to find ways of saying the unsayable, of conveying, through the scrupulous refusal of easy empathy, how unknown we are not only to others but to ourselves, and what deep forces drive us, even to death.
Those forces, here, are the forces of memory as it tries to come to terms with the horrors of our century, and those who are driven in this way are those who have been touched by the shoah or uprooted by earlier manifestations of European anti-Semitism. Quietly, deftly, Sebald brings these wounded creatures and the forces that have wounded them to light, revealing in the process, that the alternatives are never, for the true artists, those banalities beloved of theorists, silence or betrayal: there is always a third way.
Sebald, like Bernhard, has his Old Masters, and they include Wittgenstein, who is referred to once and quoted once without attribution; Nabokov, who makes a token appearance in every one of the stories (and twice – too much I think – in the last); Perec, whose influence is most in evidence in the third story; and of course Bernhard himself. But Sebald is no apprentice. His is an utterly distinctive voice, which Michael Hulse has miraculously transferred into English. Harvill too are to be congratulated on producing a beautiful volume and introducing English readers to a great German writer. It does one good, in the age of fast food, fast bucks, recycled clichés and hype, to know that authentic writing still exists, quiet, poetic, witty, self-aware, open to the world.
[Corrections made March 24, March 31 and April 14, 2010.]