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Tinkering with The Emigrants


A fellow book collector who also concentrates on the works of W.G. Sebald recently asked me if I had ever taken a close look at the uncorrected bookproof that Harvill Press issued in 1996 prior to the release of Sebald’s book The Emigrants. I had not; it had been sitting, ignored, on the shelf since I purchased it years ago.

I have written earlier about some of the changes that occurred when Sebald’s book Die Ausgewanderten was published in English. In the original German version the epynomic character of the fourth story is Max Aurach, but in Harvill’s published edition he becomes Max Ferber, in order to hide the fact that this figure was partly based on the living British painter Frank Auerbach. Two images also disappear from the book: a close-up photograph of Auerbach – mostly showing his nose and eye – and a reproduction of one of his artworks. But one of the things I had not noticed earlier is that these changes had not yet been made in the uncorrected bookproof, where Aurach is still Aurach and the two soon-to-be-abolished images can still be found.

The Emigrants was Sebald’s first work of photograph-laden prose fiction to be published in English and the uncorrected bookproof demonstrates that substantial tinkering was still going on with the size, sequencing, and exact placement of the images. There is a very nice demonstration of this on pages 134-135 of the uncorrected bookproof, where both images are shown in a different cropping than in the published form. When The Emigrants appeared in bookstores, the photograph of the young dervish is considerably cropped in order to become a horizontal image, while the photograph of the agenda was expanded to include the entire strap instead of cutting it off. (In the German edition, by the way, the dervish image is vertical and uncropped, while the agenda image is cropped horizontally above the strap and the image extends across two pages.) A close comparison of the Harvill uncorrected bookproof and the published edition shows the level of attention that someone – presumably Sebald – was paying to the images. There are instances when just a single line of text is moved up or down in relation to an image, changing the position of the image on the page or re-positioning the image to the needs of the text.


But most curious of all, as my my fellow book collector pointed out, was the last page of the uncorrected bookproof, which shows the beginning of a page of Notes, followed by a very odd word list. In fact, the Contents page shows that Harvill anticipated including a Notes section, apparently for the benefit of English-speaking readers since there are no notes in the German edition. Needless to say, the Notes section was dropped. But if any readers think they know what the word list (chairlift, château, crossbar…) connotes, please drop me a comment.


Florence Feiereisen and Daniel Pope discuss Sebald’s use of images in The Emigrants at great length in a highly recommended essay called True Fictions and Fictional Truths in the new volume Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. jonas #

    Very generally, thanks very much for this great Notebook. I am glad I have found it. And thanks specifically for these interesting in-depth looks into the layout of Sebald’s books. It is well known that he cared a lot about these things himself, isn’t it.
    May I kindly point you to my own notebook on related matters, with a few Sebald references, and even more of a memory / time / passing, thus: sebaldian undercurrent ( ). Please feel free to drop by and spread the word, most posts are in English, an interview series on Time is about to be unleashed, and I have allowed myself to sport a link to your great Sebald blog here. All the best, Jonas

    February 12, 2008

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