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Gabriel Josipovici on W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

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


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.]

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. For me the first awareness of Sebald was Neal Ascherson’s review of this translation, in The Independent on Sunday [published in London], 14 July 1966: necessarily short, but very appreciative and perceptive. I bought and read the book in the days following.

    March 24, 2010
  2. Stan #

    Thank you very much for publishing this review that connects two of the greatest writers of the last few decades.

    March 24, 2010
  3. hw #

    What is the unattributed quotation of Wittgenstein in The Emigrants? I only recall the one about language as a city in Austerlitz…

    March 24, 2010
  4. HW: Thanks for the question about Wittgenstein in The Emigrants. I’m not familiar enough with Wittgenstein to see what might be an unattributed quote, but in the Paul Bereyter story the Paul character is said to have read authors who committed suicide, including Wittgenstein. This is on page 58 of the American edition by New Directions. The page includes an illustration of German handwriting – maybe that’s from Wittgenstein?

    March 24, 2010
  5. But Wittgenstein died of cancer, not suicide.

    March 25, 2010
    • Steve: Of course you’re right. My earlier comment was imprecise. The quote from The Emigrants is this: “He read and he read – Altenberg, Trakl, Wittgenstein, Friedell, Hasenclever, Toller, Tucholsky, Klaus Mann, Ossietzky, Benjamin, Koestler and Zweig; almost all them writers who had taken their own lives or who had been close to doing so.”

      March 25, 2010
  6. Its fascinating to see an early reviewer grappling with the meaning of the inline-photographs, the silences in the text, the enigmatic references and all the other Sebald-ish features. Definitely worth publishing this – thanks greatly

    March 26, 2010
  7. I want to thank those who have helped ferret out obvious typographical errors in the transcription of Josipovici’s review during the past weeks. As of today, April 14, I have repaired those errors and, accordingly, erased the comments that pointed them out.

    April 14, 2010
  8. Emily #

    I think the unattributed Wittgenstein reference comes on page 183 of the New Directions edition (Max Ferber): “I still did my homework under Mother’s supervision; we still went to Schliersee for the skiing in winter, and to Oberstdorf or the Walsertal for our summer holidays; AND OF THOSE THINGS WE COULD NOT SPEAK AND SIMPLY SAID NOTHING” (caps added). I think it’s from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but I can’t be sure. It certainly sounds like him, anyway!

    April 17, 2010
  9. Andrew #

    Many thanks for posting this. The Wittgenstein paraphrased is indeed the seventh and final ‘lemma’ of the Tractatus:

    “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

    To Sebald and the constellations. Great blog…

    April 20, 2010
  10. jlipset #

    Thank you very much for this valuable analysis.

    July 6, 2010
  11. Anyone interested in a Sebald Yahoo Group, search for it on Yahoo Groups. Joel Lipset

    July 13, 2010
  12. Kurt #

    Agree jlipset – many thanks.

    Had bought The Emigrants after reading the post on Conversational Reading back in March. Just read it today. Wonderful book.

    Was re-encouraged to read it after having read Reality Hunger (David Shields). Sure feels a lot like with Shields is saying about where literature can and needs to go.

    July 28, 2010
  13. Joel Lipset #

    A view in the NY Times Book Review today sounded like the work might entice Sebald lovers. The book is Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. To quote, “his tales ….all seem to undulate, to surge andnrecede like the tides…..move gracefully back and forth forth between different places and different..times.” the reviewer says that the stories are about time and memory.
    This certainly suggests Sebald to me, and I will for sure look for the book.

    Joel Lipset

    July 31, 2010
    • Thanks, Joel. I also notice in the same edition of the Times Book Review (August 1, 2010) a book of short storied called The Surf Guru by Doug Dorst, in which one of the stories is described as “a 45-page academic botany treatise, with photographs and footnotes.” Both books sound intriguing.

      August 2, 2010
  14. Reblogged this on dale turner and commented:
    This is a wonderful reflection on Sebald’s The Emigrants.

    May 22, 2014
  15. Talking about Sebald’s “Old Masters”: one should definitely also mention Johann Peter Hebel, Goethe, Stifter, Gottfried Keller, Matthias Gruenewald here. There are at least in two of the four stories direct references to Hebel, and the title “Die Ausgewanderten” refers to Goethe’s “Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten”. My review of The Emigrants, in case you are interested:

    January 8, 2015
    • Thanks for sharing the link to your excellent commentary on Die Ausgewanderten! I enjoyed it.

      January 8, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Josipovici on Sebald « Conversational Reading
  2. Gabriel Josipovici’s 1996 review of W.G. Sebald’s “The Emigrants” republished in the blog “Vertigo: Collecting & Reading W.G. Sebald” « interLitQ
  3. W. G. Sebald’s – The Emigrants – First Reading | notboxed
  4. The Goldsmiths Prize judge, Gabriel Josipovici, on Sebald’s masterpiece, The Emigrants | Katie Nevison
  5. WG Sebald and Memory - writing from one's history - Kafka is my Life CoachKafka is my Life Coach

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