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Die Ausgewanderten Audiobook

Ausgewanderten Audiobook

I’m grateful to a Vertigo reader for letting me know that W.G. Sebald’s book Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) is available as a German-language audio book on 7 CDs, published by Winter & Winter.  The reader is Paul Herwig.  It can be ordered directly from their website.  It was apparently released in late 2007.

Previously, the Max Ferber section of Die Ausgewanderten was available on  a pair of CDs issued by Eichborn Verlag in 2000, with Sebald himself reading.

Shadows Across the Text

Some of the photographs in the “Max Ferber” section of W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants harken back to what is probably the earliest work of fiction ever to embed photographs, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Somehow I feel that Sebald knew this seminal work, which was first published in book form in 1892 (after appearing serially in Paris’ Le Figaro). Rodenbach’s Symbolist novel is the story of love and murder in the “dead” city of Bruges. From the author’s Foreword:

In this study of passion I have tried first and foremost to evoke a city as one of the principal characters. This city, associated as it is with states of the soul, can advise, dissuade and persuade people to act in certain ways…

What I wish to imply is this: that it is the town which directs all that occurs there…

Illustrations from Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Mort, 1892.


Hugh Viane, despondent over the death of his wife, frequently wanders alone through Bruges:

…engrossed in his musings he mechanically wended his way among paths which his imagination had peopled with sombre images, a sense of the isolation of his existence weighed heavily upon him. From the windows of the funereal dwellings that stretched in spectral fashion along the margins of the canals, with their gable-ends reflected like skeletons of crepe in the waters, a mortuary impression was conveyed that seemed like the foreshadowing of a speedy dissolution.

A little more than a half a century later, the Manchester of Sebald’s “Max Ferber” is also a dead city, one “built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.” A page later Sebald’s narrator describes his arrival by taxi into Manchester:

Views opened up across the wasteland… that had once been the hub of one of the nineteenth century’s miracle cities, but, as I was soon to find out, was now almost hollow to the core. As we drove in among the dark ravines between the brick buildings, most of which were six or eight storeys high and sometimes adorned with glazed ceramic tiles, it turned out that even there, in the heart of the city, not a soul was to be seen, though by now it was almost a quarter to six. One might have supposed that the city had long been deserted, and was left now as a necropolis or mausoleum.

Page from Sebald’s The Emigrants

In the final paragraph of Rodenbach’s Foreword, he explains the strategy behind his inclusion of photographs:

It is because of this essential connection between these scenes of Bruges and the events described in the story that photographic reproductions of the former have been inserted in the text – the quays, deserted streets, old dwellings canals, béguinage, churches, goldsmith’s shops where sacred objects are made, belfries, – so that all those who read this work may themselves feel the presence and the influence of the city, experience the contagiousness of the long shadows of the high towers as they fall across the text.

Rodenbach’s choice of words reveals his Symbolist leanings – “presence”, “influence”, “contagiousness.” He sees these photographs of the unpeopled streets and buildings of Bruges being suggestive rather than literal, and for this reason I think he is a legitimate predecessor to Sebald. Even the most dumbly literal of Sebald’s photographs usually operate on multiple levels.

I assume that Rodenbach’s use of photographs in Bruges-la-Morte (it went through a number of editions between 1892 and 1914) must have been some kind of an influence on the Surrealists, who were also drawn to the photographs of Eugène Atget (1857-1927).

Eugene Atget, Un Coin, Rue de Seine, 1924

My quotes from Bruges-la-Morte are taken from the edition published in London by Atlas Press in 1993. The Atlas Press edition describes itself as a revision by Terry Hale of the original 1903 translation by Thomas Duncan. Without looking into accuracy at all, I found the Hale/Duncan version considerably more evocative and smoother reading than a newer translation by Mike Mitchell and Will Stone, published in 2005 by Dedalus Press. However, two points distinguish the Dedalus edition and make it a great shelf-companion to the Atlas Press book. The Dedalus Press edition has a worthwhile Introduction by British novelist Alan Hollinghurst and it also replaces the original photographs with contemporary ones by Will Stone, a fascinating (almost conceptual) experiment demonstrating that Rodenbach’s Bruges may still be found today.

Literary Cities: Manchester


In re-reading the Max Ferber section of The Emigrants the other day, I suddenly realized that W.G. Sebald was referring to the same city that Michel Butor had described in his great novel of 1957 L’Emploi du Temps (Passing Time). Sebald moved to Manchester, England in 1966 to take up an assistant lectureship at the University of Manchester, where Butor had taught from 1951 to 1953.

The opening two sentences of Passing Time never fail to suck me right into the rest of the book:

Thursday, May 1. Suddenly there were a lot of lights.

And then I was in the town; my year’s stay there, more than half of which has now elapsed, began at that moment, while I gradually struggled free of drowsiness, sitting there alone in the corner of the compartment, facing the engine, beside the dark windowpane covered on the outside with raindrops, myriad tiny mirrors each reflecting a quivering particle of the feeble light that drizzled down from the grimy ceiling, while the thick blanket of noise that for hours past, almost unremittingly, had enfolded me began to thin at last, to break up.

The French narrator of Passing Time, fulfilling a year’s term as translator for a British firm, largely detested his time in Manchester, which Butor called Bleston. The entire book is a labyrinth of streets and time . The book opens with a map (above) representing the narrator’s attempt to mark the major locations of his year in limbo, while every diary entry contains precise walking or bus-line directions for the day’s activities.The diary, begun in May, is six months in arrears, and so the narrator can alternately hold time at bay then let it surge forward like lava.

While Butor’s narrator arrived by train, Sebald’s arrives by plane.

Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now, we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if from a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen out of the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish Sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive.

Both Butor and Sebald found Manchester to be haunted by its faded past and enlivened by its immigrants. Sebald spends nearly a page delighting in the foreign-sounding names of immigrants and listing the trades that they took up (pp. 191-2). Sebald’s narrator and Max Ferber (a German Jewish exile) often meet at an unlicensed Kenyan restaurant called Wadi Halfa. And both narrators spend a considerable amount of time just walking the city.


I won’t belabor the many intriguing parallels between the two writer’s views on Manchester, but I encourage fans of Sebald to find a copy of Michel Butor’s Passing Time.

Missing Pictures 2: The Emigrants


When W.G. Sebald’s Ausgewanderten (1991) was translated and published as The Emigrants in England, the new 1996 version came with a renamed fourth chapter and two fewer photographs. The chapter that was originally called Max Aurach in the German edition became Max Ferber in English. As Maya Jaggi recounts in Recovered Memories, an interview-based article in The Guardian September 22, 2001, one of the two sources for the character Max Aurach was the English painter Frank Auerbach, who apparently did not want to be so closely identified with the book now that it was coming out in English. And so the character’s last name was changed from Aurach to Ferber and Auerbach’s painting, which had appeared on page 240 of the German book, was removed. Jaggi writes:

He [Sebald] is conscious of the danger of usurping others’ existences. While all four emigrants are based on real people, the painter Max Ferber, who obsessively scratches out then redoes his work, is a composite of Sebald’s Mancunian landlord (“I found out he’d skiied in the same places as I had”) and the London-based artist Frank Auerbach. Without naming Auerbach, Sebald says he felt he had the right – “because the information on his manner of work is from a published source”. Auerbach, however, refused to allow his paintings to appear in the English edition. Sebald modified the character’s name from Max Aurach in the German. “I withdraw if I get any sense of the person’s discomfort,” he says.

The second photograph that was removed is a close-up of a man’s face, and, given its placement in the text where the narrator of The Emigrants recognizes a painting by “Ferber”an exhibition catalog from the Tate Gallery, it seems safe to say the face probably belongs to one of the two sources for Ferber – either Auerbach or Sebald’s landlord from his Manchester days.

I studied Ferber’s dark eye, looking sideways out of a photograph that accompanied the text, and tried, at least with hindsight, to understand what inhibitions or wariness there had been on his part that had kept our conversations away from his origins… (page 178 of the American edition)


In creating Max Aurach/Ferber, Sebald also transplanted Auerbach from his adopted London to Manchester. In the book, Ferber says:

Manchester has taken possession of me for good. I cannot leave. I do not want to leave. I must not. Even the visits I have to make to London once or twice a year oppress and upset me. (page 169)

Not only did Sebald relocate Auerbach to Manchester, he transfered his allegiance to London onto Manchester. Earlier this year the (February 3, 2007), reported on Auerbach’s dislike for leaving London:

“I HATE leaving my studio. I hate leaving Camden Town. I hate leaving London.” So speaks Frank Auerbach, a German-born artist who came to London from Berlin as a boy on the eve of the second world war, and whose parents died in the Holocaust. Mr Auerbach reckons he hasn’t spent more than four weeks away from his adopted home since he was seven.

By the way, the photograph of Aurach’s eye which goes missing in English-language editions, foreshadows by more than decade Sebald’s book of poems Unerzählt (Unrecounted), in which each poem is accompanied by an illustration showing only the eyes of a person. It also set the stage for the cover photograph used for the British edition of Vertigo (Harvill, 1999).
Marias Eyes

[The eyes of Javier Marias, from Unrecounted]

Sebald Vertigo British cover

Sebald’s Voice

Max Ferber CD Cover

Audio CD
There are a couple of ways to listen to W.G. Sebald speaking or reading.  Sebald personally recorded only one audio CD during his lifetime – Max Ferber (Frankfurt am Main: Eichborn Verlag, 2000). In this double compact disc set, Sebald reads in German from the “Max Ferber” section of Die Ausgewanderten.

Max Ferber CD Insides

KCRW Interview
Sebald can also be heard in a superb interview conducted on December 6, 2001 by Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW radio’s exceptional Bookworm program. In this thirty-minute interview, held only eight days before the automobile accident that killed Sebald, he talks at length about his debt to Thomas Bernhard, who he feels was practically the only German-language author to have not compromised his writing. To be morally compromised, Sebald says, ultimately leads to being aesthetically “insufficient.” Sebald describes Bernhard’s style as a “periscopic form of writing” in that he only tells you what he sees – nothing more, nothing less – a style Sebald uses to some extent in Austerlitz. It is a great pleasure to listen to Sebald’s voice and his immaculate, slightly obsolete English responses to Silverblatt’s intelligent observations and questions.  It’s worth trying to find Silverblatt’s interview with Sebald on Bookworm, if you can.

Sebald at 92nd Street Y

Reading at 92nd Street Y
On October 15, 2001, a few weeks before the radio interview mentioned above, Sebald gave a public reading at New York’s 92nd Street Y, which can be seen on YouTube.  The video is 49:23 long.  Sebald introduces his just-published book Austerlitz for about five minutes and then reads for twenty-five minutes from the section in which Jacques Austerlitz and Marie travel to the spa town of Marienbad.  That selection is not only a very important part of the book, it’s an interesting one to watch Sebald read since it contains segments in both French and German and so we hear Sebald actually reading in three different languages.

That night at the 92nd Street Y, Sebald shared the stage with Susan Sontag and so they are seen sharing the question-and-answer period.  Sontag is asked about her admiration for Nabokov and to elaborate on the consequences of the controversial essay she wrote for The New Yorker immediately after 9/11.

Sebald is shown answering two questions.  The first has to do with his use of photographs.  He explains that often the photographs precede the writing as was the case with the cover image for Austerlitz, which was “the point of departure” for the whole book.   Sebald says that photographs “hold up the flow of discourse” in the text, slowing down the reader’s path down the “negative gradient” of a book.  All books must come to an end, therefore the book is inherently an “apocalyptic structure.”  Photographs also serve as an affirmation to the reader that the story is based in truth.  But, at the same time, “pictures can be used as means of forgery” and Sebald confesses to have tampered with “not a few” in his books and he admits that he uses photographs to “develop complex games of hide and seek.”  Sebald notes that historic photographs “demand” that the reader address the lost lives they represent.

The second question posed to Sebald had to do with translation and why he uses a translator.  In the midst of his response, Sebald mentions that authors occasionally have to “intervene” with a translator and he hints – not for the first time – that he had to do so himself.  As to why he uses a translator, he offered two reasons.  He doesn’t completely trust his English and, because feels he is running out of time, he doesn’t want to spend his days translating himself.  He says he “sees the horizon.”  (Two months later he was dead.)

The final question was addressed to both Sontag and Sebald: What is their favorite book of the ones they’ve published.  Sontag: “the last two novels” Volcano Lover and In America.  Sebald’s answer is to say that “books written look like abandoned children” and so he cannot pick a favorite.  But there are certain rare sections of his books that are his favorites, namely those pages that came to him “without hesitation”.  Here, Sebald talks a bit about the “Il ritorno in patria” section of Vertigo, which flowed from pencil to pad.

[This post updated August 2013.]