miércoles, 6 de octubre de 2010

The Emigrants

The Emigrants [Die Ausgewanderten] (New Directions, 1997)
by W.G. Sebald [translated from the German by Michael Hulse]
Germany, 1992

"Emigrants, as is well known, tend to seek out their own kind."
(The Emigrants, 67)

At the risk of alienating two to three of my four to five regular readers, I have to admit that I wasn't blown away by my first encounter with Sebald.  Not entirely anyway.  I enjoyed The Emigrants, I admired certain aspects of it tremendously, and yet something about the novelist's distant tone just didn't connect with me.  Is it fair for a reader to criticize an author for the lack of chemistry between the two of them?  While I try and figure out a better way to say what I mean, let's start with the basics: The Emigrants is a series of four apparently straightforward emigrant narratives loosely connected by an unnamed narrator, a Nabokovian butterfly collector, and the shadow of the Shoah.  At once a meditation on memory and a disquisition on just how troublesome some memories can be, it's written as a species of fictive memoir by a first-person narrator who may or may not be intended to stand in for Sebald himself.  While these rescued stories are liberally punctuated with black and white photographs that lend the work the documentary feel of a family album, there are enough references to faux-documentary German cinema (Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), the dream world, madness, and memory-related trauma invoked to remind you that the narrative's carefully-crafted "reality" isn't quite the same as yours and mine.  That being said, one of the more startling things about the novel is how effectively it riffs on that sense of temporal dislocation and loss.  For while the stories about The Emigrants' four main characters certainly seem to evoke the harsh realities lived by untold millions of displaced 20th-century men and women, the narrator himself seems happy to populate his work with both the living and the dead--the recurring image of a Nabokovian butterfly collector and Nabokov's own autobiographical Speak, Memory being the intertextual totems of choice.  More a near-masterpiece than a masterpiece to me given my occasional disconnect with the authorial voice, this lyrical, provocative, and yet oddly dispassionate effort still has me intrigued about reading much more Sebald down the road.  (http://www.ndpublishing.com/)

W.G. Sebald

"The rest of the time I was looking for Cosmo and Ambros night and day.  Now and then I thought I saw them disappear into an entry or a lift or turn a street corner.  Or else I really did see them, taking tea out in the courtyard, or in the hall leafing through the latest papers, which were brought early every morning at breakneck speed from Paris to Deauville by Gabriel the chauffeur.  They were silent, as the dead usually are when they appear in our dreams, and seemed somewhat downcast and dejected.  Generally, in fact, they behaved as if their altered condition, so to speak, were a terrible family secret not to be revealed under any circumstances.  If I approached them, they dissolved before my very eyes, leaving behind them nothing but the vacant space they had occupied.  Whenever I caught sight of them, I contented myself with observing them from a distance.  Wherever I happened upon them it was as if they constituted a point of stillness in the ceaseless bustle."
(The Emigrants [translated by Michael Hulse], 122-123)

9 comentarios:

  1. Emigrant narratives? No wonder you weren't blown away: where are the scenes of blood and guts? Where's the noir?

    It sounds interesting to me though, except that I, alone in the world apparently, loathe Nabokov. But I love books about history and memory, especially using the lens of the Holocaust. One of my favorites is "Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death" by Saul Friedlander. "Admitting the Holocaust" by Lawrence Langer is also good. They are nonfiction, and both of them short collections of essays full of little gems about the negotiation of memory for cultural purposes.

  2. Yes, deeply alienated. This is a touchstone book for me.

    Alienation is the right word, since it's part of the argument. That distance is thematically essential, however risky to the reader. The novel is in part about the difficulties of connection!

    You can call the Nabokovian figure Nabokov. Sebald did. Everything lines up with VN's biography. Trace the five appearances by VN and see how he gets closer and closer to the characters (picture, book, VN himself at a distance, VN up close, twice). Sebald is combating his own distancing techniques.

    In The Rings of Saturn, a stylistically similar but otherwise quite different book, Borges (his works, this time, not the man) has a related role.

  3. oh ho richard don't believe it ,I loved this book ,but as previous commenter said rings of saturn is amazing ,just read some tonight actually as a preface to Sir Thomas Brownes urn burial still find sebalds style so refreshing at times ,all the best stu

  4. No comment. Haha! I appreciate your critical view of a favorite book. I've read it 3 times already and the haunting voice sometimes chills me in places. Sebald is developing an uncompromised way of telling untold histories of exile, crime, and suffering. He admitted that he was influenced by 19th century German prose writing and also science writing. I guess his fictionalized persona can come across as disengaged and cold, perhaps his way of suppressing his own melancholia. It is an eccentric voice.

  5. *Jill: While I did find Sebald's style a little too "restrained" in places for me (not sure that's the word I'm really looking for, but that'll have to do for now), I also thought he lived up to his rep as a titan on history and memory. Thanks for the heads up on those other books you mentioned and please note that you don't have to be a fan of Nabokov to appreciate his appearance in The Emigrants. Cheers!

    *Amateur Reader: Although I love what you say about the Sebaldian distance being "thematically essential" here, I have a very strong suspicion (maybe unfounded but still) that that may just be Sebald's voice/the way he writes/etc. That I don't relate to it with the same enthusiasm I do with Bolaño in almost anything or Melville in Moby-Dick really isn't a knock on the guy. In any event, I'll know more after my second Sebald, I guess. By the way, thanks so much for pointing out the Nabokov progression in The Emigrants (I hadn't thought of it in that way, but that's a really striking observation on your part) and for directing my attention to what Sebald said about the Nabokov character. Interesting stuff. Not sure whether or not to thank you for describing The Rings of Saturn so appealingly because I'd wanted to read either Vertigo (more of a chronological angle) or Austerlitz (a work I already own) next--plus now I have to read Speak, Memory as well! Dilemmas, dilemmas, I tell you.

    *Stu: Wow, I can't believe you guys are giving me such grief for calling The Emigrants a near-masterpiece! What does it take to please you people? Seriously, though, I did enjoy this work and you and Amateur Reader are seriously whetting my appetite for The Rings of Saturn. I think Sebald and I will be able to work out our little differences before too long, ha ha.

    *Rise: I think you make a great point about how Sebald's fictionalized persona can come off as a little cold or disengaged at times. I definitely perceived that here and there. However, I also noted how haunting that can be. Maybe it's just a matter of me adjusting to his distinctive style and eventually acclimating to it. In any event, thanks for the info on what types of writing influenced Sebald. As you can tell, this is almost all news to me, the Sebald novice. Cheers!

  6. Rise identifies why, every time I write about Adelbert Stifter or Theodor Storm, I can't help mentioning Sebald. I should probably stop. But the connections are so strong (link provided more for reference than as a suggestion for reading).

    My understanding is that Sebald spent a decade or more working seriously on fiction before he published, and that the development of his voice was a crucial part of that work. The use of photographs, too, present in all of his fiction. So I think of it as an artistic choice, although one that was probably irreversible, since you're certainly right that, better or worse, it is he and he is it.

    Frankly, I'm a dang cold reader. Sebald's a good fit. I've known good readers who find him intellectually appealing but emotionally impenetrable, and others who are deeply moved, to tears, even - by, for example, the "marriage" of Cosmo and Ambros, or the story of the artist's mother. I'm somewhere in between.

  7. I've actually read quite a number of lukewarm posts on Sebald books - when Slaves of Golconda read Vertigo both Stefanie and Dorothy were just so-so about it. So you're in good company. That said, I can't help thinking he sounds fascinating. Definitely on my mental to-be-read stack, despite that lack of "click" with many of my reading friends. Meditations on unreliable memory, the dream world, and literary references? Irresistible, really.

  8. I have yet to pick up a Sebald for a full read. Quick random reads through his books in bookstores and the library just left me cold. No reaction at all really. And while I still plan to take the plunge at some point, it just will not be soon. Especially since readers I trust like you and Dorothy are also lukewarm on the deal.

    Had to laugh here when Amateur Reader wrote that he is a dang cold reader. Well, I am a bit of the opposite. And maybe that is part of the issue.

  9. *Amateur Reader: I think I've seen you talking about what a "cold reader" you are elsewhere, but it's interesting to hear about it again here in relation to Sebald. While I've never really thought about myself as a reader in those terms, right now I feel like I appreciate what Sebald says more than how he says it in some ways. In any event, thanks for the link (I'll have to reread that piece) and the info on Sebald's development of his writing style.

    *Emily: I think Sebald is fascinating in The Emigrants, and I actually hope to read all of the rest of his stuff at some point. At the same time, I was sort of lukewarm about his delivery in a way that Amateur Reader, Stu, and Rise are obviously not. My present lack of enthusiasm for his style isn't a deal-breaker by any means, but it is mildly puzzling to me. Would love to hear your thoughts on the guy if/when you get around to something by him!

    *Frances: How interesting to hear about your reaction (or non-reaction) to Sebald in the bookstores--at the very least, you and Emily have convinced me that I'm not alone in reacting to his writing style in the way I did! And although I'm not sure where I'd fit on Amateur Reader's warm/cold reader spectrum, I have to say that I read some Borges, Calvino, and Sergio Pitol (an older Mexican writer who is completely new to me) this weekend and found the experience with each of them much more to my liking in terms of the writer/reader relationship. Hmm...