Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sebald's Emigrants

When I began this blog, it was primarily intended as a commitment to myself to take time to record and, hopefully, to reflect on my reading rather than simply to chomp through pages that I could soon only barely remember. But during the teaching year, this quickly results in an unhappy imposition -- reading, which is one of the ways I relax, now carries the obligation to write, and my free time is so limited these days . . . So once again, I'm behind with my recording and the books I have ready to read are piling up impatiently.

That preamble seems necessary today as context for how I can possibly review W.G. Sebald's very important The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse) as cursorily as I'm going to. Granted, there are so many places you can go to get a satisfactory account of this . . . novel? memoir? Nevertheless, I can't help but feel humbly apologetic as I record my few brief comments.

First, I'm struck by the title, struck at how the emphasis on emigration (a result of Germany/Europe's history, particularly during the Third Reich, but also throughout the 19th and 20th centuries) is so different from our experience in North America. Here we're much more likely to use the word "immigrant." Despite having read a fair bit around diasporic studies, I hadn't ever meditated on this difference, and this title's simple weight seemed to insist I do.

Having taught a course, last term, on the city in Canadian fiction, I was struck by a passage describing the narrator's response to a city he moved to in his youth, in 1952. He remembers finding in this city the "unmistakable signs of a new beginning" and thinking it "particularly auspicious that the rows of houses were interrupted here and there by patches of waste land on which stood ruined buildings, for ever since I had once visited Munich I had felt nothing to be so unambiguously linked to the word city as the presence of heaps of rubble, fire-scorched walls, and the gaps of windows through which one could see the vacant air" (30). Think of a generation who make this link, "unambiguously": cities and war damage. Think, also, that this is not just history, but is the case in many of the world's cities today. Sobering, yet the linkage is made in the same tone of gentle, fact-recording melancholy that infuses the text.

Describing a photograph album he looks through in trying to retrace the life of his former schoolteacher, the narrator comments that since first looking at it he has, "returned to it time and again, because, looking at the pictures in it, it truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them" (46). I've read widely on theories of the photograph -- Barthes, Sontag, Benjamin, Batchen, all the usual suspects -- and this comment adds something ineffable I want to hang onto.

The last narrative in the book is almost unbearably sad, but somehow not maudlin. The narrator's attempts to recover, for his last subject Max Ferber, the experiences of Max's mother, to follow her to the grave, so to speak, are marked by an infinitesimal attention to details, the details of materiality accumulating in layers as if to somehow balance the inexorable move to the nothingness of the graves -- yet the graves themselves are far from nothing. I know that hardly makes sense, but there is an insistence on details mattering, and on the matter of details, that sets a pace throughout the text. Perhaps this has something to do with the way Sebald's theory of memory so subverts that of Proust. In Proust, the madeleine moves one into the detailed richness of the past, and is part of a nostalgia for the time remembered. Here, memory defies the details -- they pile up, these specifics, but so too do the gaps. So many killed, so many moved away, so many separated, so many afraid to speak . . . In such a world, one would fear tasting the madeleine -- involuntary memories become something to guard against, rather than to invite . . .

So there it is, my inadequate response to Sebald's The Emigrants. Perhaps you've already read it and we could chat about it? If not, you truly need to -- I suspect it will be recognized as one of the, say 100, most important books of the last century. I'll definitely be re-reading it and will also be reading his other titles.

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