The Emigrants

The Emigrants



The Pequod Review:

Like Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants is a novel comprised of four interrelated narratives. However, this time they are brought together into more of a thematic whole, with a single narrator and the common theme of migration. 

The book is structured as the partly-fictional biographies of four men, each of whom are living in some form of physical or psychological exile: Dr. Henry Selwyn (a retired physician), Paul Bereyter (an elementary schoolteacher), Ambros Adelwarth (a German immigrant to America, and the narrator’s great uncle), and Max Ferber (a British painter). Despite their apparently normal lives, each is revealed to be traumatized and burdened by important events in their past. Dr. Selwyn for example, while on the surface a refined Englishman living on a large estate, is shown to be deeply reclusive, emotionally stunted, and possibly a repressed homosexual. 

The Emigrants is compulsively readable. As with Sebald’s earlier books, the story is effectively narrated through a combination of photographs and text. And because it is based on real-life individuals, the book feels closer to a documentary than any of Sebald’s other fictional works. Meanwhile, Sebald is just an astonishing writer, with a hazy and elusive prose that matches the dislocation of his characters:

Often I tried to imagine what went on inside the heads of people who led their lives knowing that, behind the walls of the rooms they were in, the shadows of the servants were perpetually flitting past. I fancied they ought to have been afraid of those ghostly creatures who, for scant wages, dealt with the tedious tasks that had to be performed daily. The main access to our rooms was via this rear staircase, at the bottommost level of which, incidentally, was the invariably locked door of Elaine's quarters. This too made us feel somewhat uneasy.


By way of a special welcome, she brought me, on a silver tray, an electric appliance of a kind I had never seen before. She explained that it was called a teas-maid, and was both an alarm clock and a tea-making machine. When I made tea and the steam rose from it, the shiny stainless steel contraption on its ivory-colored metal base looked like a miniature power plant, and the dial of the clock, as I soon found as dusk fell, glowed a phosphorescent lime green that I was familiar with from childhood and which I had always felt afforded me an unaccountable protection at night. That may be why it has often seemed… as if it was that weird and serviceable gadget, with its nocturnal glow, its muted morning bubbling, and its mere presence by day, that kept me holding on to life.


Nowadays, I place all my hope in the mice, and in the woodworm and deathwatch beetles. The sanatorium is creaking, and in places already caving in, and sooner or later they will bring about its collapse. I have a recurring dream of that collapse, said Dr Abramsky, gazing at the palm of his left hand as he spoke. I see the sanatorium on its lofty rise, see everything simultaneously, the building as a whole and also the minutest detail; and I know that the woodwork, the roof beams, door posts and paneling, the floorboards and staircases, the rails and banisters, the lintels and ledges, have already been hollowed out under the surface, and that at any moment, as soon as the chosen one amongst the blind armies of beetles dispatches the very last, scarcely material resistance with its jaws, the entire lot will come down.

And as with his other books, Sebald’s descriptions of architectural details and landscapes are superb:

The front of the large, neoclassical house was overgrown with Virginia creeper. The door was painted black and on it was a brass knocker in the shape of a fish. We knocked several times, but there was no sign of life inside the house. We stepped back a little. The sash windows, each divided into twelves panes, glinted blindly, seeming to be made of dark mirror glass. The house gave the impression that no one lived there. And I recalled the chateau in the Charente that I had once visited from Angouleme. In front of it, two crazy brothers -- one a parliamentarian, the other an architect -- had built a replica of the facade of the palace of Versailles, an utterly pointless counterfeit, though one which made a powerful impression from a distance. The windows of that house had been just as gleaming and blind as those of the house we now stood before.


I never cease to be amazed by the completeness with which anthracite-colored Manchester, the city from which industrialization had spread across the entire world, displayed the clearly chronic process of its impoverishment and degradation to anyone who cared to see. Even the grandest of buildings, such as the Royal Exchange, the Refuge Assurance Company, the Grosvenor Picture Palace, and indeed the Piccadilly Plaza, which had been built only a few years before, seemed so empty and abandoned that one might have supposed oneself surrounded by mysterious facades or theatrical backdrops. Everything then would appear utterly unreal to me, on those somber December days when dusk was already falling at three o’clock, when the starlings, which I had previously imagined to be migratory songbirds, descended upon the city in dark flocks that must have numbered hundreds of thousands, and, shrieking incessantly, settled close together on the ledges and copings of warehouses for the night.

The Emigrants is not Sebald’s best book — I still prefer The Rings of Saturn (1995) — but it is another accomplished mix of fiction, history, biography, and travelogue.