The Emigration Experience

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald’s book, The Emigrants, is a fantastic non-fiction/memoir hybrid that I am grateful was translated into English. Published in 1996, Sebald presents his readers with the narratives of four emigrants, each with a tie to the author, an emigrant himself. The author/narrator becomes fascinated with these four individuals and subsequently follows their paths to emigration, literally. To me, the author’s fascination stems from his own emigration experience and his likely struggle to reconcile his identity with his cultural roots. The four emigrants are Dr. Henry Selwyn, a German professor emigrant living in England, Paul Bereyter, the author’s former schoolteacher, Ambros Adelwarth, the author’s great uncle and Max Ferber, a painter the author becomes close with in Manchester. Pervading the novel are two primary themes: survival and community. Survival permeates throughout, regardless of whether or not the subjects are successful in doing so, the attempt is there. On page 170 this is articulated particularly well via Max’s mother’s memoirs when she recollects teh mental suffering one endures, the leaping from “one abyss to the next.” Communit is something that emigrants must create, as it is not something they intrinsically walk into, as one does naturally in life. Ambros and his benefactor, Cosmo, create a community amongst themselves despite their surroundings and Max Ferber gravitates to the community most like the one he left in Germany. Finally, the book asks one question that presented itself to me throughout: why does one emigrate from his/her homeland? Two responses became most evident to me. First, one leaves the homeland because that land has become desecrated. Ambros and Cosmo’s foray into Jerusalem demonstrates the scattering effect that a desecrated homeland has on its denizens. A second reason one would leave his/her homeland is that said homeland has rejected the inhabitant. Luisa Lanzberg-Ferber illustrates this in her memoirs. She iterates the result of a land that has rejected its people due to their religion and the result both on the land (complete absence of a people–the absence of Jews in the Lanzberg’s hometown) and the person. This book is a treat and something I will recommend.

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