Sunday 14 th February 2021:
Discussion of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants by Virginia Naude
- Mohini Khot
Virginia Naude made an excellent, thought provoking presentation on W.G. Sebald’s debut work The Emigrants. Her slideshow, with pictures of the photos included in the text of the stories, made quite an impact. Her comparison of these pictures with some paintings by Richter currently showing at the Metropolitan Museum, New York added another dimension to the possibilities of interpretation of the stories.The stories deal with the lives, minds, traumas of emigrants who have suffered during World War II, been displaced and have found it difficult to align themselves with their new lives in countries other than their homelands. Sebald himself arrived in England at the age of 22 and clearly knew the angst
of the emigrant at first hand. The stories point to a sense of disconnect with the adopted country, a sense of isolation, an inability to come to terms with the new roles thrust upon them. When Dr Selwyn admits that he did not tell his wife about his Lithuanian origin for many years, it certainly makes us wonder about the reason for his hesitancy and some possible sense of inadequacy or
unacceptability, or, at least, an inability to share the intimacy of his childhood. The issue of identity is at the centre of this story. Can the emigrant ever reinvent himself satisfactorily to the extent that he can accept his own new image as his core reality?They are narrated in first person with details of place and date that give them a sense of factuality like that of a personal chronicle. There are details, sometimes, that seem unnecessary for the purpose, such as a listing of the types of trees in Dr Selwyn’s garden, or the names of the vegetables he brings them as gifts. On the other hand, there is a vagueness and lack of clarity that is matched by
the offering of photos. The photos seem to add to the factuality, making it an undeniably true record of an experience actually lived. But they are in black and white and none too clear: withholding clarity, retaining uncertainty. These “visual clues”, as Monali Chatterjee called them, are enigmatic at best.
The paragraphs are long and the spoken words are not demarcated by spacing and quotation marks. However, as Virginia said, there is never any doubt as to the voice, whether of the narrator or other character.
There is a sense of “lostness” and gloom, a despondency that possibly characterizes the situation of the emigrant. The opening photograph, Virginia pointed out, is that of a graveyard and the story of Dr Selwyn ends with his death and with the recovery of a body long dead (that of Dr Selwyn’s dearest friend, Naegeli, a mountain climbing guide). I thought the sense of loneliness, disconnect, uncertainty and enigma reminiscent of Kafka. Kaveri Narang found the stories to be a rumination more than a statement.
After Virginia’s analysis of the Paul Bereyter story, Anil Kulkarni offered his experience of the suicide by one of his school teachers. How little we really know of someone we may meet every day, the Paul Bereyter story seems to say. A teacher so popular with his students that they remember him not at the teacher’s podium but beside their desks in the aisles could hardly be expected to take his
own life. What could have been the painful secrets he hid until they became too unbearable to continue living with? Like Bereyter’s sunny disposition that concealed pain, perhaps many people around the globe suffer quietly while play acting through life.
Aruna Jethwani spoke about the trauma of forced immigration, linking Sebald’s perceptions to the experience of the Partition of India. She also mentioned that, in her experience, the refugees hardly spoke of their terrible experience. Latika Padgaonkar echoed this, adding the interesting reflection that a character might have good memory but deny himself access to it. Neelam Punjabi also talked of the plight of the Sindhis after Partition while Indu Kulkarni mentioned Amy Tan and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writings on immigrants.
There was a lively discussion of the function of the photographs. Uncaptioned and none too clear, in black and white, they draw the eye but remain enigmatic. Anil Kulkarni thought black and white photos made for greater simplicity and greater depth. Latika linked the blurred nature of the photos to the blurred memory of the narrator. Satish Khot spoke of the greater artistic merit of black and white photography while Satish Joglekar associated monochrome with a sense of basic reality without unnecessary additions. Both Shabbir and I found their usefulness to be that they allowed more scope for interpretation by the reader. They withhold while telling, ensuring that information remains incomplete.
Virginia recommended Austerlitz and Rings of Saturn as further reading to get a better idea of Sebald’s writing. It was interesting to discover that Virginia’s husband once lived in the same village in Germany as did Sebald at that time!
Humanity will never be able to erase from its memory the horrors of the holocaust. It is that one single vicious event in history, which has caused such immense trauma, isolation and depression to its survivors that they have spent the rest of their lives haunted by the past.
The book in review in the book club meeting held on 14th February 2021 dealt with this subject. The Emigrants by German writer W.G.Sebald is a 1992 collection of narratives of four different characters, all survivors of the holocaust, all of who emigrate either to England or the United States.
Sebald (1944-2001) established himself as a deeply serious and ambitious writer who reckoned and self reckoned with the gravest of questions of European history. He founded a new literary form, combining essay, fiction and photography.
The book was very skillfully presented by Virginia (Ginny) Naude. Virginia graduated from Bryn Mawr College majoring in History of Art and then trained at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for a career in the conservation of sculptures and monuments.
The presentation was very engaging and interesting as the narrative was interspersed with reading of key passages from the book as well as a display of relevant photographs to support the narrative. Among other things, Virginia highlighted the writing style of the author by citing a passage where the text flows from the narrator’s voice to the speaker’s voice, from the narrator’s comment to the reader and back and forth with no break in a long flowing descriptive sentence. This was indeed a very distinctive style of writing. Being an artist herself, Virginia went that extra mile to show how paintings could depict alienation and displacement. She visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. On display were a series of four paintings, which she showed, depicting the themes of the book namely displacement, identity and collective memory. The images, two in black and white and two in color, were overwhelming. She complemented the presentation with her vast experience and knowledge of the author and his works.
The book is divided into 4 sections, each one documenting the life of a man no longer living in the country of his birth, men who in the twilight of their lives could find no peace with the past, no happiness in the present. While the book is categorized as fiction, each story reads like a personal narrative, an intimate encounter between the narrator and his subjects. To enhance the illusion that these stories are true, Sebald has embedded black and white photos throughout the narrative. This allows the reader to further peer into the characters’ lives and glimpse more clearly the worlds in which they lived.
In the first section, we meet Dr.Henry Selwyn. The narrator happens upon his house while searching for an apartment to rent. At first the narrator doesn’t see the elderly doctor, who has withdrawn not only to himself but into the disarray around him, the garden that has begun to grow wild. He had left Lithuania when he was seven years old but recently began experiencing repressed memories of home as if they were happening right then. He suspects that it is this secretive alien past that contributed to the dissolution of his relationship with his wife. He eventually commits suicide by inserting a gun in his mouth.
In the second narrative, Paul Bereyter was the narrator’s childhood teacher in a town referenced in the text only as “S”. Since he was a quarter Jewish, he was drafted to military service during World War II. Teaching in the small school after the war, Bereyter found a passion for his students while living a lonely, quiet life. Like Selwyn, Bereyter commits suicide, by lying down on railway tracks.
In the third narrative, the narrator’s great uncle ,Ambros Adelwarth, was the travelling companion of Cosmos Solomon, an affluent American aviator .In his youth, he accompanied this man across Europe and into Turkey and Asia Minor, before Cosmos fell ill and was sent to a mental institution. After Cosmos’s death, Adelwarth was the butler of the young man’s family, living on Long Island. In his later years, Ambros falls victim to an extreme depression which causes him to commit himself to the same institution that once held Cosmos.
The final story revolves around a painter named Max Ferber whom the narrator meets in Manchester, a seemingly dark and desolate city in England. As a teenager, Ferber, a Jew, fled inevitable persecution in Nazi Germany. His parents intended to follow, but instead on a flight to England, they end up on a deportation train. Ferber never saw them again. And so he lives alone, painting in a dark studio as if hiding from the guilt and loneliness of his survival and exile.
The strength of this novel is in its pervasive theme of memory. Throughout the four narratives, we clearly see how memory weighs heavily upon each man, eventually extinguishing their desire to live or live fully.
The audience response to the presentation was overwhelming. People mentioned their encounters with immigrants who displayed a sense of isolation, depression, loneliness and the challenges of integrating to a new environment.