Wednesday, August 11, 2010

THE EMIGRANTS by W. G. Sebald

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead."

The occasion for this, Sebald's most often quoted and misunderstood line, is a newspaper article reporting the discovery of the remains of Dr. Henry Selwyn's mountain climbing companion, Johannes Naegeli, released by an Alpine glacier 72 years after his death. To fully understand the line, however, it's necessary to read it in light of the "Selwyn" section's enigmatic epigraph: "And the last remnants memory destroys." The lines are two halves of a complete thought, and they lock together like puzzle pieces to reveal the extraordinary complexity of W. G. Sebald's concept of memory. The Emigrants, like all of Sebald's novels, is a book of memories--memories mostly of the dead. (Susan Sontag was right to title her essay on Sebald "A Mind in Mourning.") But Sebald never loses sight of the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of authentic remembering. He (and/or his narrator) is constantly aware of the porous, wavering borderline between memory and imagination. Just a few lines above that epigram about the eternal return of the dead, for example, Sebald's narrator introduces a memory with the words "as I recall, or perhaps merely imagine..." Our memories inevitably fictionalize the past, falsify it, fit it to our contemporary needs and desires. Every present creates its own past, and the selective emphases of these created pasts can tell us much--about the present. And thus does memory destroy what it purports to preserve. It's easy to misread Sebald (and Proust, whose concept of memory is equally complex and problematic) as a literary version of Mr. Memory from Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps, the novelist as rememberer speeding his readers along the tangential autobahn of his photographic mind. But Sebald more often, and more profoundly, meditates on the near-impossibility of any authentic experience of the past. And there's a wonderful symbol of the past's unrecapturability in the first section of The Emigrants: a photographic slide of a beautiful Cretan landscape is held so long in the projector by its viewers' collective desire that it overheats and cracks. Significantly, the narrator tells us that this incident "later vanished from my mind almost completely."

While not as consistently brilliant as Vertigo, The Emigrants is still a very good book with moments of greatness. I'm tempted to say that Vertigo is poetry and The Emigrants is prose. The "Henry Selwyn" and "Paul Bereyter" sections are equally impressive, the longer "Ambros Adelwarth" less so (the long Deauville dream sequence is unnecessary), but the account of Adelwarth's decline and his suicide-by-psychiatry is greatly affecting. (It is suggested that Adelwarth's case represents the opposite pole of the memory problem stated elsewhere in the book. Adelwarth is tormented by a tragically photographic memory and therefore chooses to have his mind, self and ultimately life annihilated by electroshock.) The novel's greatest section, though, is its last, "Max Ferber." The story of a German refugee painter (reportedly based on Frank Auerbach), it contains many passages of such soul-searing intensity that they perhaps exemplify an artistic overcoming of the near-insuperable problem of contact with the past. The past can be recaptured, but only with the exertion of a life-consuming effort, and only (as Proust also knew) in art. Ferber's experience before the Isenheim Alterpiece and his conclusion that mental suffering is endless; the description of the pain of a torn vertebral disc; Ferber's notion that time is "a disquiet of the soul"; his likening of reading his mother's memoir to a deadly fairy tale compulsion--all these incidents and the memoir itself, every mundane line of it, are gathered shards of the past's broken vessel. The narrator's visit late in the section to a conveniently forgotten Jewish cemetery in modern Germany is a scene that I find almost unbearable in its intensity of communicated emotion. It is that all-but-impossible thing, a memory that doesn't destroy but recovers. The Max Ferber section lifts The Emigrants into greatness and leaves us with an ending as haunting and haunted as Vertigo's apocalyptic void. At a time when the narrator is musing dejectedly on "the entire questionable business of writing," he recalls an exhibition of photographs of the Lodz ghetto, one of which shows three young Jewish women working at a loom in one of the ghetto workshops. As the narrator examines the photograph, implicating himself in it by standing in the photographer's position, he wonders what their names were: "...Roza, Luisa and Lea, or Nona, Decuma and Morta, the daughters of night, with spindle, scissors and thread." History's victims, Sebald calmly informs us, are our Fate.

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