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THE EMIGRANTS by W.G. Sebald

THE EMIGRANTS

By W.G. Sebald

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1996
ISBN: 0-8112-1338-2
Publisher: New Directions

 An evocative work by a prize-winning German author, now England-based, consists of four distinct stories of Jewish emigration over the last century: in each piece, not only the personal drama but the zeitgeist of the occasion is cannily, compellingly revealed. Bending each narrative into a form of personal reminiscence, complete with photographs woven into the text, the tribulation of each elusive subject is patiently uncovered by the narrator, starting with old Dr. Selwyn, whom the narrator meets in the garden of an English country house. In a unique confessional moment, this friendly if distant neighbor reveals his lower-class Lithuanian origins and the process of his assimilation into British society, which in his retirement he finds increasingly foreign. Soon after this confession, he shoots himself. Similarly, Paul Bereyter, the narrator's retired and reclusive grade-school teacher, ends his life by lying down in front of a train, prompting his ex-pupil to explore his past, discovering Bereyter's consuming and destructive relationship with Nazism. The life of Ambros Adelwarth describes a more colorful but no less destructive arc as the young manservant (the narrator's great uncle) finds employment with one of the most prominent ÇmigrÇ families in New York. The personal companion of the family scion, he travels the world with his charge, as an equal, in the years before and after WW I, but the scion slowly succumbs to madness and dies institutionalized; Ambros, eventually overpowered by his memories, voluntarily enters an asylum, where he dies as a result of shock therapy. Finally, an encounter with the artist Max Ferber in the decaying English port of Manchester during the narrator's college years prompts him to return much later, when he learns how Ferber escaped from the Nazis but lost his entire family in the Holocaust. The pervasive melancholy in these lives that are locked in tragedy is formidable, but at the same time the lyricism and immediacy of the narratives are marvelous to behold: a profound and moving work that should leave no reader unaffected.