The Emigrants

Written by W.G. Sebald
Review by Trudi Jacobson

Sebald died tragically in December of 2001, the victim of an auto accident. This book is composed of reflections on four people displaced from central Europe, either to England or to America. The stories are narrated by others–a tenant, a student, a relative, a friend–which provides some distance but also a blurring of the speaker’s voice. The narrators are speaking from the present (or not too distant past), but the memories they disclose primarily center on the period from the First World War through the second. The four sections never really coalesce, but have elements in common other than the fact that their subjects are emigrants. All are suffused with a sense of place, both original homeland and new locale. Some characters seem beset by a sort of paralysis of action, and the image of rubbing out and starting over, though never completely, recurs. The book is peppered with photographs that reflect the stories. These photographs were a source of wonder for me: they matched the text so well, I almost had the feeling the author started with the photographs and built the stories around them, rather than vice versa. Since I expected some sort of summing up, I was slightly disquieted by the lack of a conclusion. But the book was eminently engrossing, such that I will seek out the too few others he wrote.