Everything, it seems, is paid for--there is no scot-free; the bill comes around, our dreams send it. The German novelist and scholar W.G. Sebald has written a haunting and limitlessly suggestive book about the most terrible example in our memory.
"The Emigrants" is four narratives about the death that persists within survival. Each is about a German Jew who in one fashion or another escaped the Holocaust yet gradually succumbed to it years later, in his old age.
The fictional narrator, like Sebald, was born in Germany in 1944, immigrated to Britain and teaches at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The resemblance provides a framework of apparent fact. The narrator's stories--of his Norwich neighbor, a retired doctor who shoots himself; of a teacher who, at 73, lies down in front of a train; of his great-uncle, who wastes away in a psychiatric establishment in upstate New York; and of an old artist whose fatal lung disease stems from an obsessive painting technique--all begin as an ostensible mix of remembrance and biographical investigation.
Bit by bit, the external details acquire the colors of poetic introspection. Sifting his subjects' lives, the Sebald-narrator has, like a tomb excavator, been taken over by the dead men's ghosts. Each account is profusely illustrated by old postcards, family portraits, snapshots. As do all such scrapbook memorabilia, the faces that peer from the class pictures, excursions, holidays and eavesdropped intimacies bear two opposite messages: "I am"--and "I no longer am."
Even more significant than the deaths are the truncated parabolas that precede them. Each of the emigres--two left Germany decades before the advent of the Nazis--displays a vital energy and earns some kind of success in the first years. Then there is a break or an undermining: a nervous collapse or slow extinguishment.
These are removed in space or time from the Holocaust--the great-uncle's decline is a foreshadowing, in fact--but its depredation attains them, dreamlike and almost invisible. Sebald's fascinating, beautifully written (and translated) novel makes the invisible visible and submerges us in the dreams.
The first story is the narrator's casual introduction to what will become a series of quests. Looking for a place to live in Norwich, he explores a large house with a series of secluded gardens and outbuildings. Lying on the lawn is an old man, who rises apologetically: "I was counting the grass," he explains. A facetious excuse; we will see it in retrospect as a presage of death.
It is characteristic of Sebald's method: The stories are sprightly, intensely alive, curiously and sometimes divertingly detailed. Infection drifts in imperceptibly. It is a tragic darkening, but we would not be able to perceive it properly without the buoyancies and lightenings of the stories themselves.
The 79-year-old Henry Selwyn becomes the narrator's landlord and neighbor. His story is seemingly undramatic. His family immigrated to England at the turn of the century. He studied medicine, married a wealthy Swiss woman and lived extravagantly for many years. From 1940 he began a depressive decline, gradually abandoned his practice and spent more and more time in reverie about an old Alpine guide who befriended him in his youthful mountain trips and later vanished in an ice crevice.
Selwyn has become increasingly distant from his own life. His eventual suicide is almost a detail. It is the image of the icy mountains and the obsession with the dead Swiss guide that lead us into the soul of this old man who anglicized his name and never mentions the six million other deaths that inhabit his cells like a genetic code.
The narrator, himself a Jew born in Germany in 1944 and raised there--we never learn how his parents survived--learns of another death. At 73, his third-grade teacher, Paul Bereyter, has laid himself down in front of an oncoming train.
Bereyter grew up in the prewar period feeling exuberantly German. He loved the language and the culture, he went on soulful hikes, he trained to be a teacher to impart these things. In 1935, just after receiving his first assignment, he was discharged because he was one-quarter Jewish.
It broke his heart; he spent the next few years in France as a tutor, but when war began he returned to join the army, which took him for his 7 1/2 pints of Aryan blood and ignored the other two-and-a-half. After the war, he returned to his hometown and became a brilliant and beloved teacher. It was resuming a love affair in the face of monstrous betrayal. Over the years, his effort to ignore what Germany had done became too much for him; he retired to live in France.