BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Put aside everything you’re doing and read The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, immediately. (See the other entries in this series here.)
I was waiting for a professor of mine who was meeting me for lunch. He was running a few minutes late, but I hardly noticed or cared. I had The Emigrants open in front of me. I’d just started it on the bus that morning, so I didn’t quite know what I was in for yet. The slow unfolding of the first chapter, the long paragraphs, liquid with shifting voices, and the curatorial attention to detail all gave me the feeling of floating through a small British village submerged in saltwater and preserved in light. I didn’t realize my professor had arrived until, standing right next to me, he said, that’s a great book.
Instead of the things we’d planned to talk about (a different book and just what the hell was I supposed to do after an M.F.A.?), we talked about The Emigrants. When it first came out, his wife had taken a copy with her on a flight to France. After she landed, she called to say that he had to read this book. He said he’d be happy to read it when she was finished with it, and she said, no, go buy another copy right now and read it. It’s that good.
My professor told me a little bit about Sebald, too, how he’d been short listed for the Nobel prize and how he’d died in a car accident at 57, how his work aped memoir and subverted conventional distinctions between fiction and non-fiction. The book is undoubtedly based in Sebald’s own life—he, like the narrator, emigrated from Germany to teach at a university in England—but there are signs of invention everywhere. He asked me if I’d noticed the butterfly man yet. I said no, and he warned me to keep an eye out for the butterfly man as I kept reading.
A few days later, when I finished the book, I returned my library copy and went out immediately to buy my own. I’ve since reread it twice in the past two years.
The Emigrants presents four portraits of people who left their homelands for other parts of Europe, Asia, or the U.S. It reads at times like a diary, at times like an interview, like a travelogue, like a mystery, always with a sense of urgency, as if the writing could somehow save its subjects from their personal histories. The voice melds the narrator with the novel’s other characters in a unified investigation of alienation and loss in the brutality and turmoil of the twentieth century.
I know this doesn’t sound like your typical page-turner, but I’m willing to bet that once you finish the portrait of Dr. Henry Selwyn you might feel differently. The pace is as hypnotic as waves, and the dream is so complete that looking up from the page feels like staring up at a clear blue sky through a few feet of sun-drenched seawater.
Similar books: Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald; The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink; Reading in the Dark, by Seamus Deane.