When I was a kid I thought that everyone was happier than me, that they felt connected to the world in a way that I did not. I experienced life as though I was behind glass, as though some barrier existed between me and the world that obscured, muffled, and distorted it. That wasn’t, as it is tempting to assume, a consequence of being raised in straightened circumstances, on Northern English council estates – although those blackened skeletal compounds, and the fear and unease caused by poverty, surely did not help at all – it was something that was in me and has remained with me, at least in a diluted form, as I have got older and, relatively speaking, moved up in the world. In part, this feeling is probably why I turned to books, because books allowed me to experience something, in my imagination, with a kind of clarity that was otherwise denied me, allowed me to connect with something in the way that I often could not connect with my surroundings or other people.
With age comes understanding, of course, and understanding who I am and why I behave the way that I do has brought comfort and allowed me to lighten up and enjoy myself; with age also comes the realisation that most people are a little bit lost, that it isn’t the case that everyone else is blithely strolling through life, whistling and twirling a cane, without a care in the world. So I no longer feel quite so oppressed these days. Yet it is safe to say that what I experienced as a child, and what I experience still now from time to time, albeit less intensely, is why the work of W.G. Sebald resonates with me so much. All four of Sebald’s novels are populated by eccentric, otherworldly, almost ghost-like, figures, some well-known and others not previously known, whose lives went awry in some way, people who, it seems, could not cope with day-to-day existence, could not successfully endure. In The Rings of Saturn the narrator himself has had a kind of mental breakdown, and, upon leaving the hospital, begins a walking tour through Norfolk, on the way making wry, melancholy observations, and telling anecdotes about strange phenomena and odd, depressive, people; and in Austerlitz the focus of the story is the Holocaust and a man who was sent to England as a child to avoid the same fate as his parents, and suffers, as a result, feelings of dislocation, isolation, and anguish.
In The Emigrants, published prior to The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, Sebald tells the separate stories of four characters, each of whom left their home country, and each of whom were damaged in some way. In many ways the book is a rehearsal for Sebald’s two major novels, as it covers much the same territory and deals with many of the same themes. There is, of course, the same Sebaldian style on display, which means long stately sentences and very few paragraphs, and, punctuating the text, a series of evocative black and white photographs.
There is also the customary balancing act between fact and fiction, which is, perhaps, the most intriguing thing about the German’s body of work. With The Emigrants, like The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz and Vertigo, one is unsure as to what is real and what is not, what is truth and what is fiction, and the effect is disorientating. There is no clear indication as to whether the lives of the four characters are imagined lives, are creations, or whether Sebald is sharing genuine episodes from his travels, experiences, and family history. The photographs, which we are led to believe are genuine representations of the people and things being discussed, may not be at all. I’ve always found that disquieting, that Sebald may have invented his so believable and desperately human characters.
“He felt closer to dust, he said, then to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places were things remain undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.”
However, as one would expect from a rehearsal The Emigrants isn’t as polished or impressive as what came after. It may share the same themes, tone, and style as The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, but those two novels work as complete narratives while The Emigrants reads like four independent short stories or novellas collected in one volume. Of the four sections, stories, or biographies, three are excellent, but one, concerning Ambros Adelwarth, did pass me by a little. It’s not bad at all, but I didn’t find it as engrossing as its three companions. It is also worth noting that Sebald’s photographs seem to appear with much greater frequency in The Emigrants, which I felt diluted their impact. I found that with there being so many I tended to glance at them or ignore them completely, when previously, while reading his novels where they feature less often, I would study them carefully. Of course, none of these things are major issues, but they do go some way, perhaps, to distinguishing between what is a masterpiece and what is merely a great novel.