The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald

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why sebald, with his perfectly balanced but unsexy sentences, achieves literary fame is a mystery to me. his world is slow to enter; its drama takes place by the revelation and connection of events told obliquely and without fanfare; his destroyed characters are almost entirely absent, save for the fractured shells that are the proof of their devastation… but somehow the world embraced him (beginning right before his eerily sebaldian death). crazy!

i too love him. i think he writes this incredible realism–despite the fact that these are constructed allegories (of? maybe historical processes). ‘all history is biography’ is one aphorism sebald takes up in this collection of emigrants destroyed by world war ii, but his biography isn’t the bulldozing narrative of false causes and effects, of specious psychological motivations. rather sebald’s biographies are documentations of the paradoxically essential detritus of these historical lives.

the photographs i think aren’t as much as they appear to be, just that their interruptions are a somewhat novel reminder of the falsifications of history. conceptually interesting, but i don’t think they’re why we read sebald. we read him for those sentences. how balanced and dignified they are! what beautiful ways his nested images flow into each other! how noble to choose the details that he chooses! how these sentences sag, like Ambros himself, under the depressive, massive weight of history–of existence!–but, again like Ambros, how they are duty-bound to stand as handsomely and as refined as their formidable talents allow.

passages i loved: finding dr selwyn in the garden, counting blades, the description of the tennis court. the idea of the perfect german country school teacher in paul bereyter, how he’d look through the windows, how music brought him to tears–and how he hid them. a sweltering lower east side summer where everyone slept out on the tenement balconies. max ferber’s studio. god, that studio! the heartbreaking description of a german-jewish family going about its high holy days’ rituals, hopelessly ignorant of how history would annihilate this scene in one short lifetime.

here’s sebald on america, more accurate and succinct than de tocqueville: “So I flew once more to New York and drove northwest along Highway 17 the same day, in a hired car, past various sprawling townships which, though some of their names were familiar, all seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Monroe, Monticello, Middletown, Wurtsboro, Wawarsing, Colchester and Cadosia, Deposit, Delhi, Neversink and Niniveh–I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned” (p. 105).

consume.

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