The Emigrants (German novel)

The Emigrants (German novel)

Infobox Book |
name = The Emigrants
title_orig = "Die Ausgewanderten"

image_caption = paperback edition, New Directions Publishing (1997)
author = W. G. Sebald
country = Germany
language = German
genre = Novel
publisher = Vito von Eichborn GmbH & Co: German edition/The Harvill Press: American edition
pub_date = 1993
english_pub_date = 1996
media_type = Print
pages = 237 pp
isbn = ISBN 978-0-8112-1338-7(hardcover American edition)

"The Emigrants" ( _de. Die Ausgewanderten) is a 1993 novel by German writer W. G. Sebald.

Plot introduction

The Emigrants is a novel in which Sebald discusses research into the lives of four different characters, each of whom had some sort of interaction with the narrator, presumed to be Sebald. As with most of Sebald's work, the text includes many black and white, unlabeled photographs and strays sharply from general formats of plot and narrative.

It is divided into four sections, each focusing on a different person:

Dr Henry Selwyn

Subtitled: And the last remnants memory destroys. (Zerstöret das Letzte / die Erinnerung nicht)

Selwyn is the estranged husband of Sebald's landlady, who fought in the First World War and has a propensity for gardening and tending to animals. He confides in Sebald about his family's immigration to England from Lithuania, and suspects that it is this secretive, alien past that helped dissolve his relationship with his wife.

Paul Bereyter

Subtitled: There is mist that no eye can dispel. (Manche Nebelflecken / löset kein Auge auf)

Bereyter was Sebald's childhood teacher in a town referenced in the text only as "S". A quarter Jewish, he found employment difficult in the period leading up to the Second World War, although he eventually served in the Wehrmacht. Teaching in the small school after the war, Bereyter found a passion for his students while living a lonely, quiet life. In later years, his eyesight began to fail and he moved to France, where he met and spent much time with Mme Landau, from whom Sebald obtains most of his information about Bereyter.

The subtitle is a paraphrase from Vorschule der Ästhetik by Jean Paul. "Thus, the great Hamann is a deep sky full of telescopic stars, and some nebulae cannot be pierced by the eye."

Ambros Adelwarth

Subtitled: My field of corn is but a crop of tears.

The author's great uncle, Adelwarth was the travelling companion of an affluent young aviator gifted with much luck at gambling and a wayward attitude towards life. In his youth, he accompanied this man across Europe, and into Turkey and Asia Minor, before his companion fell ill and was sent to a mental institution. Afterwards, Adelwarth was the butler of the young man's family, living on Long Island until their death.

The subtitle is a paraphrase of a line in "Tichborne's Elegy" by Chidiock Tichborne.

Max Ferber

Subtitled: They come when night falls to search for life. (Im Abenddämmer kommen sie / und suchen nach dem Leben)

As a young man in Manchester the narrator befriends an expatriate German-Jewish painter. Years later the artist gives the narrator his mother's history of her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the East and death.

Explanation of the novel's title

Each of the section-title characters is an emigrant who left Germany (or a Germanised community). Sebald discusses how each left their native country and what they have become in their new lands. How much of Germany and emigration remains with them as they slide towards death under foreign skies? The narrator, whose biography appears similar to that of the author, is also an emigrant but his story is less explicit.

Major themes

The work is concerned very much with memory and feelings of foreignness. In two awkward scenes, Dr. Selwyn, whom Sebald does not know very well, confesses memories about his earlier life. He tells the story of a man he met in Switzerland in the time immediately prior to World War I, and how he felt a deeper companionship with this man than he ever did his wife. He also divulges how his family emigrated from Lithuania as a young boy, and tries to get Sebald to reveal how he feels being an emigrant from Germany living in England.

Bereyter is also portrayed as an outsider, even whilst living in his native Germany. As a Jew, he is a second-class citizen, and after the war, he is an intellectual living in a small provincial town.

Allusions/references to other works

Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, the consummate emigre and recorder of the emigrant experience, is referenced, as an individual, explicitly (in 'Dr. Henry Selwyn') and implicitly (usually as 'the butterfly man') throughout the book. Several characters lives seem to intersect with Nabokov's at various points, in a German spa town, in Ithaca, New York, and in Switzerland. Some of these incidents are adapted from Nabokov's 'Speak, Memory.'

The introduction of Nabokov into at least three of the four parts of the book is rather disarming. Sebald's insistence on letting his characters speak for themselves and his tactic of introducing photographic evidence lead the reader to believe she is reading an emotive biography or powerful documentary rather than a novel. The deliberate introduction of the 'Nabokov motif' re-establishes the authorial presence and the fictive strand of the book, but also helps draw attention to the wider themes that touch all the work's characters.

Literary significance & criticism

"A literary masterpiece" --Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung

"W. G. Sebald has written an astonishing masterpiece: it seems perfect while being unlike any book one has ever read. Bewitching in its subtlety, sublime in its directness and in the grandeur of its subject, "The Emigrants" is an irresistible book." --Susan Sontag.

Both quotes from the dust jacket.


*Horskotte, Silke. "Pictorial and Verbal Discourse in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants".
*Curtin, Adrian and Maxim D. Shrayer. "Netting the Butterfly Man: The Significance of Vladimir Nabokov in W. G. Sebald's "The Emigrants"."

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