Die Ausgewanderten; The Emigrants

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Die Ausgewanderten ; The Emigrants (1992)

As the subtitle indicates, Sebald’s second substantial prose work, Die Ausgewanderten, comprises ‘vier lange Erzählungen’ (four long stories). Its composition is interesting, since on one level the stories can be read independently (some first appeared elsewhere individually). But there are several indications that the four stories are interconnected and that their interconnectedness is important for our understanding of the text as a whole. As the title suggests, each story describes the fate of men who, for different reasons, leave their homeland. All the stories are told by the same narrator who has a personal link to each protagonist. Indeed, an emigrant himself (as Sebald was), the narrator shares their sense of displacement and dispossession and we might feel that a fifth story emerges alongside the ‘vier lange Erzählungen’.

The narrator meets the first protagonist, Dr Henry Selwyn, at his house near Norwich when, together with his companion, he is looking for accommodation. Selwyn is a recluse who lives not in the large house he owns, but its garden folly. Through conversations with the doctor, the narrator learns that the Lithuanian Jew came to England with his family in 1899 and grew up in London. He studied medicine at Cambridge, then left for Switzerland, where he became obsessed with mountaineering and met his wife Hedi. He took up his first surgical position in India, but later returned to the UK, spending the summer months on motoring tours of Europe. Through the narrator we sense how restless Selwyn has been his whole life and how he has struggled to find a place where he belongs. This reaches a tragic climax when Selwyn takes his own life. But, as the narrator notes, the dead have a habit of returning [Die Ausgewanderten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2002) p. 36; The Emigrants, trans. by Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 23], and he is reminded of Selwyn and the stories he once shared with him when travelling through the Swiss Alps by train more than a decade later. Selwyn had told the story of his friend and fellow mountaineer, Johannes Naegeli, who one day disappeared without trace in the mountains, and in a curious coincidence, the narrator stumbles across a newspaper article reporting the discovery of Naegeli’s remains which have been preserved in the snow for over seventy years.

The second story tells of the narrator’s schoolteacher, Paul Bereyter, who at the age of 74 commits suicide on the railway. With the help of Bereyter’s friend Mme Landau, the narrator recounts his teacher’s life and we discover that, like Selwyn, he had suffered from a chronic sense of displacement and exclusion which had, in the end, become unbearable. Clearly gifted as a teacher, Bereyter was deeply affected when he had to give up his post because he was only ‘three-quarters an Aryan’ [The Emigrants, trans. by Michael Hulse (London: Vintage, 2002), p. 50]. He also suffered the loss of his lover who, it is implied, was deported. After the war, Bereyter was able to return to the profession – this is when he comes to teach the narrator – but he struggles to hide the sadness which he carries with him. Bereyter’s death on the train track follows his lifelong fascination with the railway network (the narrator recalls how their teacher would have them copy down scale models of railway stations). But, as scholars have pointed out, after 1945, the railway cannot be thought of separately from its instrumentalisation by the Nazis in deporting victims to the camps (see Presner, reading list below). Thus, Bereyter’s death and his feelings of radical displacement are caught up with the violent experiences of millions who were excluded from society and ultimately life, because of their ethnic origins. Unlike them, Bereyter survived (perhaps as a consequence of being ‘more German than Jewish’), but living on in the place which rejected those like him is insupportable.

The third story is about Ambros(e) Adelwarth, the narrator’s great uncle. Adelwarth leaves Germany with other family members for the US, where he makes the acquaintance of Cosmo Solomon, son of a wealthy Jewish businessman. The narrator tries to piece together his great uncle’s life by going to America and talking to his Aunt Fini. She gives him Adelwarth’s diaries and the narrator reads of his great uncle’s travels with Cosmo to Europe and the Middle East. But Cosmo is overwhelmed by the demands of modern life and the senselessness of the First World War; he suffers from severe depression and, tragically, dies. Adelwarth, who, the text implies, was Cosmo’s lover, never overcomes his loss. He spends the years of the Second World War working as a servant at Cosmo’s family home, then admits himself to a clinic in Ithaca, where he undergoes a form of electric shock treatment and succumbs to the erasure of his memories and (eventually) of his own life.

The final story describes the life of a Jewish artist, Max Ferber. At the age of 15, Ferber leaves his home and family in Munich for Manchester to escape the encroaching threat of fascism. The experience of separation and displacement (Ferber’s parents were to follow shortly afterwards, but never made it) has haunted Ferber ever since and his art, described as a violent process of inscription and erasure, is clearly a mode of working through this traumatic past. Working with charcoal and layers of thick paint, Ferber is engulfed by the dusty deposits. When he later dies of emphysema, we are to understand this as another kind of suicide, where Ferber has been literally consumed by his compulsive work methods. The narrator identifies very strongly with all four emigrants, but this relationship is particularly marked in the final story.

In the first edition, the protagonist was called Max Aurach and Sebald had clearly modelled him on the artist Frank Auerbach. However, following objections from Auerbach, ‘Aurach’ became ‘Ferber’ in subsequent editions. In either case, the artist’s first name is interesting, since Sebald called himself Max, rejecting Winfried Georg as too Germanic. Sharing a name brings the protagonist and the narrator (who can be aligned with Sebald) even closer, but their different roles of artist and author suggest a struggle for prominence in the story told in both words and pictures. By claiming a likeness to, or affinity with, the protagonists, the narrator moves, in all four stories, between a position of visibility and invisibility. These are stories about the named protagonists, but often the narrator’s claim to a similarity of experience threatens to overwrite their stories with his own. Ultimately, however, what the emigrants came to know exceeds the experience of the younger narrator and he remains dependent on their stories to support his own role.

Further Reading

Stephanie Bird, ‘“Er gab mir, was äußerst ungewöhnlich war, zum Abschied die Hand”: Touch and tact in W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten and Austerlitz’, Journal of European Studies 41:3-4 (2011), 359-75

Mary Cosgrove, 'The anxiety of German influence: Affiliation, rejection and Jewish identity in W. G. Sebald's work', in Anne Fuchs, Mary Cosgrove and Georg Grote (eds.), German Memory Contests: The Quest for Identity in Literature,Film and Discourse since 1990 (Rochester NY: Camden House, 2006), pp. 229-52

Gerhard Fischer (ed.), W. G. Sebald : Schreiben ex patria = expatriate writing (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009)

Stefanie Harris, ‘The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten’, The German Quarterly 74:4 (2001), 379-91

David D. Kim and Mark J. Phillips, ‘Project Two: Patterns of the Anthemion: Discovering Networks of Coincidence in W.G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten’, TRANSIT 10:1 2015

Jonathan J. Long, ‘History, Narrative, and Photography in W. G. Sebald’s Die Ausgewanderten’, Modern Language Review 98:1 (2003), 117-37

Todd Samuel Presner, Mobile Modernity: Germans, Jews, Trains (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)