I've just read The Emigrants (1992), one of W. G. Sebald's earliest writings and probably his best-known work (I read the English translation by Michael Hulse). It's easy to see why the cognoscenti have embraced this book, which is not a large novel at a fast-reading 237 pages with black-and-white photographs scattered through the text. It is written in a clear, elegant and very urbane style; stylistically it could have been written anytime in the 20th century. The author conveys both landscapes and characters in a deft and persuasive manner that is made to appear effortless, although a great deal of thought as well as research certainly must have gone into its composition. Regarding the quality of the prose one could read it all day long and never tire of either the tone or the sensibility. It is the epitome of cosmopolitanism and sobriety.
But the superb quality of Sebald's technique is not what makes The Emigrants a book that will, I predict, be read and cited for many years to come. Sebald has taken the topic of literally thousands of books - European antisemitism and the ongoing destruction of Mitteleuropa Jewish culture throughout the early 20th century, culminating of course in the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust - and given it a treatment so subtle, so gentle, so personal and yet so indirect as to cause the reader to gain further appreciation of the human cost of events and movements that have been at the center of discussion for half a century.
Four sections present reminiscences (a nameless first-person narrator is different people and yet the same person in all four) of four different displaced European Jews. Some left before the rise of Nazism (but still to escape antisemitism). Others are survivors of families that perished in the camps. They come from disparate parts of Europe, although Switzerland figures most prominently throughout the book. Some have gone to England, some to America, some are still on the Continent. They all live, superficially, more or less ordinary lives. They are not necessarily poor, although certainly several are now in greatly reduced circumstances. They remember their school days. They remember earlier lives as proper people in the proper German-speaking world. They remember a world that is gone.
It is one thing to reflect on the violent deaths of millions (six million Jews, twenty million Russians, who knows how many millions of Asian people), but there is another dimension to the human cost of war and genocide: the people who are scattered, like dust, to the four winds, left to live out their lives as displaced persons, with no choice but to carry on, as people who have lost loved ones must also simply continue. Suicide is an option. Silence is unavoidable. One must get on. Memories persist. There is a long, impressive passage in the last section of detailed memories of growing up in a respectable Jewish family in rural Germany. It is an ordinary, traditional, conservative life. It is neither luxurious nor deprived. It is strict but comfortable. Pleasures are simple. This is normal human life, and it is very beautiful.
The narrator is given these written memoirs by a relative of the now-deceased woman who wrote them. He feels he must go to these towns (Kissingen and Steinach), and he makes a pilgrimage there (one of several such trips of return in the book). He manages to find an old, overgrown Jewish cemetery. Otherwise nothing remains. There is nothing to go back to, and these journeys of return are unsatisfying if not disturbing. All that remains are human flotsam, now far away. That, and something else.
This is not a great masterpiece, but it is a minor masterpiece, and I certainly recommend reading it. I will read another.