Emigration seems to offer a fresh start, a blank slate; this is often what is hoped for by those that practice it. In many cases, of those fleeing conflict or extreme economic deprivation, this is a more than reasonable aspiration, and the contrast that is occasioned by a successful migration may well be so great as to justify such a characterisation. However, the tissue of history is remarkably resilient, indeed it is impossible to sever; it is, in a sense, what we are made of. As I recently observed in Noto in Sicily, which re-sited itself after the devastating earthquake of 1693, not only is the effort to make a clean break inevitably futile, but its consequence is a kind of blank perfection, a deathly beauty as superficial as it is artificial. The ‘self-made man’ is a homunculus.
If history is the stuff from which we are made, then the desire to sever ourselves from it is a death-wish. Two of the principal characters in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, while they are indeed geographic emigrants, take their own lives: in doing so, they appear to succeed in the emigrant’s aspiration to wipe clean the slate of their biographies, but Sebald’s narrator strives desperately to resurrect them, whether by means of his own recollections, or by obsessively seeking out their traces, in the memories of others and in the documentary record. What drives his particular desire to resist the loss of memory is never entirely clear, except that it is a desire that can be identified with the craving for more of life that drives every marginally conscious organism from a stickleback fry to the human beings whose specificities Sebald is so intent on preserving. I say Sebald, because although the first-person narrator is clearly not entirely coterminous with the author, a significant overlap is equally evident.
For some reason I have read what is sometimes regarded as a trilogy of novels in a chronological zig-zag; entirely by accident, this echoes the spatialisation of historical succession that is one of Sebald’s concerns in this, the middle book. This is something that is discussed explicitly on a couple of occasions, but it is also implicit in the formal design of the work, whose plot is labyrinthine in design; the reader is drawn in through successive apertures until they forget how they arrived in the current narrative location, and it becomes impossible to identify a singular narrative present. If while I was typing this essay the insertion point at which my text appears were to vanish, and the paragraphs begin to emerge in an unpredictable order, that would not be a dissimilar experience to that of reading this book. In the sequence of recollections and reflections that make up the novel, the only present tense that can be identified is that which places the contents of the text in the past, prior to publication; otherwise it is very difficult to say from what point in the narrator’s biography any particular recollection is related. It would be possible to analyse the text and produce at least a provisional fabula, but such a literalist deconstruction would be the act of a psychopath. Whatever the meaning of the work may be, it would not survive such a process.
The Emigrants appears to have more of a visible structure than Vertigo or The Rings of Saturn, although it is entirely possible that I’m simply better attuned to Sebald’s writing than when I read the other two books. There is a framework of recurring symbols and themes, which appear in a controlled rhythm, intensifying as the book progresses. In particular, a figure attempting to catch butterflies in a net recurs several times through the narrative; it’s easy to ascribe a symbolic value to this figure, but I think too easy. Sebald is never, in my experience, an obvious writer, and although there is an obvious analogy between such a figure and the narrator’s pathetic compulsion to capture and fix in place the fragile, ineffable vapour of human experience, its recurrence feels to me more like a marker of structural rhythm, more like the pillars in a colonnade than a key to the identity of the building’s inhabitant, or to the meaning of the text. I don’t believe the book has a singular meaning, but I think its meanings would be better sought not in the generality of the narrator’s quest to grasp and make present the absent past, but in the absolute, irreducible particularity of what it is he grasps, or fails to.
The more distant from the narrator a given figure is, the more mediated their memories, the more urgent his need seems to become to recover the ‘truth’ of their life, to somehow preserve their memory as though living. He travels to visit his interlocutors, sometimes considerable distances, but he seems less interested in them as people than as archives. An emigrant German painter he knows in Manchester seems more valued for the access he affords to his mother’s memoir than for the friendship that exists between the two men; relatives in the USA are points of access to a deceased uncle the narrator barely knew, and interesting in themselves primarily for the way their cultural identities and childhood memories produce a bridge to the past. Although the narrative shows warmth between the narrator and other characters, even love, it seems incidental. In his desperate mission to defend memory and history against no less a figure than death, he seems to lose track of life, of the presence to which he aims to bring the precarious traces of the past.
Both the historical spatiality of Sebald’s world, and the immanence of memory in its materials, are characteristics that have been associated with the literary genre of psychogeography, and his narrator’s purposeful but oblique trajectory through territories of place and memory seems an almost archetypal example of what Guy Debord referred to as dérive. Where Debord and the Situationists constructed dérive as a revolutionary strategy, an act of radical resistance, Sebald’s revolt is against time itself, and I think it could be argued that what seems ostensibly to be a series of inward, self-interested musings, is no less revolutionary, no less political. The irreducible worth of a human being on which he insists, a worth that is not interchangeable or equivalent to any form of ‘value’, an experience of personhood both subjective and objective, is a fundamental challenge to many facets of the socio-economic conditions prevailing at the time that Sebald was writing, and I would argue, even more so today, when the instrumentality of everything seems to have become a basic tenet of global capitalism’s version of digital culture. The singular, ahistorical, directional, goal-focussed purposefulness which is now demanded from the individual is intrinsically incompatible with Sebald’s coherently self-contradictory model of human consciousness, which resists and desires both death and survival, both continuity and renewal, with every fibre of its particular, historically situated, unpredictable, beautiful being.