And so they are ever returning to us, the dead

Sebald’s characters live in memories and the past – this is perhaps the least kept secret about his books. Their dead keep returning to them, the possibilities of their own deaths continue to haunt them – until they can bear it no more and often embrace that death which has been following them.

In Emigrants, which I am now re-reading after a few years, four stories follow four people who escape (or are forced to leave) the places where they were born. The places where (in a now archaic worldview) they were supposed to spend their lives. In the face of evil which reaches these places in the form of racism, nationalism or other forms of vile hatred, they abandon their fate and chose different paths. For some it is merely a different country, for others it is a completely different life. However, they continue to be haunted by the memory of their past. It is as if they should have stayed back and faced the consequences of being born in a place. In a bizarre link between fate and birthplace, these people believe that the persecution their birthplace offered will pursue them no matter where they go.
So these emigrants spend restless hours climbing mountains, or walking the countryside, or catching butterflies – either whiling away time in wait for that destiny they escaped or trying to listlessly walk away from this persistent destiny.
I have, so far, read only two sections. The first one, on Dr. Henry Selwyn struck me as a little odd. What strikes me in Dr. Selwyn’s story is that his homesickness is not something he has carried around him since his emigration. It is in the later stages of his life, as estrangement with his wife grows is when he begins to think about home. This is uncharacteristic of Sebald’s tragic heroes, who, displaced at a very early stage, seem to carry the burden of exile throughout their lives. In Dr. Selwyn’s case, homesickness seems more a romanticism of past in the face of an unhappy present. In Dr. Selwyn’s life are enclosed many possibilities – the possibility of a happy country life in Lithuania, the possibility of persecution in the holocaust, the perils of an immigrant’s life in America, a happy life with his wife in England. Dr. Selwyn has escaped all these possibilities, to end with the most banal of all maladies – an unhappy marriage. Perhaps he is tormented by the banality of his misery, and yearns for a more dramatic tragedy (of being buried under snow like his friend, or living the holocaust). May be this is what lies behind his melancholy – not the memory of home, but what home seemed poised to bring when he left it. Is Sebald trying to say that even those who completely avoided the holocaust are victims of it because all other miseries look embarassingly small in comparison?

2 thoughts on “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead

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