Sebald’s The Emigrants and Phantasms

Walking England’s oldest pathway in between immersing in WG Sebald, placing foot after foot on a path used by walkers 5000 years ago, reflecting on the memories and stones and truths in The Emigrants. A grass trackway crosses chalk downs beside clumps of trees sitting on barrows, ancient burial grounds, and I’m pondering the accrual of events that combine places, artefacts and persons in an act of transformation.

In a late essay-The Mystery of the Red-brown Skin. An Approach to Bruce Chatwin, included in Campo Santo-Sebald wrote of Bruce Chatwin’s writing, situating him in a literary limbo. His words in this passage serve equally to locate his own legacy:

Just as Chatwin himself remains an enigma, one never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a lin where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Lévy-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial and personal confusion-they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those early travellers’ tales going back to Marco Polo where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.

My deepest gratitude goes to a friend that suggested I might find the Ridgeway uniquely fascinating, this ancient pathway following the Chiltern Hills; roaming respectfully over ancient long barrows, white horses and old forts – there is no better way to continue the preceding movement, a journey of phantasms, that of reading Sebald’s writing. They are not so vastly different in character. As Bergson wrote, ‘the following instant repeats the preceding instant’, or, at least, that is how it feels.

One way or another I’m going to have to acquire Die Ausgewanderten [The Emigrants] in the German original. Lise Patt in Searching for Sebald: What I Know for Sure writes, ‘Many scholars have noted the loss of language subtleties in the translation. The interplay between German and English that marked the original is almost entirely lost when all sentences are translated to English. But the assault to the images and to the multiple visual dialects that Sebald has carefully built over the last ten years is even more egregious’. Patt explains at length the slippage in text and imagery between translated versions, a point also touched on in Philippa Comber’s Ariadne’s Thread of Sebald’s correcting, and eventual falling out with translators.

My intrigue with Sebald’s writing compels me to continue reading, moving into his poetry and  critical essays, but also reading some of the better secondary literature. I’ve been quietly building up a small collection of both (Terry Pittsthe  blog for Sebald enthusiasts-probably has an extensive list of worthwhile secondary material; if not I’ll compile one sometime soon). But Sebald’s work is also drawing me back to two other writers that seem to have a similar range of concerns: Woolf and Herodotus.

7 thoughts on “Sebald’s The Emigrants and Phantasms

    • Thanks, Caille. I’m going to try to fit in a trip to Wertach on my way to Venice, mainly to walk a pathway called Sebald-Wege (the walk Sebald does in Vertigo). If so, I’ll get a copy in Germany. But otherwise will follow your advice,

  1. Anthony, the comment by Lisa Patt is fascinating, and is something I have wondered for a long time about Sebald’s prose in translation. I have always read him in German, which may be because of an irrational (?) fear of things being lost in translation, but the interplay between the languages and their different valencies does feel very intrinsic. The other thing that often strikes me about Sebald’s prose is his use of parenthetical phrases (I’m not sure of the exact term) where there might be a whole clause between the article and its noun, which is common in 19th century, early 20th century German literature (no one had ever warned me this was possible until I read Fontane at university, so I have always associated it with him). The effect is that I have to keep the whole sentence in my head to make sense of it. Perhaps I should reread him in translation to contrast the different textures of the languages.
    I’m also reading Vertigo, the only one of the prose fictions that I hadn’t yet read, after reading this fascinating series on Sebald and am really enjoying it.

    • You are right, Rob; although I understand the Sebald translations are of a high quality (he collaborated with the translators), it isn’t possible to retain a lot of his style and, I understand, some of the wit. I’d like to try to read him in German at some point, but given that his influences were 19th century writers using an archaic form of the language (as his grandfather spoke), it might not be possible to easily acquire enough language to make it worthwhile.

      • Absolutely. I’m sure they are excellent–and the enormous range of writers and artists who he influenced is testament to that. I didn’t know, or perhaps had forgotten, that he worked closely with the translators, but I very much understand why.
        I’d say go for trying Sebald in German. The well-tempered German sentence is a beautiful thing to behold. When I lived in Germany, I began thinking of the language like music, where it goes into another, minor key in the subordinate clauses before resolving with the return of the verb.

        • Sebald worked with Hulse and Hamburger, but they both allude to a separation at some point. I also read an anecdote of Sebald giving a gift of one of the Hulse translations, in which he had made corrections in pen.

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