As with his books The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is almost impossible to describe, let alone categorise. Sebald invented a strange, dream-like literary genre of his own: an odd mix of reportage, memoir and fiction. Or at least I think that’s the mix: it’s frankly impossible to tell which passages are factual and which invented. The library classification on the back of the book is of little help: Fiction/History. Thanks for that!
The Emigrants is split into four sections, each one dealing with a different person known to Sebald who ended up living as an emigrant. Sebald describes how he came to know the person in question, what they told him about themselves, and what he subsequently managed to piece together about them—either factually or conjecturally. The text is interspersed with photographs supposedly supporting Sebald’s research, although you never know for sure how much is true, and how much fiction.
As with Sebald’s other works, The Emigrants is an astonishing book. I’ve read it many times, and shall continue to do so. You should too.
“…wonderfully droll, witty and entertaining… At their best Carter’s moorland walks and his meandering intellectual talk are part of a single, deeply coherent enterprise: a restless inquiry into the meaning of place and the nature of self.”
—Mark Cocker, author and naturalist
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