A Discussion on W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

In the book The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, the lexical words of the author are in perfect harmony with the visual pictures he presents to the reader; the illustrations are often matched concretely with the words, and they both simultaneously capture and escape the stillness of the past. Sebald uses the black-and-white images to illustrate the times and circumstances surrounding the main characters in his stories, emphasizing that these events really did happen and these people did actually exist. He presents the past with concrete proof and a mournful feel for the deaths of these people. The lexical and the visual are in excellent harmony within Sebald’s narrative. For example, on page 14 there is a picture of the vast and magnificent Aare Glacier, and although it pertains directly to what Sebald is saying about the disappearance of Johannes Naegeli, it also seems to foretell much more. It engulfs the entirety of the surrounding landscape, with the mountains in the background dwarfed by the enormous glacier, and this feature in itself is a foreboding sign of imminent death for both Naegeli and the main character in the story, Dr. Henry Selwyn. The dark ominous glacier is a metaphor for two future events in the story, the suicide of Henry Selwyn and the discovery of Johannes Naegeli’s body many years later. The dangerous but magnificent glacier also mirrors Selwyn’s life, the powerful friendship between Naegeli and Selwyn, and the adventures the two embark on before they meet their dark ends. In another example of this, on page 27 Sebald has a picture of a dark railway extending out of the picture into fields (as he mentions below the picture), and once again the lexical matches the visual as Sebald goes into the story of Paul Bereyter’s life, which ended on that very railway. The railway is another metaphor for a story in the book, this time for Paul Bereyter’s life, which extended far from home and touched many places but ultimately led him back home in the end. The dark trees and cloudy sky give a depressing image and clue as to how the main character ended his life there, as mentioned in the first paragraph: “He had lain himself down in front of a train” (Sebald 27). The sentence itself conjures a mournful image such as the one pictured, of darkness and depression, in which Sebald again matches his words with his images. Sebald has a rather concrete way of matching words with pictures. Although he does use images that foretell the story and add emotion, he also adds pictures that show concrete examples of what’s happening in the narratives. For example, when Sebald speaks of the death of Dr. Henry Selwyn’s closest friend, Johannes Naegeli, he includes at the end of the story a picture of the very newspaper article that tells of the discovery of Naegli’s body in the Aare Glacier 72 years after his original disappearance. The picture is a concrete description of what’s playing out in the story and is a rather emotionless example that is placed there for visual rather than emotional instruction. It illustrates that this event indeed did happen, and here is the proof of this utterly amazing discovery so many years later. Another example of the concrete use of pictures is on pages 58 and 59 when Sebald is discussing how his late teacher Paul Bereyter had made notes about the many authors he read, often staying up until the early morning hours reading and writing. The picture is of a clipping of Bereyter’s notes, written in indistinguishable shorthand German, and serves visual and concrete purposes rather emotional ones. The short excerpt is not overly notable and is most likely the same as all the other notes Bereyter has, but it serves the purpose that the newspaper article served: that is, it emphasizes that these events really did happen and these notable people really did exist. These pictures simultaneously capture and escape the death of the past. On page 55, Sebald has a picture of Paul Bereyter from when Bereyter served in the German army during World War II. It captures the death of Bereyter’s past because it encompasses one of the darkest times during Paul’s life; though he witnessed the horrors of World War II, he never wrote a word about it despite his literary genius. It also escapes the death of the past of World War II, as Sebald illustrates through this picture how a part-Jewish person was drafted for the German army in the mixed-up time of the war. There is no death of the past with this picture because Sebald has captured a prime example of the chaos of the war and Paul’s Jewish and non-Jewish roles in it. Another picture that escapes the death of the past is on page 53, when Sebald speaks of the Bereyter family’s luxurious car at the height of their lives, which illustrates the changes that occurred within German society between the time of this picture and Theodor Bereyter’s death in 1936 — which, according to Mme. Landau, was “From the fury and fear that had been consuming him ever since… the Jewish families… had been the target of violent attacks” (Sebald 53). However, it also captures the death of the past because, without the writings of Sebald, no one would know the true believed reason of Theodor Bereyter’s death, and how his rage over the treatment of the Jewish community caused his heart to fail. In The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald, the author uses pictures to enhance the story and gives the reader concrete examples that these events and people truly existed. He paints a picture of how the war affected individual lives and how pictures can both capture and escape the death of the past, despite the horrible events and tragic things that unfolded in these people’s lives.