JUDY KRAVIS

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Thursday, 3 January 2019

Edward Gorey said that for a year after he had read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann he felt as if he had t.b. This is a reader paradigm that could do with expanding. As I start another W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, I wonder what imprint is settling in on me?

A melancholic empathy, for one. Sebald's emigrants are solitaries: a former landlord, a former teacher, a great-uncle and an artist in Manchester, more or less jewish or touched with an empathy for the outsiderhood of jewishness that Sebald himself must have had.

Or is it the even mist of biography, the long sentences and the quietness that precedes as well as follows death (emigrants are inclined to be suicides for all they have lost or not found, even if jews, as my mother used to say, are not), that produces the apr├Ęs Sebald effect: the birds fall silent, memories intensify the mist rather than the features it obscures.

Sebald's own memories intertwine with these tales of people he knew; he is the quiet one whose shadowlands and diligent researches are at the service of those who succumbed to sadness. In fact Sebald, who is always there when others' narratives dwindle into silence, could be said to be paying the debt of their melancholy by his attention.

His great-uncle, for example, according to one of the doctors who knew him, had a longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember. Sebald, as gently as you can with the written word, reverses that.

Great-Uncle Adelwarth, and Sebald's primary school teacher, have not been fully extinguished after all. Sebald pulls from his uncle's old agenda book a narrative in the first-person full of wonder, the converse of his later longing for extinction.

The artist Max Ferber (is that why Sebald liked to be called Max?) donates a manuscript about how they got out of Germany into Suffolk or Manchester. A gift freely given: you can do what you like this, je te le confie. Or the writer has invented them. Peu importe.

Memory, says Great-Uncle Adelwarth at the end of his agenda, is a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

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