Books: Ghostly scrapbook of departed lives

Harriet Paterson discovers a rare evocation of a vanished culture
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The Independent Culture
The Emigrants by W G Sebald Harvill, pounds 14.99

Through some mysterious alchemy, WG Sebald has written these four narratives about melancholy, memory and death without being in the least dispiriting. His great quest to revivify the dead through tracing those left behind by a vanishing culture - that of Jewish life in Europe - is instead a redemptive act of love, preserving existences that appeared to be lost and grasping certain crystal-clear moments which were lived intensely in the past: "It truly seemed to me, and still does, as if the dead were coming back, or as if we were on the point of joining them." Approaching the end of this century, Sebald looks back over a hundred years of alienation and exile, concentrating on the lives of four Jewish emigrants. These are in a sense the forgotten victims: not the lamented Holocaust dead but the displaced survivors, children who were shipped to safety, for example, while friends or relatives perished. Their safe havens cannot shield them from the slower death of suppressed memory, nostalgia and regret, however. This is the first generation of a people ripped up by the roots, bewildered by loss and struggling to find a new orientation.

Sebald divides his book into four life stories linked by a shared moral and cultural background. While the specific detail of family and surroundings is unique to each, the protagonists' experiences as emigrants finally merge into a pattern which establishes them as universal figures. A fine network of emotional threads runs between their lives.

First of the exiles is Dr Henry Brewster, Sebald's landlord in Norfolk, who as Hersch Selwyn rode out of Lithuania on a cart with his family in 1899, to arrive eventually by ship at the port of London. There is Paul Bereyter, Sebald's sensitive and freethinking school-teacher, an "amazingly good whistler" as he recalls, who is forced out of Germany in 1935 because of his quarter-Jewish blood. Notwithstanding this, he returns to fight for Germany in the war; having survived, he finally lays his head on a railway track.

Ambros Adelwarth, Sebald's great- uncle, emigrates to America and becomes the companion of a rich young man; in retirement he retreats into a silent world of his own and commits himself to a mental asylum. Max Ferber, an artist whom the author meets while living in Manchester, is sent from Germany in 1939 by parents who intend to join him but are instead murdered. Encountering the belching smokestacks of Manchester, "where all seemed one solid mass of utter blackness", Ferber is unexpectedly bewitched and stays for good: "I believe I felt I had found my destiny."

All of these grieving exiles have tried to conceal what has been left behind, only to find that this is an impossibility: "For years", one learns of Dr Selwyn, "the images of that exodus had been gone from his memory, but recently, he said, they had been returning once again." Sebald's purpose is to retrieve and document those images, that inescapable past, before it is obliterated altogether. As a result, the book is densely textured with detailed remnants - people and objects, cities and landscapes, fleeting moments trapped in the mind's eye: the schoolteacher gazing from a classroom window, sun glinting on his glasses; Ferber's mother opening a door, her bare feet on the white scrubbed floorboards.

Not satisfied with verbal images, Sebald studs his text with photographs and diagrams, to strangely disquieting effect. For one thing, the pictures have no captions; they simply stand in the text at appropriate points with silent anonymity. And although some are straightforward family shots, many of them are obscure, even deliberately uninteresting; amateurish shots from the Forties, taken from so far away that key faces are indistinguishable.

There is a random quality to the content of these illustrations which becomes more unsettling the more one leafs through the book; in the Max Ferber narrative, for example, there is no portrait of the protagonist at all; instead there are offerings such as a photograph of the two plastic- tagged keys to the Jewish cemetery where his mother is buried. A scratchy sketch of Sebald's classroom done by himself as a child, a boat ticket, a photograph of a Teasmaid in a Manchester bedsit, all conspire to give one the feeling that something unfathomable is going on in this ghostly scrap-book.

Through these mysteries weaves Sebald's elegant, civilised prose, beautifully rendered by Michael Hulse's translation. The effect is understated and discreet, devastating events dealt with in the briefest of strokes, but the overall mood of the book is poetic, almost dreamlike: "'And in winter,' said Ferber, 'if a ship suddenly appeared out of the mist when one least expected it, passed by soundlessly, and vanished once more in the white air, then for me, every time, it was an utterly incomprehensible spectacle that moved me deeply'." One might say the same about the workings of memory as described by Sebald in this rare evocation of the past and its inhabitants.