Mona Simpson's Bookshelf
By W.G. Sebald
Written more than a quarter of a century after Primo Levi's masterworks, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants also grows out of the great human upheavals of the Second World War. This book—part fiction, part memoir, part scrapbook—evokes the myriad ways the moral apocalypse of World War II still lives on in the greatly altered private lives of the people Sebald loves: artists, school teachers, recluses, solitary scholars, émigrés.
The Emigrants chronicles four men's lives, each who left Germany at different times during the century. Three of them are clearly emigrants, rather than immigrants, in that the substance of their lives was determined more by what they left behind than by what they found. Sebald, who died an untimely death late last year in an automobile accident, not far from his adopted home in Norwich, England, wrote meticulously detailed, meandering investigations into the soul. He was fascinated by the nature of memory—its dormancies and recoveries. His books put the reader inside life-size mazes in which the center is also the only way out. The reader searches for the root of an obsession, the beginning of a sorrow, which in a psychological sense, leads us to the core of the problem and also to its end.