The Goldsmiths Prize judge, Gabriel Josipovici, on Sebald’s masterpiece, The Emigrants

‘A title: Dr Henry Selwyn, and, beneath it, a mysterious epigraph with no acknowledged source: “And the last remnants memory destroys.”  On the next page: a photo of an English country churchyard dominated by a large yew tree. Beneath it, the text begins: ‘”At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.”

The jacket has told us that W.G Sebald was born in Wertach im Allgau in Germany in 1944 and has been a lecturer at the University of East Anglia since 1970; ‘Clara’ rather than ‘my wife’ suggests that this is a personal memoir, not one addressed to the general public. The text goes on:

For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst the fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland.  The market place, broad and lined with silent facades, was deserted, but still it did not take us long to find the house the agents had described.  One of the largest in the village, it stood a short distance from the church with its grassy graveyard.  Scots pines and yews, up a quiet side-street.

Now we know what the photo represents.  But why is it there?  Because the writer of this personal memoir slipped it in to remind him of the place?  Or, since this is after all a printed book we are reading, in order to persuade us of the truth and accuracy of what he is describing?  Or is it perhaps out of some kind of postmodern attempt to make us realize that the whole thing is an invention, since the photo after all proves nothing and need not even be of that churchyard at Hingham, if there is such a place?  None of these explanations quite seems to fit.  Rather, the quietness emanating from the photo, placed without any caption above the text, corresponds in some sense to the quietness of the prose which in turn reflects the silence of the East Anglian country-side and of the village itself.

The evenly-paced narrative continues, describing the house with its broad driveway, graveled forecourt, stables and outbuildings, the Virginia creeper growing over the façade and the black front door with “a brass knocker in the shape of a fish,” the sash windows glinting “blindly” in the sun, “seeming to be made of dark mirror glass.”  Again, is this simply a careful description of a specific place visited by Sebald one day in September 1970, or is it, like Poe’s House of Usher, heavily symbolic?  The narrative refuses to come to rest on one side or the other: the fish-shaped knocker may be significant or it may not, the house may reflect the mind of its owner or of the narrator, or it may not.

I have spent so long describing what is only a twenty-page story because it is not every day one is sent a masterpiece to review (I suppose one is lucky if it happens more than once or twice a lifetime).   And this story is what it is because, like all good art, the form and the style bring into being what would otherwise have remained in darkness and silence for ever, so that a mere account of what the story was ‘about’ would not have begun to do it justice.

The use of unattributed photographs and epigraphs, of reported speech and narratorial restraint which holds the borderline between sober fact and high fantasy, is in evidence also in the other three stories of this volume.’