The Emigrants contains four stories that interweave; but you feel this more as an uncanny sensation rather than a clear picture of how they are related. The stories are titled after the main characters, (all but one is Jewish or partly Jewish, and the one that isn't is gay): Dr. Henry Selwyn (based on a man he met); Paul Bereyter (modeled after his teacher); Ambros Adelwarth (about his uncle, a valet); and Max Ferber (an artist). Memory is the most important subject for him. It is no wonder that a butterfly catcher appears in his work, a reference to Nabokov, for whom memories were also important, particularly in Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory. In "Dr. Henry Selwyn," Nabokov is represented as a photograph of a man with a butterfly net (who may or may not actually be Nabokov) (16); in "Paul Bereyter," a young woman "…had been reading Nabokov's autobiography" which causes Paul to strike up a conversation with her (43); Ambros Adelwarth hallucinates "…a man of about sixty…carrying a large white gauze butterfly net…" (104); and he is mentioned in "Max Ferber" as one of Max's paintings, "Man with a Butterfly Net" (174) and as a Russian boy of "…about ten who had been chasing butterflies and had lagged so far behind that they had to wait for him" (213). That is just one example of a theme that runs through all four stories. Others are suicide, trains, mountains, gardens, and, of course, emigrants (Nabokov was also an emigrant).
Sebald explored the collective memory of a country through his own belated discovery. He was born in 1944, too young to have any memory of the horrors of the Shoah. As he grew older, Germany's part in the genocide was revealed to him gradually: the German people remained mostly silent. In each of the four stories that comprise The Emigrants, the narrator gradually learns about a character (based on a real person) who was affected by the war. Since he did not experience the pain directly, Sebald had his narrator learn from those who did, just as he learned. The construction of having the narrator meet with a character and having that character tell the story of a third character is fascinating. The boundaries among all of the characters break down as each speaks in the first person and without quotation marks. Sometimes you have to reread the paragraph to see where one starts and the other begins. The reader gains an entry point to the interior thoughts and feelings of all of the characters. Ultimately, you come away embodying everyone, and incorporating all of their memories into your own, just as a writer does when s/he is writing.
Using factual material in fiction is not new: historical fiction is based on this. In fact, I have been noticing it as I read Wolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel, which takes on Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII. The characters come alive based on recorded facts, but Mantel created their inner lives both from research and her imagination. Is it engaging and interesting? Yes. Does it help us understand the time period? Yes. Is it accurate? Unlikely. Does it feel accurate? Yes. Welcome to excellent fiction. Sebald gives us the feeling of accuracy in his engaging work of fiction as well.
I was interested in how he was able to blend various genres in the manner of historical fiction which produced compelling and comprehensible stories, as well as the way he scattered seemingly random images throughout. Sebald incorporated black and white photographs in his books, which became a kind of signature for him, and was made much of in reviews. This is amusing from a book art standpoint; certainly you can include images in a book! I needed to examine what they added, and what the book gained by their addition.
The photos are sometimes used as illustrations, but most tend to highlight certain emotional truths. In one example, he described a specific garden, and then he included a photo of a desolate garden. I found hilarious the image of a family at a dining table about which the narrator says, "I do not know who the other people on the sofa are, except for the little girl wearing glasses" (71). The narrator seems to know who the little girl is, but he does not tell the reader. It may very well be Sebald's own family photo—and if it were Sebald's memoir, we would want to know—but here the ambiguity is acceptable, particularly since this is billed as fiction. In well-written fiction we tend to believe the world of the page: this becomes our reality. In the last interview with him, he said, "
The New Yorker 2011 article: "Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald" by Mark O'Connell
New York Times Books 1997 excellent review "When Memory Speaks" by Larry Wolff
academia.com (detailed article about Sebald and Nabokov)