Words to Live By – no. 8

Words to Live By - no. 8

Faculty talk about the books that shaped them

Each month, we ask a member of faculty to tell us about one book that played an outsized role in making them who they are today. In this Tidings exclusive, Vice-President and Associate Professor of the Humanities Sarah Clift shares her Words to Live By.

What book have you chosen?

Before I answer your question, could I give the books I haven’t chosen, but might have if you had caught me on another day?

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro

Middlemarch, George Eliot

History: A Novel, Elsa Morante

The book I’ve chosen is The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.

When did you first read this book?

I first read it in 1997, just a year or so after it came out in English. It was the first work of Sebald’s I read, and since then, I have read everything he wrote (he died an untimely death in a 2001 car accident).

Was it a book that you read quickly or did you take your time reading it?

The Emigrants is not a book you should read quickly, because of the complexity of its narrative structure and the incredible attention Sebald pays to detail. It really is a work to savor and mull over at length. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a ‘slog’ to get through; it is a completely gripping read and I quickly became attached to the characters. In fact, I still feel the same strong attachment I felt all those years ago when I first read the work.

What was it about the book that first stood out to you?

One thing that really startled me about the book on my first encounter was the quality of the prose. I read it first in Michael Hulse’s translation, and Hulse brilliantly captures what I might call the “artful obsolescence” of the prose. Indeed, were it not for the 20th-century giveaways, it could be mistaken for 18th-century German prose, that of Goethe, for instance.

The Emigrants consists of four narratives, each of which is named for its main character. All of these central characters have undergone experiences of emigration; that is, they have all been displaced by war, persecution, trauma, mostly due to the two world wars and the Holocaust. While each narrative is entirely distinct from the others, there are nonetheless motifs and images that “flit” through all of the stories, causing an intricate pattern to emerge that joins the lives of these characters and the unnamed narrator who is compelled to tell their stories—or the stories of their significant “others”—of displacement, memory and loss. I found these patterns really striking—so subtle, and at the same time, so insistent.

Have you reread this book? If so, did you get something different from it on rereading?

I have read The Emigrants more times than I would care to admit—both in English and German. And to be sure, I experience the work in different ways every time I read it. Sometimes I am reading it for the stories of exile, and the painful compulsion that drives the characters to look back on lost worlds. Other times, I am more attentive to the motifs and recurring images of the book. And at still other times, I am reflecting on Sebald’s use of photos, maps, newspaper clippings. I am now at the strange point that I can’t remember if an image described in the work is something I see in my mind’s eye, or if the image in question is actually reproduced in the book: though it might be that I’ve simply read it so often that I’ve internalized a great deal of it, I actually think that Sebald is attempting to blur our framing of memory, perception, bearing witness, and ultimately destabilize the boundaries between the self and other. So maybe my blurring isn’t so strange after all.

How did this book shape you?

The Emigrants has been a really good teacher for me: it has helped me think about how ethics and aesthetics are connected when it comes to representing historical catastrophe. That is, the issue of what is represented—the content—is inseparable, for Sebald, from consideration of “how” that content should be represented. When I first read The Emigrants, I was already interested in, and doing doctoral research in the areas of memory and trauma studies. But Sebald’s The Emigrants gave me a way to think about the imaginative possibilities that can be opened up even in relation to the most difficult histories, to stories that are so hard to tell… possibilities that allow for connections to be made between individuals, cultures, and ways of seeing. There are risks in that endeavor, to be sure, and Sebald is as aware of those as one could be, I think.

What do you think it is about this book that made such an impact?

I don’t think I had ever read a work that was so committed to exploring the catastrophes of the 20th century in such layered, evocative and morally serious ways, and in ways that were so artful and undogmatic. As a German writer born at the very end of World War II (and himself an emigrant to England), Sebald quietly developed a style and a method of working that reflected his own positionality as a non-Jewish German haunted by the enormity of what was done in his name. At the same time as The Emigrants reflects Sebald’s own positionality, it also allows us to explore a question that is, I think, a hugely serious one for us all: How to take responsibility for a history when that history is not our own?

Who do you think should read this book?

At base, Sebald’s The Emigrants is exploring themes of historic responsibility, of how to bear witness, and how to communicate across boundaries of identity, nationality and geography. I would think these themes are important to all of us.

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