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I'm giving this book to my partner, Michael Sage Ricci, because Sage and I, as well as being partners and lovers, also teach Dangerous Writing together. Sage and I are constantly talking about books and writing, and in particular styles of writing. Sebald's style is like no one else's, and while I'm in love with his books, especially The Emigrants, I am confounded as to his style, and mystified by his style, and while I have some ideas as to how Sebald does what he does, I won't really understand what I want to understand until I talk to Sage about it.
I read this book because my therapist, Grey Wolfe, had been raving about Sebald and she'd just recently finished The Rings of Saturn, so I bought The Rings of Saturn, loved it, and wanted to read another book by Sebald.
The Emigrants is a long meditation, or guidebook, through the lives of four Germans in exile. These people are strangers, outcasts, people who do not belong. This not-belongingness is geographical, but this strange otherness that Sebald gives witness to is so much more. Each of these four people have been wounded so deeply that they never recover from the wound. The Holocaust was a blow to their very deepest human place. A blow of deep unending grief. And with grief comes the isolation of grief, and exile. Home is a place that no longer can exist because that place in us that gives us succor has been ruined.
At every hour of the day and night, the Wadi Halfa was lit by flickering, glaringly bright neon light that permitted not the slightest shadow. When I think back to our meetings in Trafford Park, it is invariably in that unremitting light that I see Ferber, always sitting in the same place in front of a fresco painted by an unknown hand that showed a caravan moving forward from the remotest depths of the picture, across a wavy ridge of dunes, straight toward the beholder.
Funny story: I read The Emigrants while I was on vacation with Sage in Maui. Our Hawaiian hosts had a beautiful house and garden. In the garden, among other beautiful tropical plants, was a peyote plant, which quite miraculously that morning had bloomed. I want you to know that a peyote plant blooming is a very rare thing. And the bloom lasts for only several hours. Well, as destiny would have it, the day I was left alone at the house was the day the peyote plant bloomed. There on the plant was a tiny purple bloom, almost like a daisy. I was reading The Emigrants on the lanai and it was a beautiful day. Our hosts had often spoken of the spirits in the valley where we were staying. The magic of the valley and the magic of the book were quite overwhelming.
In the afternoon I got up and went for a stroll in the garden. When I spied the peyote plant, I was quite surprised to see that the bloom had already withered and all that was left of the bloom was a nub. For some reason, I knelt down and kissed the nub of peyote bloom, then walked back to the house to continue reading. At sunset, the fog started to roll in and I began feeling very strange. Reading Sebald can do that to you, but this was formidable. I was on the last page of The Emigrants just as the sun was going down. When I came to the final sentence, I was transported by the incredibly unsettling last image in the book of the three young Jewish women in the concentration camp sitting behind the loom and looking up at the photographer.
"...the daughters of the night, with spindle, scissors and thread."
I set the book down and took a deep breath. The otherness of my body. As if I were exiled. The peyote kiss.
It took me a while to realize I was tripping my ass off.
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Tom Spanbauer is a critically acclaimed author and the founder of Dangerous Writing. His novels include I Loved You More, Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, In the City of Shy Hunters, and Now Is the Hour. Tom lives, writes, and teaches in Portland, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Tom Spanbauer is the author of The Emigrants