Book review: ‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald

File under Sebaldian.

‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald

As with his books The Rings of Saturn and Verigo, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants is almost impossible to describe, let alone categorise. Sebald invented a strange, dream-like literary genre of his own: an odd mix of reportage, memoir and fiction. Or at least I think that's the mix: it is frankly impossible to tell which passages are factual and which invented. The library classification on the back of the book is of little help: Fiction/History.

The Emigrants is split into four sections, each one dealing with a different person known to Sebald who ended up living as an emigrant. Sebald describes how he came to know the person in question, what they told him about themselves, and what he subsequently managed to piece together about them—either factually or conjecturally. The text is interspersed with photographs backing up Sebald's research, but you never know for sure how much is true, and how much fiction.

It's a pretty amazing book, and one I will almost certainly return to in future.

  • Buy from or (for which I receive a small commission)
  • …or, better still, buy or order a copy from your local, tax-paying independent bookshop, who could really do with the help.

Postscript, Aug-2020: Since writing the above, I have re-read The Emigrants and Sebald's other works many times. They are as enigmatic and wonderful as ever.

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