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The Emigrants
W. G. Sebald
Translated by Michael Hulse
New Directions, $22.95

by Lisa Cohen

"When I think of Germany," one of the figures in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants says, "it feels as if there were some kind of insanity lodged in my head." Sebald's remarkable book, the first of his three works of fiction to appear in English, is a complex attempt to track and dislodge the tenacious insanities of the Holocaust. In a series of four apparently factual portraits of men in exile, he explores the psychic devastations of World War II, the shape of German and Jewish identity and disidentification, and the "lagoon of oblivion" that is postwar memory loss. The book crosses generic boundaries the way its subjects traverse national borders. Incorporating authenticating photographs of significant people, artifacts, and places, it is a novel-essay in the form of a scrapbook, a joint biography, an oral history, and a memoir.

Sebald has said that his "medium is prose, not the novel," which seems exactly right; what he is producing is not history, and certainly not a historical novel, but what he calls "a metaphor or allegory of a collective historical" event. At once unassuming and lyrical, reportorial and mysterious, compressed and diffuse, the eerie precision of his prose is deceptively simple, as unusual and unsettling as the stories he tells. He populates the book with people from his own life, meticulously recording details: three of the four chapters open with a careful citing of names, dates, and places.

Sebald himself left Germany in 1966 and for most of the past 30 years has lived in England, where he teaches at the University of East Anglia. Two of the four subjects of The Emigrants also ended up in England--Dr. Henry Selwyn, who emigrated from Lithuania with his family at the beginning of the century (they disembarked in London thinking it was New York), and Max Ferber, who left Munich alone in 1939 at the age of fifteen, and whose parents were killed two years later. Sebald's great-uncle Ambrose Adelwarth, the subject of the third chapter, left Germany at thirteen, traveled all over the world, eventually worked for a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island, and died in a mental institution in Ithaca, New York. Paul Bereyter, Sebald's primary school teacher, remained in Europe during and after the war, returning to Germany again and again, exiled forever in the place where he was most at home.

But while The Emigrants insists on its status as factual account and its characters' status as real people, it also emphatically has the feeling of fiction. This is in part because all of these details inevitably point to something beyond themselves. It's also because the four chapters are linked by series of unaccountable characters and coincidences that sometimes give the piece the quality of a very grim fairy tale. Who is the maid, constantly at work in Dr. Selwyn's kitchen, who never seems to cook anything? Why does a soda factory on the Lower East Side come up in more than one chapter? Reading The Emigrants, one experiences the registers of fact and fiction, dream and reality, in turn and at once, to dizzying effect. It is as though the work mirrors the consciousness of Dr. Selwyn, who by the time the narrator meets him has abandoned his medical practice to devote "his entire attention . . . to thoughts which on the one hand grew vaguer day by day, and, on the other, grew more precise and unambiguous."

Of the four central characters, Selwyn and Ferber are Jewish, and Bereyter's father was half-Jewish. Adelwarth was decidedly German but, it is hinted, homosexual. Selwyn and Bereyter are suicides; Adelwarth submitted willingly, at the end of his life, to shock treatments of the most violent sort. Each of these men suffers from memory and from the compulsion to obliterate it; from a mourning and melancholia so deep that it is almost unnamable; from the knowledge that he has survived while those he loved have not; from problems distinguishing dream and reality; from a profound sense of displacement. Adelwarth is both servant and guest, both friend--perhaps lover--and paid guide to his employers. Bereyter is "a German to the marrow, profoundly attached to his native land," who even served in the German army for six years, despite the fact that he was driven out of his profession because he was "only three quarters an Aryan." His suicide, his companion Mme Landau tells the narrator, suggests that he finally decided "that he belonged to the exiles" and not to Germany. Ferber, an artist, sits in his studio in a grimy and decaying Manchester, drawing and erasing the same thing over and over, until the finished work looks as though "it had evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences on the harried paper."

The writer-narrator, the fifth central figure in The Emigrants, is as compelling a factual fiction as the rest. Born in 1944, he is a post-war German who has chosen to live elsewhere, a man who has learned that he cannot tolerate his own country. Returning there to search for traces of Ferber's parents, he finds that "the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned every thing up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves"--and he leaves. He makes reparations for the war by making himself the vehicle for others' testimony, weaving their voices seamlessly into his narrative. Yet his self-scrutiny forces him to admit that he is often quite obtuse. Hearing of Ferber 25 years after their first meetings, he marvels: "As I now thought back, it seemed unforgivable that I should have omitted, or failed . . . to ask Ferber the questions he must surely have expected from me; and so . . . I went to Manchester once again." But as Madame Landau remarks to him regarding an earlier lapse:

I do not find it surprising . . . not in the slightest, that you were unaware of the meanness and treachery that a family like the Bereyters were exposed to in a miserable hole such as S then was and such as it still is despite all the so-called progress; it does not surprise me at all, since that is inherent in the logic of the whole wretched sequence of events.

If a sense of traumatized melancholy pervades these lives and this attempt to represent them, it coexists with a great playfulness and feeling for the absurd. This is most obvious in the repeated advent of Vladimir Nabokov in these pages. One could almost say that The Emigrants is haunted as much by Nabokov as it is by the Holocaust. Muse, practical joker, angel of mercy and of death, he makes fleeting appearances in each chapter, chasing butterflies in Russia, in Ithaca, New York, and in the Swiss Alps. In Switzerland, he also guides Max Ferber down from a mountaintop, rescuing him from a suicidal haze; Mme Landau is reading the unnamed Speak, Memory ("Nabokov's autobiography") when Bereyter first approaches her; and on the afternoon of his death, uncle Ambrose tells his doctor that he is "waiting for the butterfly man." Sebald's own exile, his investigation of memory, and his peregrinations in search of these stories--we see him following his subjects' traces in England, America, France, Switzerland, Germany--align him, of course, with the butterfly collector, and make it impossible not to think of The Emigrants as an exhibit of sorts, an attempt to pin the elusive sorrow of these lives to the page.

Is it fair to compare Ambrose Adelwarth's story, and his "longing for an extinction as total and irreversible as possible of his capacity to think and remember," with the losses the others suffer? The word "Nazi" seldom appears in this book. But Sebald makes it possible for the words "ash" and "train," for example, to carry enormous weight, even when they do not refer explicitly to crematoria and deportation. His style, both direct and oblique, is at once symptom and stylistic expression of the problem he is representing: how do we confront a horrifying historical reality? About the Holocaust, Dr. Selwyn can say only this: "The years of the second war, and the decades after, were a blinding, bad time for me, about which I could not say a thing even if I wanted to"--as chilling a piece of testimony as any I have read. In the end, Sebald is more interested in registering effects than in assigning blame. The Emigrants tends to be evocative rather than didactic as it both skirts around and asserts survivors' paralysis and Germans' broad failure to acknowledge, much less take responsibility for, their history.

This is because what Mme Landau calls "the whole wretched sequence of events" is, in Sebald's view, not clearly sequential, or cannot be grasped that way. As he transcribes a conversation with Ferber: "but time, he went on, is an unreliable way of gauging these things, indeed it is nothing but a disquiet of the soul. There is neither a past nor a future. At least, not for me." History is composed of belated recognitions: "as I understood only later," we read repeatedly. History is a body preserved in ice that is disgorged decades later. It is the shock, still, of reading the words of a woman killed by the Nazis (Sebald incorporates parts of a memoir Ferber's mother composed for her son when she realized she would not be joining him in England). It is Sebald's stunned and eloquent imagining of the lives of three women he sees in a photograph taken in the Lodz ghetto during the war. History continually goes forward to causes and back to effects. "When Paul told me this perfectly harmless holiday story, said Mme Landau"--referring to Bereyter's childhood fascination with trains and his eventual suicide on train tracks, as well as, of course, to the railway transport of the Jews to the death camps--"I could not possibly ascribe the importance to it that it now seems to have, though even then there was something . . . that made me uneasy." In the same way, The Emigrants itself has a retrospective and cumulative impact. As we read at the end of the first chapter, "they are ever returning to us, the dead."

The brilliance of this book lies in the fact that Sebald never loses sight of either the power of metaphor or the viciousness of history. The uncanny vividness and specificity of these stories also inevitably suggests other stories, other witnesses--and reminds us of the urgency of hearing these voices before it is too late. Reading The Emigrants, I couldn't help thinking about my reclusive grandfather, who I've only met recently. Born in the United States to immigrant parents, he is continually disquieted by the ways his life was shaped by anti-Semitism, and he has repudiated virtually everyone from his past. Sebald speaks to that sense of isolation and obsession; he has recorded the lethal quality of remembering and forgetting, and the impossibility of both. The scene of the crime, he suggests, is everywhere. You cannot emigrate from it. Removed and yet grappling with responsibility, he succeeds here in making memory speak, and in making himself a witness after the fact.

Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot
Michael Rogin
University of California Press, $24.95

by Jonathan Gill

The old anti-Semitic accusation that Jews control Hollywood has always seemed especially distressing because it is so accurate. From Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, and David O. Selznick to Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Steven Spielberg, Jews have indeed dominated the motion picture industry in America, inspiring the fear that it is as Jews, not as men or directors or Americans, that they control the means by which images and values, be they artistic, monetary, or linguistic, are produced and circulated. Yet anti-Semites have never known quite what to make of the fact that Jews in the film industry entered mainstream American culture by representing blacks, a group one distant rung below them on the nation's racial ladder. It is this historical and aesthetic oddity that inspires Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, which asserts the apparently paradoxical thesis that "blacking up" made Jews more white.

The popularity and influence of such Jewish actors as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, both of whom gained fame in blackface--not to mention such Jewish musicians as George Gershwin, composer of what is still considered the most "authentic" example of African American musical theater, or more recently the Jewish members of the Beastie Boys, the `blackest" of rap groups--have served as a continuing irritant between Jews and blacks. Rogin, a Berkeley professor of political science and author of books on Andrew Jackson and Native Americans, Herman Melville's politics, and Ronald Reagan's place in the history of film and politics, made a small but much-noticed gesture toward healing this division four years ago, when he published an article in Critical Inquiry that openly acknowledged the ways in which Jolson's Jewishness shaped his portrayal of blackness in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer.

Because race is so fundamental in the United States, Rogin argued, locating oneself in reference to race--specifically in reference to skin color--offers all the public and private standing any American needs. By representing (or more accurately, misrepresenting) blacks on screen, Jolson was asserting his status as an American. Now Rogin has expanded his original thesis to include not only The Jazz Singer and the popular blackface films it inspired in the late 1920s and 1930s but portrayals of race in American film through the early post-World War II period. With its insistence on the crucial figure of the Jew in the nation's desire for a bi-racial social order and its focus on the excruciating combination of identification and rejection, sympathy and exploitation at work when Jews black up on the silver screen, Blackface, White Noise should stand as the definitive exploration of racial masquerade in the American motion picture industry.

Although the book explores films as varied as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1902-03), Birth of a Nation (1915), Old San Francisco (1927), The King of Jazz (1930), Whoopee! (1930), Gone With the Wind (1939), Holiday Inn (1942), Home of the Brave (1949), and Pinky (1949), Rogin's heart clearly belongs to The Jazz Singer, and to the figure of Jolson, the Jew in burnt cork and wool cap. The film's beguilingly simple story shows how Jakie Rabinowitz's conversion to Jack Robin--from boy to man, cantorial student to jazz singer, Jew to white, silence to sound, immigrant to American--is achieved through blacking up, which, Rogin argues, "allows the protagonist to exchange selves rather than fixing him in the one where he began. . . . Blackface is the instrument that transfers identities from immigrant Jew to American." In short, the darker the Jew gets, the more American, and therefore whiter, he becomes.

But if Jews occupied a racially intermediate position--blacker than whites, whiter than blacks--in popular culture of the early twentieth century, they also served as intermediaries, according to Rogin. In the decades before World War II, with blacks effectively banned from film studios, theaters, movie houses, dance halls, and recording studios, Jews served as stand-ins for the "real" purveyors of African American culture. No wonder, then, that of all the major cultural conflicts examined by The Jazz Singer--generation, religion, gender, and class--the only missing element, race, is the one that resolves them all. This is Rogin's fundamental insight, even when he turns to later films that forsake the Jew in blackface for "real" Jews and "real" African Americans. The cast of characters, and the larger terms of The Jazz Singer, dominate films of the 1930s and 1940s, Rogin suggests, so that black characters in films like Body and Soul (1947) and Gentleman's Agreement (1947) coordinate questions of national identity and intraracial sexual desire yet remain shadows themselves.

Although Rogin is a political scientist, concerned principally with identity politics--how Americans perceive, create, and represent themselves--his readings of image and dialogue in individual films are powerful and nuanced. But his failure to root these films in the specific historical performance practices and traditions of nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy diminshes the power of his larger enterprise. Blackface minstrelsy, with roots in medieval and renaissance European depictions of Moors, gained wide popularity among both whites and blacks in America before the Civil War. Though it was eventually rejected--along with its literary equivalent, dialect poetry--by Harlem Renaissance writers such as Jean Toomer as racist, degrading, and injurious, it served to inspire Modernists high and low, from Groucho Marx to T. S. Eliot. (Eliot drew on the minstrel shows he encountered as a child in St. Louis and as a student at Harvard for the traditional "endmen" Tambo and Jones, characters in his "Fragment of an Agon.")

More recently, however, a new generation of writers, including Ann Douglas and Eric Lott, has taken up Ralph Ellison's insight that "the darky act makes brothers of us all," and begun to reevaluate what was, after all, the first form of mass American entertainment. Building on a solid foundation of historical research by scholars such as Henry Sampson and Robert Toll, this reevaluation is exploring blackface as a way to address essential questions about American culture: How "black" is white culture? And who sets the terms for understanding race?

Instead of drawing on this historical context, Rogin uses the recent burst of theorizing about transvestitism to assert that blackface is a form of racial cross-dressing. But much of this theorizing is faddish and provincial, and the borrowing misleads more than it illuminates. Clothing is an affect, whereas skin color is not: a man wearing a dress, or a woman in trousers, may borrow the socially constructed meaning of clothing to illuminate and challenge the socially constructed meaning of gender; blackface, in contrast, borrows an essential aspect of another race. Women can choose whether or not to wear women's clothing, but blacks cannot choose their skin color. If sexual desire helps determine how we conceive of gender, the psychology of race relations is different. As such, blackface requires a theoretical framework of its own, not one lifted, in the manner of a blackface mask, from ideas about gender and sexuality.

Here, again, historical reflection may be suggestive. Blackface minstrelsy rose to popularity in the late-nineteenth-century America, when identity was increasingly articulated in terms of economic standing as distinct from race or gender. So class would perhaps be a better place to start. Such an understanding might account, as Rogin does not, for the common nineteenth-century phenomenon of blacks in blackface. "The blackface that offers Jews mobility keeps the blacks fixed in place," he argues. "By wiping out all difference except black and white, blackface turns Rabinowitz into Robin, but the fundamental binary opposition nevertheless remains." But how else are we to understand Duke Ellington's "Jungle Band" of the late 1920s, or Leroi Jones adopting the "African" name Amiri Baraka and a dashiki to go along with it in the 1960s, or the recent vogue for Afrocentrist studies, other than as examples of blacks blacking up? What these cases illustrate is less the "fundamental binary opposition" of black and white than the way each depends on the other in representing itself, and how rooted the entire enterprise is in class. In each case, the identification is with a concept of blackness and the accompanying set of images and gestures, created and authorized by the upper classes of both races.

The Jew in blackface onscreen may have rankled blacks, but it was the Jew in whiteface--offscreen, as owner and producer of the major Hollywood studios--that rankled whites. Thus the Jew is not the wild card in the American racial deck, as Rogin would have it, but rather a reminder that all the cards are marked.

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review

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