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MLN 119.5 (2004) 905-929

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What Does It Mean to Count?

W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants

Yale University
"A beautiful protocol, an exact protocol. I will write a protocol of the sort that one doesn't experience everyday."

["Ein schönes Protokoll, ein genaues Protokoll. Ich werde ein Protokoll schreiben wie man es nicht alle Tage erlebt."]

(from Werner Herzog's film Kaspar Hauser)
"Memory is fundamentally nothing but a citation."
["Das Andenken ist ja im Grunde nichts anderes als ein Zitat."]1

Facing the title page of the Fischer Verlag edition of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants [Die Ausgewanderten],2 the following blurb appears, written, no doubt, with the best of intentions, but inevitably and understandably with an eye to selling books to the German public:

With great sensitivity of feeling he describes the life stories and stories of suffering of four Jews driven from their European homeland. . . . W. G. Sebald writes in order to preserve memory. He also did research and had conversations, gatherered photos and documents as well as visiting the scenes.

[Mit großem Feingefühl schildert er die Lebens- und Leidensgeschichten von vier aus der europäischen Heimat vertriebenen Juden. . . . W. G. Sebald schreibt, um das Gedächtnis zu bewahren. Also hat er recherchiert und Gespräche geführt, hat Fotos und Dokumente gesammelt sowie Schauplätze bereist.] 3 [End Page 905]

Leave aside for the moment what it means to describe (schildern); discount the value of photos and documents to guarantee the worth of the accounts in question. How can it be they have gotten it all wrong—and in doing so have gotten it right?—"four Jews driven from their European homeland" ["vier aus der europäischen Heimat vertriebenen Juden"]. Four Jews, four chapters, a full count.4 Does it matter that Ambros Adelwarth, great uncle to the narrator, butler to a wealthy Jewish-American family, long years their son's lover, was himself no Jew? Does it make a difference that Paul Bereyter, dismissed by the National Socialists as schoolteacher, because "he was only three-quarters an Aryan" (50E) ["{er} nur ein Dreiviertelarier gewesen war" (74G)] and called back to serve in the motorized artillery since "the draft notice . . . was also sent to three-quarter Aryans" (55E, trans. altered) ["der Gestellungsbefehl . . . auch an Dreiviertelarier ausgesandt wurde" (81G)], was only a quarter Jew?5 What does it mean to be a quarter-Jew? What does it mean that instead of four Jews there are only two-and-a-quarter in The Emigrants [Die Ausgewanderten]? And what does it mean to count like a publisher? What is a Jew and how does one make him count?

Ghost Quarter

From the story entitled "Dr Henry Selwyn":

"Thus they turn back, the dead."
(23E, trans. altered)
["So also kehren sie wieder, die Toten." ]

How shall we quarter them, these dead, who seem to come back? Is this not what The Emigrants is about, the question of quartering? In a volume subtitled "Four long Stories" ["Vier lange Erzählungen"], Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Aurach6 find, perhaps, a place to reside, or, at least to leave their their residue and gain their due—a remnant, the last that one might say about them. And yet the first that one might say about them, the epigraph to the volume's first chapter, is a call to destroy the remnant—while sparing, it seems, what Sebald calls memory (Erinnerung):

Destroy the remnant
Not the memory.
(1E, trans. altered)
[Zerstöret das Letzte
die Erinnerung nicht. ]
(5G) [End Page 906]

Then what shelter can be offered? And are these stories not like the Jewish quarter (Judenviertel) that the narrator encounters in Manchester, emptied before one's arrival of their inhabitants?

Little by little my Sunday walks would take me beyond the city centre to districts in the immediate neighbourhood, such as the one-time Jewish quarter . . . This quarter had been a centre for Manchester's large Jewish community until the inter-war years, but those who lived...


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