It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment in the past seven or so years that I became aware of the German writer W.G. Sebald. It seems preposterous that I hadn’t known him until at least a decade after his death in a car accident in 2001.
What Sebald has achieved isn’t exactly new: English literary critic James Wood gestures in the direction of Stendhal’s autobiography The Life of Henry Brulard and Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight as antecedents. But when The Emigrants came out in English in 1996, it felt novel, new.
By the time Sebald died, he had published four books of prose: Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and The Emigrants. Even though I have all his books, it’s only Austerlitz and The Emigrants to which I return. Although no reporter has ever written with such exactness and elegance, Sebald’s style is a melding of a kind of reportage – a raconteur tradition that societies still in touch with their folk heritage will at once recognise – and the use of photographs, drawings and diagrams that give his prose the feel of a textual documentary.
The Emigrants is a collection of four stories named after their central characters: Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber. All are menaced by desolation and migration.
Sometimes I find myself re-reading the story of Selwyn, who left Grodno, Lithuania, in 1899 for England. “For years the images of that exodus had been gone from his memory, but recently, he said, they had been returning once again and making their presence felt.” When we meet Selwyn, he is already retired, living out his life in an aloof hermitage.
Every time I read this story, I am struck by elegant sentences like this one describing a friend of Selwyn’s, whom the narrator meets at a dinner. “He too was wearing a tweed jacket. His shirt collar was too large for his scrawny, wrinkled neck, which emerged from it accordion-style, like the neck of certain birds or of a tortoise.” It’s as though Sebald is covering all his bases: if you haven’t seen an accordion, certainly you will know birds or tortoises. Yet the metaphors never feel overly elaborate.
Ferber is a German-Jewish immigrant who leaves Germany for England when the Nazis are consolidating their power and later becomes a successful artist in Manchester. Adelwarth’s story is about a German who moves to the United States.
Bereyter’s story begins rather mournfully: “In January 1984, the news reached me from S that on the evening of the 30th of December, a week after his 74th birthday, Paul Bereyter, who had been my teacher at primary school, had put an end to his life. A short distance from S, where the railway track curves out of a willow copse into the open fields, he had lain himself down in front of a train. The obituary in the local paper was headed ‘Grief at the Loss of a Popular Teacher’ and there was no mention of the fact that Paul Bereyter had died of his own free will, or through a self-destructive compulsion.”
Bereyter, who was a quarter Jewish, wasn’t able to be a teacher while Hitler was in power. When he was eventually able to teach again, he was popular with his students. In the narrator’s recollection of his teacher, it occurred to him that “the only thing that seemed remarkable was that no one called him Paul Bereyter or even Bereyter the teacher. Instead, he was invariably referred to simply as Paul, giving the impression that in the eyes of his contemporaries he had never really grown up. I was reminded then of how we had only ever spoken of him as Paul at school, not without respect but rather as one might refer to an exemplary older brother, and in a way this implied that he was one of us, or that we belonged together.”
The narrator (it’s not even disguised that it is Sebald) speaks with Mme Landau, the last person who saw Bereyter alive. “It was only the manner in which he died, a death so inconceivable to me, that robbed me of my self control at first; yet, as I soon realised, it was for Paul a perfectly logical step. Railways had always meant a great deal to him – perhaps he felt they were headed for death. Timetables and directories, all the logistics of railways, had at times become an obsession with him, as his flat in S showed.”
The railway in the postcolony
In Europe, the railway lives on. But in the postcolony, in states such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, the railway system is effectively moribund, except when, as in the case of the Gautrain, it is a kind of vanity project. In Zimbabwe the railway system is in a particularly sorry state, destined for a bit-part in a museum if nothing is done soon. The trains cannot run on time and the coaches seem to be the ones Robert Mugabe inherited from Ian Smith, now in a frightfully dilapidated state. They run on diesel even in parts where they used to run on electricity. If you want to see what Mugabe really did to Zimbabwe, the way the country regressed, the railways are the obvious place to begin looking.
When Landau tells the narrator of Bereyter’s obsession with railway timetables, his mind immediately goes back to his primary school days. “I thought of the stations, tracks, goods depots and signal boxes that Paul had so often drawn on the blackboard and which we had to copy into our exercise books as carefully as we could.”
Turning philosophical, the story unfurls: “…when I told her about those railway lessons, in the end it is hard to know what it is that someone dies of. Yes, it is very hard, said Mme Landau, one doesn’t really know. All those years that he was here in Yverdon I had no notion that Paul had found his fate already systematically laid out for him in the railways, as it were.
“Only once, obliquely, did he talk about his passion for railways, more as one talks about a quaint interest that belongs to the past. On that occasion, said Mme Landau, Paul told me that as a child he had once spent his summer holidays in Lindau, and had watched from the shore every day as the trains trundled across from the mainland to the island and from the island to the mainland. The white clouds of steam in the blue air, the passengers waving from the windows, the reflection in the water – this spectacle, repeated at intervals, so absorbed him that he never once appeared on time at the dinner table all that holiday, a lapse that his aunt responded to with a shake of the head that grew more resigned every time, and his uncle with the comment that he would end up on the railways.”
Bulawayo to Victoria Falls
In October 1998, on a break from university, I travelled on the overnight train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. In those days, an 8pm train departed the station more or less at 8pm and, barring unpredictable breakdowns, arrived on time. I was visiting relatives in Hwange, a coal mining and electricity-producing town – Zimbabwe’s Witbank, if you will – about 100km before Victoria Falls. Sometime in the early morning, I woke up with the sinking feeling that I had missed my station, but still asked, in as casual a tone as possible, a fellow passenger whether we had reached Hwange. He told me we had just gone through the town. I breathed in deeply.
At the next stop, I got off to walk to the Victoria Falls-Bulawayo highway, a few hundred metres from the tracks. As the train started moving again, in that slow and deliberate way of Hugh Masekela’s Stimela, a man I remember as dark, with a rectangular face and a clean-shaven chin, looked down at me from the dining coach and shouted from a half-opened window over the noise of the engine, “But where are you going?”
“To the highway,” I replied, explaining that I overslept and missed my station, and wanted to catch a bus or lift from the road. “Get on the train!” he commanded in a tone one might use to speak to someone who is hard of hearing or cognition. I clambered back on the train, which was already gathering pace. When I was seated, he repeated his question. I explained my predicament. “Don’t you know there are lions where you wanted to walk through? You seem like a smart young man. What’s wrong?” He was in the middle of preparing breakfast for the passengers and he gave me some coffee, perhaps to wake me from my suicidal reverie. I ended up in Victoria Falls and took a bus back to Hwange.
The last few lines of the concluding paragraph of Bereyter’s story read: “When Paul told me this perfectly harmless holiday story, said Mme Landau, I could not possibly ascribe the importance to it that it now seems to have, though even then there was something about that last turn of phrase that made me uneasy. I suppose I did not immediately see the innocent meaning of Paul’s uncle’s expression, end up on the railways, and it struck me as darkly foreboding. The disquiet I experienced because of that momentary failure to see what was meant – I now sometimes feel that at that moment I beheld an image of death – lasted only a very short time, and passed over me like the shadow of a bird in flight.”
Every time I read the concluding part of the story, my mind goes back to that train ride when my life could have ended in a bloody mess near the railways.