The Art of the Short Story: “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald

February 1, 2008 at 1:08 pm (Eloquence, Short stories)

sebald_emigrants.jpg W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants consists of four lengthy narratives, each concerning a German living in exile from his native land. Sebald’s style is unique and enigmatic. He employs little if any dialogue in these stories; there’s also not much in the way of a discernible plot. They have a semi-documenary feel to them. Black and white photos of (deliberately?) poor resolution are scattered throughout the text. The atmosphere is suffused with melancholy.

I read this book in the late 1990’s, shortly after it was published. I remember being especially affected by the first story; in particular, I have never forgotten a sentence that occurs near the end.

The story starts out in a most ordinary way: “At the end of September 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live.” The narrator and his wife come upon a house in the country which, although in a state of falling-down neglect, has a strange appeal. They find the owner, Dr. Selwyn, lying prone in the orchard, engaged in counting blades of grass.

The couple take rooms in the house. At one point, Dr. Selwyn has a guest for dinner, and he invite his tenants to join the party. Later in the evening, the talk turns to Switzerland. (Dr. Selwyn’s wife Elli is Swiss; they are estranged.) The doctor tells of his sojourn in that country many years ago as a young man, shortly before the outbreak of World War One. While there, he became an ardent mountain climber. He was aided in his pursuit of this passion by an alpine guide named Johannes Naegeli.

I don’t want to tell any more of the story. I do want to say, though, that something amazing happens at the end; the reader receives a revelation that is like the sun breaking through a heavy cloud cover.

The penultimate sentence, to which I alluded earlier, is this: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

On the matter of Sebald’s fiction, E.L. Doctorow observes:

“The memories that are evoked are so specific and detailed and thickly textured that they are humanly impossible: they are memories beyond the capacity of actual nonliterary memory. Time and time again we are given reminiscences of the loveliness of ordinary living before the sweep of the scythe: life that is exquisitely modest, preciously unassuming, family oriented, charmingly eccentric, and above all rooted, deeply rooted, in the presumption of European civilization, and so, doomed to be betrayed.” [from the book Creationists]

In December of 2001, W.G. Sebald died in an automobile accident near his home in East Anglia. He was 57 years old.

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1 Comment

  1. The Millions: best fiction of the new millennium « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] by W.G. Sebald, but I found the stories in The Emigrants extremely compelling, the first story, “Dr. Henry Selwyn,” especially […]

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