On the Paradox of the Holocaust in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants
This Week From the Lit Century Podcast
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
Hosts Elisa Gabbert, Isaac Butler, and Catherine Nichols discuss W.G. Sebald’s 1992 novel The Emigrants, a hybrid fiction/nonfiction work made up of four long narratives about four people who emigrated from Germany around the time of WWII. A Sebald-like narrator travels in the footsteps of these characters, mentally and geographically, in an elegiac, oblique book that is ultimately about the long shadow of the Holocaust and more generally about loss and memory.
From the episode:
Catherine Nichols: I think he ends up with kind of a paradox, which is the only way to adequately remember the Holocaust is to never speak about it. To leave it as a thing that is impossible to describe truthfully. And that is also the problem he’s having, that there’s just this giant absence in the center of life.
Elisa Gabbert: Yeah, it’s interesting that he was trying to correct what he called a conspiracy of silence that he grew up with, with his parents and that whole generation never talking about it. But then the solution is slightly less silence, and that still ends up feeling like this double bind.
Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism: The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, out now from FSG Originals and Atlantic UK; The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018); L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016); The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013); and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). The Unreality of Memory and The Word Pretty were both named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and The Self Unstable was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2013. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Long Read, the London Review of Books, A Public Space, the Paris Review Daily, American Poetry Review, and many other venues.
Isaac Butler is the author (with Dan Kois) of The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels In America, and also of the forthcoming The Method. He is also a theater director, most recently of The Trump Card, a meditation on the peculiar rise of Donald Trump; he also wrote and directed Real Enemies, a collaboration with the composer Darcy James Argue and the video artist Peter Nigrini, which was named one of the top ten live events of 2015 by the New York Times. He is the co-host of Slate’s Working podcast.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brookyln.