Books on Exiles

From The Wall Street Journal:

Three Rings

By Daniel Mendelsohn (2020)

Among the riches of this stunning work is its portrait of the exile of Erich Auerbach. An extraordinarily gifted German-Jewish scholar, Auerbach fled the Nazis for Istanbul, where, chiefly from memory, he wrote “Mimesis,” a major work of literary criticism. “Three Rings” begins with Daniel Mendelsohn’s own voluntary exile from America in the early 2000s. In search of witnesses to the Nazis’ slaughter of his family in Polish Bolechów, he traveled to Uzbekistan, Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Australia. On returning home to New York, he suffers an involuntary exile from his accustomed desires and preoccupations—a posttraumatic internal exile. A “vacant wanderer,” he becomes a virtual prisoner of his own rooms. In “Three Rings,” Mr. Mendelsohn recovers his authorial presence, where it flourishes and glides effortlessly into the stories of other wanderers and émigrés, among them W.G. Sebald.


By W.G. Sebald (1990)

W.G. Sebald is the German-born author of some dozen enrapturing books. The most engaging are not novels, although they are novel-like; nor are they travelogues, although they function that way. They are “traveling” works of sensation and meditation, framed by uncanny photographs that have only peripheral relevance to the matter at hand. This book’s German title—“Schwindel. Gefühle.”—also means the feeling of a swindle, a cheat, which in this case refers to the unreliability of memory and perception. At the time of his death in 2001, Sebald was a professor of German literature in England, where he had exiled himself in protest against his country’s hideous crimes. His books report the ruminations of a wandering observer in conversation with others like him—almost all of them distraught, all exiles in one sense or another. In “Vertigo,” Sebald speaks through the masks of Stendhal and Franz Kafka: Stendhal, as he revisits the bloodied battlefield of Marengo, Italy, the scene of one of Napoleon’s victories, which no longer accords with his memories of fighting there; and Kafka, as he vacations at the lakeside resort of Riva, Italy, the setting for part of Kafka’s great story “The Hunter Gracchus”—its protagonist, though dead, travels the world on a barge that cannot find its way to the afterlife. Sebald’s work reflects the extraordinary suffering that humans have inflicted on one another, as well as the suffering of the observer who would give a truthful account of this horror but cannot be sure it is true.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)