Reader’s Guide/Questions for DiscussionIn this novel, Sebald compiles the biographies of four German Jews into asequence that is both precisely documented and highly wrought. The lives of a doctor, aschool teacher, a butler, and a painter intersect along the thematic lines of exile, loss,imagination, and madness as they try to cope with inhabiting the post-World-War-Twolandscape they have survived to see. Sebald traces their paths, weaving interviews,diaries, memoirs, and photographs together with his own inventions. What emerges is aquilt-like examination of memory that is by turns lyrical, dark, and hopeful. As the real,the remembered, and the only-dreamed-of become increasingly indistinguishable, theauthor’s voice blends with the voices of his subjects, transforming fragmented worldsinto unified literary art, and a kind of requiem.1.
In the first biographical sketch, Sebald and Dr. Selwyn take turns narrating. Atwhich moments are the voices most intertwined? Do the images at these moments(e.g. the crumbing house, the tossing ship) re-appear in subsequent sections?2.
Discuss the death of the Alpine guide. How does Sebald connect the actual articleabout discovering Nageli’s body to Selwyn’s suicide? What tone does “And sothey are ever returning to us, the dead” set for the rest of the book?3.
In part two, why is Mme. Landau so disturbed by Paul’s uncle’s comment thatPaul will “end up on the railways”?4.
Trace the motif of what Mme. Landau calls “an image of death”: “the shadow of a bird in flight” through the book (for example on page 116, page 212). How does itappear, and how is it transformed?5.
On page 130, why does Ambros stop writing his diary by date? Are there other moments where Sebald notes the suspension of time?6.
In the dream sequence that starts on page 121, how does the author’s own streamof consciousness blend with Uncle Adelwarth’s? How does the dream enhance or complicate the historical facts the author is collecting?7.
Ambros’ last comment, “it must have slipped my mind whilst I was waiting for the butterfly man” (p. 115), appears nonsensical. Re-examine this quote in light of Sebald’s other uses of butterfly catchers. What does it mean to wait “for the butterfly man”?8.
Why does Max Ferber love dust?9.
On page 166, Ferber describes the freighters that vanish in the mist. In what waysis this description reminiscent of Cosmo’s distress at the vanishing caravan on page 97? Why does Cosmo feel he has disappeared?