On finishing W.G. Sebald’s four quartered documentary piece, The Emigrants (1992), there felt as if a loose connection to some recent film or book was hanging midair, waiting to be tied up.  The narrative is split into the stories of four émigrés, all seemingly interconnected by a multitude of strange images but chiefly connected by their fleeing from the rise of Nazi Germany to both Britain and the USA.  The connection didn’t seem to be so much in relation to the book’s latter three narratives, but to the first and shortest segment looking into the life of the husband of one of Sebald’s landlords in 1970s Norfolk, Dr. Henry Selwyn.  The portrayal of Selwyn is tragic; a distanced, eccentric man who appears to have been acutely estranged from this wife for unnamed reasons.  It was only upon reading once again on content surrounding Andrew Haigh’s recent film, 45 Years (2015), that the connection clicked; I had seen a similar narrative before and it was within this film whose similarities, not say to atmosphere, is astonishingly parallel (also of note is the parallel with the short story that sparked the film, David Constantine’s In Another Country, itself based on a real life occurrence).

Having written about 45 Years in more detail in a post for FACT’s website (a link to which is here), I will not delve too deeply into the details of its emotionally complex narrative.  Suffice to say, it concerns an elderly couple, Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), whose upcoming 45th anniversary, not to say their pleasant lives of retirement in Norfolk, is shattered by the revelation that the body Geoff’s first love, who died in a hiking accident in the Swiss Alps some years previous, has finally been freed from the tomb of ice preserving her body.  The drama unfolds as Geoff’s feelings become reawakened, questioning the aging of  both the body and the emotions, but also dragging down Kate whose life is in tatters by the end of the film.  Haigh has actually described 45 Years as a form of ghost story, stating in an interview with The Film Stage that “It was all kind of trying to make it feel like we’re watching a ghost story unfold.” (2015) and the parallel between his narrative and Sebald’s seems well sketched.

For Dr. Henry Selwyn is himself haunted.  The shadow of a man he lost in a strikingly similar accident, walking in the Swiss Alps, is hinted at being the rupture that lead to the distance between Selwyn and his future wife as displayed within Sebald’s story.  He tells Sebald of a short stay in Berne before the outbreak of World War One and the loss of his friend, Johannes Naegeli; “Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli.” (1996, p.14).  Selwyn even suggests that Naegeli, in spite of being dead “…seems closer whenever he comes to my mind…” than his wife Elli who “…has come to seem a stranger to me over the years…” (1996, p.15).  Naegeli, according to Selwyn, “…had fallen into a crevasse in the Aare glacier.” (1996, p.15) and this seems to all but confirm the relationship between the two works.  Though the pain started for Selwyn from saying farewell to an alive Naegeli at a train station at Meriningen rather than witnessing the full accident as Geoff had, the impact appears to be the same.

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A photo of Vladimir Nabokov whom Sebald suggests shares a resemblance to Selwyn.

Perhaps a slight difference (apart from the relations in question) is the place in time where the two stories sit.  Whilst 45 Years charts the initial breakdown of such a revelation, Dr. Selwyn’s story almost plays as a potential future that Geoff has awaiting him after the conclusion of the film.  Geoff’s behaviour deteriorates rapidly upon receiving the news of his lover’s found body and is highly within the character of Dr. Selwyn’s behaviour who lives a hermitage, largely in the garden of the Norfolk house.  The fact that both feature the Norfolk landscape too, bares some hallmarks, the landscape being the flat, endless vista suitable for hauntings of all kinds.  It is also, after all, the landscape that is littered enough with debris from the past to bring out the most melancholic of Sebald’s thoughts and writing, even when dealing with subjects that at first appear to have little or no connection with the countyside.

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Dr Selwyn’s story ends in the ultimate tragedy, that of suicide and the vision of him with his butterfly net haunts the rest of the book.  Sebald, however, does not let the haunting end with his death but takes up the inorganic demon whilst on holiday in Switzerland.  Travelling from Zurich to Lausanne, he finds a newspaper detailing the recovery of Naegeli’s body which “… had been released by the Oberarr glacier, seventy-two years later.” (1996, p.23); a detail to which he fails to spot until the train itself is crossing the Aare bridge on its approach to Berne.  It is this melancholic coincidence that again reminds of 45 Years whose whole narrative is one of timing; the movement of the ice releasing the ghost only days before an (already interrupted) anniversary of a delicate relationship.  As Sebald finally writes, talking equally about Selwyn and about, with hindsight, 45 Years: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.  At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.” (1996, p.23).

Adam Scovell

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4 thoughts on “Ghosts In The Ice: The Emigrants (W.G. Sebald) and 45 Years (Andrew Haigh).

  1. The film 45 Years also play out in Sebald country–the Norfolk Broads sure look like The Rings of Saturn, but I’m not so precise in English geography.

  2. I’ve just finished reading part I of The Emigrants and, being 45 Years one of my favourite recent films, I thought about it as soon as I reached the last page of Sebald’s story. Then I googled “45 years Sebald” and this is the first and only essay connecting these two. Kudos for it, it saved me some time in writing about what’s already so well put 🙂

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