Netting the Butterfly Man: The Significance of Vladimir Nabokov in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants

In: Religion and the Arts
Maxim Shrayer
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Adrian Curtin
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In this essay, we examine the role of Vladimir Nabokov in W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants (1992; Eng. tr. 1996), both as a character in the novel (as the unannounced "butterfly man") and as an intertextual and metaphysical point of reference. It is our contention that this authorial intervention on Sebald's part may stem from the fact that both the German-born Sebald and the Russian-born Nabokov were spiritual witnesses to the Shoah, and though they were non-Jewish authors, they were committed to the artistic reckoning of this event through writing and memory. To this end, we offer a reading of The Emigrants that re-interprets the book in the light of Nabokov's continued presence, juxtaposing the artistic systems of these two authors and considering their respective approaches to catastrophe, as well as the shared possibility in their art that the human spirit may survive and endure.

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