Wednesday, September 29, 2004

W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, is certainly the strangest book that I have read for some time. It was recommended to me by a friend, otherwise I would probably not have come across it.

Sebald, who was killed in a car accident in 2001, was born in Germany in 1944 – a significant year in that he was too young to know anything about the second world war at first hand, but grew up to know many German people, not least his father, who had been fully involved in it.

Soon after graduating from Freiburg University he came to England, where he became a university lecturer. In due course he was appointed as a Professor at the University of East Anglia. His academic career and private life are fully discussed in an obituary which was published in the Guardian, so I will not attempt to summarise them here.

The author, incidentally, was reluctant to refer to his narratives as ‘novels’. He seems to have invented a new literary form, which was part novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one ‘W.G. Sebald’, a German writer long settled in East Anglia.

Austerlitz is unusual in a number of ways. The actual layout of the text is markedly different from that of most novels: there are only 25 widely spaced lines to the page. There are no paragraphs anywhere in the book, and no chapters in the usual sense; there are only a handful of inverted commas for speech. And there are quite a number of photographs dispersed through the text, photographs which Sebald seems to have taken himself.

As for what the book is about: well, no brief account is going to do the work any sort of justice; you will just have to try it and see if it appeals to you. But basically this book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz, born in 1939, sent to England, and placed with foster parents in Wales. Eventually he becomes an architectural historian, and in his retirement he begins to explore what happened to him more than fifty years earlier. This exploration inevitably reveals much about Sebald's attitude to European history in general and German history in particular.

All Sebald’s work, both in fiction and in academic life, seems to have been related to the German reluctance (as Sebald saw it) to come to terms with the events which occurred in the time of the Third Reich. As such, Sebald’s output, both ‘fictional’ and academic, undoubtedly has a lasting significance. Its importance was recognised during his lifetime by a number of awards.

But will you actually enjoy Austerlitz? I can only say that it did not grip me as I hoped it might. It is, after all, a literary work, and my blind spots in that area are well known. At all stages of my reading, however, I was conscious that I was in the presence of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do, and how to do it. Austerlitz would, I suspect, repay a more careful reading than I felt able to give it.


broke said...

It is difficult book, yes, but for me it is the most remarkable text I've ever read - which I felt communicated on an intensely emotional - not just academic, intellectual - level.

Anonymous said...

Though their styles are universes apart, I feel that Sebald and Faulkner represent a common concern, that having to do with revealing the inner lives of intensely inward persons. Just as in Austerlitz, the 'story' in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is almost beside the point. Though both books are 'road movies', the reward for reading these books is to glimpse the minds of characters that do not often show themselves, at least not in cliche.

catiocha said...

Austerlitz is certainly not an easy book, but it is a beautiful one, and the reward is worth the effort. For 50 pages indeed, we read about nothing but the chance encounters between the narrator and a strange fellow, Austerlitz, and their conversations about architecture over several years. But when they meet again 20 years later and Austerlitz finally tells his story to the narrator and explains how he discovered the secret of his birth, some pages are so sad that I couldn't help crying, and I felt that Sebald had managed to awaken the reader's memory too--not the intellectual, reconstructed memory, but that "Proustian" memory based on sensations, the only one that brings back the true past as if there were no time.

archer said...

I read this book slowly this summer and marvelled at Sebald's skillful weaving of ideas, emotions, images; the way he uses architecture to comment on fascism--that the structure, the surveillance (echoing Foucault) can be found in the design... things that seem like digressions are really central to the repressed emotions of Austerlitz--the moths for example who die and are saved intact (like his frozen memory and language that will be excavated). . .I thought a lot about Proust while reading this because Sebald is so interested in how our memories are layered, hidden, fictionalized, never pure. . .

Anonymous said...

Part at least appears to relate to the awesome problem of writing (and in part this makes Sebald difficult read). I live in the bibliographical East Anglian desert, so it is not surprising that Norfolk County Library have umpteen copies of this strange book, as there is something in the East Anglian psyche which demands some degreee of self reference. The note on Salle Church was the key, and Liverpool Street station in London is the one favoured by us out in the Far East.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most strange, moving & hypnotic books I have ever read. I read it on holiday in Fiji and I think the dissonance between my surroundings and the grim awful heart wrenching story of Austerliz will be imprinted like a ghost on me forever.

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