Author: W.G. Sebald
Year First Published: 2001
"After our game we usually stayed in the ballroom for a little while, looking at the images cast on the wall opposite the tall, arched windows by the last rays of the sun shining low through the moving branches of the hawthorn, until at last they were extinguished. There was something fleeting, evanescent about those sparse patterns appearing in constant succession on the pale surface, something which never went beyond the moment of its generation, so to speak, yet here in the intertwining of sunlight and shadow, always forming and re-forming, you could see mountainous landscapes with glaciers and ice fields, high plateaux, steppes, deserts, fields full of lowers, islands in the sea, coral reefs, archipelagoes and atolls, forests bending to the storm, quaking grass and drifting smoke."
Austerlitz is the fourth and final piece of... fiction? Prose? Not fiction. But not entirely fact either. And we've already arrived at the conundrum which is so much of Sebald to me. Anyway, it was the fourth major, non-academical bit of writing that this German expat professor at the University of East Anglia published, and it happened to be his last, by dint of his dying the year it came out. Having read two of the other three (The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, with The Emigrants still remaining), I couldn't help but feel like this was the best of the lot, or at least, that it was equal to The Rings of Saturn, which was the first that I read and which has perhaps made the most startling impression.
Perhaps the most relevant thing to know about Sebald is that he was born in Germany in 1944. While that might sound like a rocky way to start things off, the town he describes in Vertigo seems to be quite sheltered in a remote mountainous area. Thanks to a New Yorker article published on the tenth anniversary of his death (link below), I've also learned that his father was in the Army and participated in the invasion of Poland, so perhaps while he was geographically isolated from some of the aftermath of the war, he was nonetheless raised in a household where at least one of its members had come face-to-face with the realities of World War II.
Oh, but why is this relevant? Because, to go back to my original point, Sebald isn't really writing fiction. I described it once as the sort of thing you would read on a hot, dusty summer evening in a cemetery, probably with a beer nearby or something. It's like you're reading an old sepia-toned photograph that was slightly overexposed in one corner and has faded with time. He's writing something like a memoir, something like a travelogue, something like... but not quite like anything else.
I recently watched the movie "Night Train to Lisbon," which slow, quiet, and lovely, and it reminded me a great deal of Austerlitz, I realized, because both of these tales are built around a glaring absence. In "Night Train," Raymond mysteriously comes across a book written by a Portuguese doctor and by an odd series of events ends up in Lisbon, looking for the doctor and, upon learning of his death, fumbling to reconstruct the life of this unusual individual.
Austerlitz takes "Night Train" a step further, with the glaring absence being a character who is alive, present, and half-narrating the novel, but who is himself in the course of the story rebuilding his own life. I'm already making no sense, but I'll try to untangle that. The narrator meets the title character, Jacques Austerlitz, in a chance encounter at a railway station in Belgium. Austerlitz is engaged in the study of the history of architecture and they have long chats about various places, but never really delve into their personal lives--or at least, not Austerlitz's, and we never learn much about the narrator. Over time and after many years, the narrator discovers that in fact Austerlitz himself did not quite know who he was. The rest of the story chronicles the series of events by which Austerlitz came to learn that he was brought to England as part of a Kindertransport in the 1930s and what became of his mother.
It's an odd setup, in that the narrator of the story is essentially giving the reader a secondhand account of that which was narrated to him first by Austerlitz, which is regularly impressed upon the reader by the frequent appearance of "...said Austerlitz..." And virtually the entire book, save for a few place markers, is just that: narration. The device of the second, otherwise redundant narrator seems to be an attempt to convey an outsider's perspective of Austerlitz, from his slightly odd methods of communication to his home, which is sparsely furnished and painted all in gray.
It is worth noting, however, that the narrator, though a largely colorless character, doesn't entirely fade into the background. Especially in the beginning, where he speaks of his own travels in Belgium, his visit to the fortress of Breendonk, and the difficulty of reconnecting with Austerlitz after some years had passed, and at the very end, when he returns to Breendonk to read Don Jacobson's book about reconstructing a family history in a Lithuania gutted of its Jewish population. He is present--there is the occasional I--but he is also a step back from it all, giving the impression of allowing it to speak for itself. I'm not sure if it's an intentional element or a flaw that the narrator's account of his own few adventures is written in much the same tenor as Austerlitz's retellings. I'd have to read more closely with an eye to the narrator's role.
Anyway, curiosity of the narrator aside, there are two things that are inescapably Sebaldian (at least from my uneducated perspective): time and memory.
Time is everywhere. Time that freezes, time that doesn't exist, all points being one point.
Time, said Austerlitz in the observation room at Greenwich, was by far the most artificial of all our inventions, and in being bound to the planet turning on its own axis was no less arbitrary than would be, say, a calculation based on the growth of trees or the duration required for a piece of limestone to disintegrate, quite apart from the fact that the solar day which we take as our guideline does not provide any precise measurement, so that in order to reckon time we have to devise an imaginary, average sun which has an invariable speed of movement and does not incline towards the equator in its orbit. [...] In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it? Why do we show the hours of light and darkness in the same circle? Why does time stand eternally still and motionless in one place, and rush headlong by in another? Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? It is not so long ago, after all, that it began spreading out over everything. And is not human life in many parts of the earth governed to this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction? [...] In fact, said Austerlitz, I have never owned a clock of any kind, a bedside alarm or a pocket watch, let alone a wristwatch. A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and never-ending anguish."
Perhaps this is also one of the functions of the second narrator. For Austerlitz comes in and out of his life, but he (Austerlitz) has an unusual, marked tendency of picking up the conversation almost exactly where it left off. The effect is to compress time. We are made aware that time is passing by the sporadic comments of the narrator. Here a few weeks pass, here twenty years passes, here it is only a matter of an evening into the next day. The result is that at certain points in the book, Austerlitz shares memories of things that may have occurred around the same time that he first met the second narrator. Practically nothing is told as it occurs. With perhaps the implication that nothing in the present has a meaning. It is only when we look back and begin the process of organizing the data of our lives into a coherent tale that we discover that this thing happened because there was a man who didn't understand what he was avoiding--or even that he was avoiding something at all--and therefore couldn't grasp his reactions or spell out the nameless darkness of his emotional life.
I don't know how much more I need to say. There is so much here, and yet so much of it is in a sort of monologue that doesn't always relate back to the identifiable plot. Sebald's passing vignettes are luminous things. The story of Uncle Alphonso taking young Austerlitz and his friend Gerard up the mountainside to watch moths in the night is painfully lovely, as are Austerlitz's remarks on moths who have "lost their way" and cling, stricken and fragile, to a wall even after their death.
Or, at Marienbad I believe:
As I listened to Marie and tried to imagine poor Schumann in his Bad Godesberg cell I had another picture constantly before my eyes, that of the pigeon loft we had passed on an excursion to Koenigswart. Like the country estate to which it belonged, this dovecote, which may have dated from the Metternich period, was in an advanced state of decay. The floor inside the brick walls was covered with pigeon droppings compressed under their own weight, yet already over two feet high, a hard, desiccated mass on which lay the bodies of some of the birds who had fallen from their niches, mortally sick, while their companions, surviving in a kind of senile dementia, cooed at one another in tones of quiet complaint in the darkness under the roof, and a few downy feathers, spinning round in a little whirlwind, slowly sank through the air.
I think the potency of these brief images lies partially in their ordinariness. A moth on a wall, an old dovecote. These are things we pass by, don't look at, don't think about. But Sebald (or his characters, I suppose) stops, looks, thinks, and with a few well-placed brush strokes makes a dovecote into a sign of spiritual decay.
Indeed, as I was reading this book over the course of a few weeks, I found myself more inclined to take note of my surroundings in ways that I normally don't. As I was walking to work on a gray morning, I was startled by the sight of an otherwise unremarkable man with a bright yellow banana peel in his hand. Or as I was walking home on a chilly afternoon, absorbed in listening to a podcast, I passed under a bridge where water from the melting snow had frozen in a column down the wall and looked like a river paused in mid-sentence. Likewise, I felt as though the things that the narrator or Austerlitz described were unusual, but not so much in their having occurred as in their being noticed.
I should go back to an earlier remark before I conclude this, that is, that it's important to know some of Sebald's own history, because his work isn't exactly fiction. The backdrop of Austerlitz is World War II, specifically the pressing horror of the Holocaust. Austerlitz was the child of Jewish parents. After he escaped Prague, his mother was deported to Theresienstadt, and probably from there went on to a death camp. He has to begin his search with pre-war records in Prague, is foiled in his search for his father by the unhelpfulness of bureaucrats in Paris, watches footage from a propaganda film in which he believes he sees Agata's face, recounts readings and diagrams from a work published in 1955 that explains the arrangement and daily functions of Theresienstadt in painful detail, and so on. The tragedy that erases Austerlitz's past, that brings him to a melancholic home in Wales, is a huge, difficult fog on the horizons of history. It is impossible to read the book without having an ever-present sense of the recency of the war and the Holocaust, just as, I think, it is impossible to understand Sebald without recognizing that as well.
Oh god, and I totally forgot to talk about the architecture. Okay, one last thing then: I'm currently reading about the history of architectural phenomenology, for not entirely unrelated reasons. The person who first brought Sebald to my attention is an architect, and he had read some excerpts from Austerlitz and Rings in an architectural journal. For some reason or another, when I described parts of Austerlitz to him (he hasn't actually read either yet), he suggested that I look up an architect by the name of Jorge Otero-Pailos, whose writings are influenced (from what I can tell) by architectural phenomenology.
If I'm doing it justice, this was essentially an idea in architecture that what one should pay attention to was not the specific technical elements of a design, but rather the individual, lived feeling that a building gave.
And while it's not exactly in the foreground of the story, wow, is this ever important to the crafting of it all. From the narrator's impressions of Breendonk to Austerlitz's descriptions of the Great Eastern Hotel, the old Liverpool Station and its concealed waiting room, the castles on the Rhine. The section on the Bibliotheque Nationale is a stunning and unusual critique independent of the story.
...I was approached by one of the library staff called Henri Lemoine, who had recognized me from those early years of mine in Paris when I went daily to the rue Richelieu. Jacques Austerlitz, inquired Lemoine, stopping by my desk and leaning slightly down to me, and so, said Austerlitz, we began a long, whispered conversation in the Haut-de-jardin reading room, which was gradually emptying now, about the dissolution, in line with the inexorable spread of processed data, of our capacity to remember, and about the collapse, l'effrondement, as Lemoine put it, of the Bibliotheque Nationale which is already underway. The new library building, which in both its entire layout and its near-ludicrous internal regulation seeks to exclude the reader as a potential enemy, might be described, so Lemoine thought, said Austerlitz, as the official manifestation of the increasingly important urge to break with everything which has some living connection to the past.
This conversation is preceded by an intensive description of the new Bibliotheque, which not coincidentally has been built (or so I gather) more or less on top of the buildings in which the worldly goods of Paris's deported Jewish families were stored and sorted prior to being sent back to Germany. Also not coincidentally, these warehouses were nigh unto Austerlitz railway station, which also gets a feeling-full description. But the new national library is given its own special treatment apart, theoretically, from those details of history. Namely, it is built up in the reader's imagination as a place that is actively hostile toward history, or at least toward the people who would seek to make use of its largely historical contents, its records and archives. Its location remote from the heart of the city, its steep, high staircase which is of no purpose save to inspire feelings of insignificance and to daunt the arthritic, for as soon as one enters one is not at ground level but must take an escalator down to an entryway where security officers review visitors before permitting them to go in. And of course, to maintain the impression, the architectural sensibilities are reinforced through the internal procedures, wherein those who seek access must wait in queues, get numbers, go through interviews, and even then, may not be able to find what they are looking for. Insofar as it adds anything to the story, it's rather subtle and more to do with the history of the place than its present incarnation, but the whole image is so well done. (The Guardian's book reviewer makes a point that I obliviously sailed past, namely, that the library is meant to be a re-incarnation of the Theresienstadt ghetto which so obsesses Austerlitz throughout the story. I am clearly out of practice with this literary analysis business.)
And now that I've done an absolutely terrible job of describing or explaining this book for anyone who hasn't read it (and anyone who has read it will either sympathize with my plight or think me utterly wrongheaded in everything I've said), I think I'll add nothing more.
Additional Things Which A Casual Google Search Has Turned Up:
Why You Should Read W.G. Sebald - Mark O'Connell
Review of Austerlitz from The Guardian - Charles Saumarez Smith
Different (Somewhat more critical) review from The Guardian - Andy Beckett