Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Winfried Georg Sebald (18 May 1944 – 14 December 2001, — known as W.G. Sebald or Max Sebald — was a German writer and academic. At the time of his death at the age of 57, he was being cited by many literary critics as one of the greatest living authors and had been tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Born in Bavaria, Sebald studied in Germany before obtaining a lectureship at The University of East Anglia, Norwich, in 1970. Austerlitz, Sebald’s final novel, won The National Book Critic’s Circle Award. The summary is as follows. In 1967, the narrator bumps into a man in the salle de pas perdus of Antwerp’s Central Station. Thus begins a long if intermittent acquaintance, during which he learns the life story of this stranger, retired architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz. Raised as Dafydd Elias by a strict Welsh Calvinist ministry family, it is only at school that Austerlitz learns his true name – and only years later, by a series of chance encounters, that he allows himself to discover the truth of his origins, as a Czech child spirited away from his mother and out of Nazi territory on the Kindertransport. He returns to confront the childhood traumas that have made him feel that “I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life.”

Austerlitz’s tale of personal emotional repression becomes a metaphor for Europe’s smothered past. Sebald wittily explores the tricks of time and space, unearthing Europe as an unconscious palimpsest. Delighting in lists and unfeasibly lengthy descriptions, Sebald turns much into poetry – even the alleged health benefits of Marienbad’s Auschowitz springs become “a positive verbal coloratura of medical and diagnostic terms”. Sebald writes with such preternatural lucidity that even a harrowing account of writer’s block ironically becomes a celebration of his own quite clearly unblockable virtuosity. At heart, though, Austerlitz is a serious indictment of modern Europe’s ‘avoidance system’, its repeated patterns of personal and institutional forgetting that, even within Austerlitz’s own lifetime, have contrived to obscure, ignore and render irretrievable his past and the source of his pain. And yet, despite the bleakness of that picture, the book ends with its hero committed to trying, at least, to remember.

Few books provide such an intense sense of place and the relationship of buildings to their history, including, for example, a hypnotic description of how Austerlitz discovers the streets where he was born, as well as of particular places, from Antwerp railway station to Tower Hamlets cemetery. Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable. It shows us a way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. The author’s prose style is challenging, distinctive in the length of sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. Nevertheless, or perhaps on account of this, the work communicates issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience. The account of trying to find out what happened to his father in the new Bibliothèque Nationale and failing to do so because its design appears calculated to frustrate the aspirations of its readers, such that one realises that the mentality which led to the concentration camp at Terezen is perfectly capable of designing comparable buildings in the present. The adage ‘out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made’ was true then, and true now. Sebald’s fiction brings that across powerfully.

Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.

448 pages in Penguin

First published 2001

ISBN  978-0241951804

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W. G. Sebald

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