"Austerlitz is the story of a man's search for the answer to his life's central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, Austerlitz follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion."--P.  of cover.
Ultimately, Austerlitz is a book that explores how we remember the people, places, and things that give us our identities but are gradually receding into the past. The protagonist’s journey serves as a perfect metaphor for how, as time passes and eye witnesses to any particular occurrence pass on, those memories must be reconstructed from the libraries, museums, and written and media records where they reside. However, how accurate and complete are those “gatekeepers” of our shared histories ever able to be? That question becomes particularly poignant with regard to what occurred in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s since, more than 70 years later, so few people who lived those experiences are still around today to bear witness directly.
As compelling as I found the theme of Austerlitz to be, I actually had a somewhat conflicted reaction to the novel itself. I admire the author’s sense of invention in how the tale is told; Sebald uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style that effectively combines the fictional and historical elements of the story. Further, some of the prose is absolutely stunning in its beauty. In contrast, though, there were some elements of the book’s structure that struck me as awkward: the use of the unnamed narrator created an unnecessary distraction in how many of the sentences had to be phrased, the paucity of paragraphs made it difficult to maintain focus, and the use of so many photographs became a bit of an indulgence as considerable effort was sometimes given to describing a picture that was otherwise irrelevant to the story. So, on balance, while I can certainly recommend this book for the important ideas it develops, that is an endorsement that must unfortunately come with some reservations.
I figure this 'great idea' is the source of the book's popularity (my copy proudly proclaims 'NATIONAL BESTSELLER'). If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that the holocaust sucked balls. In the middle ages, almost everyone could agree that 'God is great.' The literature expressing this claim was profoundly, profoundly dull. Similarly, literature which tells us that the holocaust sucked balls is profoundly, profoundly dull. This is not deep thinking, this is platitude wrapped in an extraordinarily un-inventive form.
All that said, maybe the second half is really great, mind-blowing even. I'll never know.
For those who share my ignorance, Sebald was a German writer and literary scholar who taught for more than thirty years at UEA in Norwich. Sadly, he was killed in a car accident in 2001. Austerlitz was his last novel. It tells the story of Jacques Austerlitz, sent to Britain as a five-year-old refugee on the eve of World war II, and brought up by a Welsh Calvinist minister and his wife in Bala.
Austerlitz is told nothing about his past by the minister. He goes to boarding school and then Oxford, and becomes an architectural historian. But he has difficulty coming to terms with the gap in his early life. Finally, after a breakdown, he sets out to trace his origins. Not surprisingly, he discovers that his parents were Jews, deported by the Nazis.
The story is told through multiple levels of indirectness. The narrator (a German writer living in East Anglia) meets Austerlitz on various occasions, and Austerlitz tells his story in direct speech. But most of the time, what Austerlitz is telling the narrator is what he has been told by someone else. On occasion, it goes one or two levels further down. For instance, we learn about Austerlitz's mother's deportation from a Theresienstadt survivor, who tells Vera, who tells Austerlitz, who tells the narrator, who tells us.
All these levels are in direct speech. The point of this is, presumably, that everything we hear about actual events comes from an eye-witness. Most of what we are told about Theresienstadt comes from a published book written by a survivor, or from a German propaganda film Austerlitz views in the Imperial War Museum. Sebald does not feel it to be appropriate for a modern writer to create these events out of his imagination. The role of the literary imagination is in showing the effect that the past has on the modern character, Austerlitz, and on his immediate listener, the narrator.
Buildings play a very important symbolic role in the narrative. Antwerpen Centraal, the Palais de Justice in Brussels, Liverpool Street, the Gare d'Austerlitz (inevitably), the Prague city archive, Theresienstadt itself, and the Bibliothéque François Mitterand all pop up at crucial points. The book is framed by two visits the narrator makes, on his own, to Fort Breendonk, near Mechelen, which the Germans used as a prison during the occupation of Belgium.
Actually, I shouldn't have said "pop up" -- Sebald does use photographs interposed in the text very effectively, but he doesn't actually resort to pop-up buildings. Perhaps, had he lived longer...?
I rounded up because Sebald gave me plenty to think about. However, I found the style of very long sentences and paragraphs that went on for 5 or 10 pages tiring. I also missed the use of quotation marks to distinguish what was narrative being told by Austerlitz to the
Surprisingly, the change in voice in the middle of sentences worked well, once I got used to it. For example (my underlining):
"In the first few weeks after his return from Bohemia, Austerlitz continued his tale as we walked on, he had learnt by heart the names and dates of birth and death of those buried here, he had taken home pebbles and ivy leaves and on one occasion a stone rose, and the stone hand broken off one of the angels, but however much my walks in Tower Hamlets might soothe me during the day, said Austerlitz, at night I was plagued by the most frightful anxiety attacks which sometimes lasted for hours on end."
The sentence starts out from the unnamed narrator's perspective and switches midstream to Austerlitz's perspective, yet it is perfectly clear.
The plot is the story of Austerlitz's life as his repressed memories slowly unfold. In a sense, the reader discovers the story of his life at the same time as the man himself does. A child brought to England on a Kindertransport from mainland Europe in 1939, Austerlitz is raised by a strict Welsh minister and his wife, who do not encourage the boy to remember his former life. Eventually, the boy remembers nothing of who he is. It is only as a middle-aged adult that fleeting memories begin to return, and Austerlitz wanders down the path to his own identity.
In simple terms, the novel is a reflection on the Holocaust and its effects on the people who survived it. Because of its unusual structure and surreal atmosphere, however, the book is not one to appeal to every reader, even those interested in the Holocaust. One has to detach from expectations and history itself in order to flow with the narration. I found it to be an unusual reading experience.
Maybe it was over-hyped.
A nameless narrator stands between the reader and Jacques Austerlitz,
Sebald's style is not easy. There are no chapters, and no paragraphs, and the prose, translated from the German, contains some extraordinarily lengthy sentences that stretch for pages. In addition, the convention of Austerlitz telling our narrator a story (which of course he is telling to us), and of others telling Austerlitz stories which he in turn tells the narrator, creates a feeling of mirrors within mirrors and requires close attention.
Sebald leavens this prose with many photographic images of what is mentioned in the text, all of them documentary style black-and-white. They add to the bleakness of the story.
And yet - I can't help feeling that this novel will only get richer on subsequent readings. The language is meticulous and often the descriptions are vivid, far more than the photographs. The emotions inherent in the story can be found in some of the most restrained prose. As soon as I finished it, I started it again, to see how I would react to the style once more, and I was hard pressed to put it down.
One of the members of our reading group called it a fever dream, and it has some of that dreamlike quality, disjunct and often involving memories, dreams, and the stories of others, someof whom are long gone. It's not for everyone, surely. I would not call it 'entertaining' - but striking, and significant.
Note also that Sebald is a German of the generation after the war, and that he wrote this in German, speaking to his fellows at least, using an oblique angle to illuminate the damage caused by a now-familiar horror.
It carries what must be one of the most poignant evocations of the misery of being a Jew in a country under Nazi occupation.
I don’t know if the story is true. Grainy pictures from the collection of the eponymous Austerlitz give the feeling that it is. Even it is not, Austerlitz is a most extraordinary character with preoccupations quite unlike any I have ever come across. The story painstakingly brings him to life. His journeys through Europe and backwards in time never fail to intrigue.
He will become the absorbing companion to any reader who latches on to his wavelength.
A book about a man, Austerlitz, who is pictured on the cover as a boy looking very much like The Little Prince, trying to find his way back to his planet. Yes, it is about the holocaust, but
"It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the walls of its confinement." p. 228
It may be the case that the perennial complaint of difficulty rests in the fact that its themes are so deeply intertwined with its pensive inwardness, its brooding style. The short, pithy declarative quality of Hemingway or J. M. Coetzee could not effectively evoke the complex anamnestic matrix that Sebald is so concerned with constructing. It is no coincidence that Austerlitz is never seen without his trusty rucksack. It points directly to Austerlitz's emotional, intellectual, and geographical exile, that he is at home both everywhere and nowhere.
These imbricated variations on exile, more than anything else, inform Austerlitz. His near-autistic attention to the details of architecture are, at their heart, the inept attempts of a man who has been cut off from history to radically place himself within it, to entangle himself in some sort of web of meaning in and through which we find ourselves so often complacent. This novel is so resonant because Austerlitz's experience is not the singular, independent story that it seems to be. He is an Everyman who goads us into a probing search of our own lost histories, the "architecture" of lived everydayness of life that goes unnoticed. At the same time, Sebald knows that our experience with history is a dynamic one in that it shapes us as much as we shape it. In the end, Austerlitz's search for personal belonging and (to use Heidegger's word) "Sorge," incites us all to set out in our own revelatory search.
In this work of post-Holocaust witness literature Jacques Austerlitz, an academic historian of European architecture, tells his story to an unnamed narrator. This patient narrator might—or might not—be Sebold himself. Through this narrative form, Sebold explores traumatic aversions and inconclusive historical engagements of second generation Holocaust survivors. In doing so, the narrator gives voice to Jacque Austerlitz’s (and Sebold’s) profound concerns about a contemporary Europe that in its commercial aspirations, architectural monumentalism, and increasingly homogeneous culture attempts feverishly to forget its grim past and historical legacies. In attempting to forget the past, Europe stands in danger of repeating its lessons in a novel fashion—perhaps this time by becoming an irrelevant provincial backwater.
Jacques Austerlitz was four years old when his mother arranged for him to escape through a kindertransport to England, where he is adopted by a melancholic Welsh minister and his wife, and knows himself only as Dafydd Elias. He learns his true name at boarding school, but Austerlitz does not begin the process of unearthing his past until the latter portion of his life, overwhelmed by what he will find and the inconclusive misery his memories will bring him. As he says, “It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the sources of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed.”
Austerlitz finally remembers himself as a young boy standing on a train platform in London, having been separated from his Jewish family in Prague. Shortly before this event, he burns all the notes he has long accumulated on a work of the influence of capitalism on 19th century European architecture, which he literally cannot write. However, his work as an architectural historian is not in vain—for it enables him to understand the very material structures that fail in their intended missions, portend the cataclysm of the Holocaust, or, in the present, obstruct the work of remembrance.
Austerlitz speaks of elaborate fortifications built and re-built despite their proven uselessness in defending against aggressors—including the Nazis. Indeed, their chief function has been to serve as prisons and to consign prisoners to near unimaginable slave labor in constructing them. The great train station in Antwerp where the narrator first meets Austerlitz is a monument to the destructive colonial aspirations of Belgium. A work he reads about the setting up of the Theresiestadt ghetto has “in its almost futuristic deformation of social life something incomprehensible and unreal about it.” However, the most important architectural observations—in tracking the history of European responses to the Holocaust and its own histories—occurs in Austerlitz’s experiences in the old and new Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. The old library had been a place for readers and, while it struck Austerlitz as a cross between a penal colony and an isle of the blest, he felt at home there. The new Bibliotheque Nationale, however, has disrupted the readers that had once haunted the old library and stands as a contemporary idol to the will to suppress memory and erect a monumental fortification against memory that shall prove as ineffectual as the earthen works of Belgium. Built to honor the memory of a late French president, the Bibliotheque has been built over (and near) an old Nazi camp, “in its outer appearance and inner constitution” it is “inimical to human beings” and the “requirements of any true reader.” An artificial garden of transplanted trees surrounds the heavily secured public reading room and, periodically, birds, confused by the presence of the trees, accidentally smash into the glass and fall to their death. This serves as a comment on the fact that in all his researches in the new Bibliotheque Nationale Austerlitz has yet to succeed in finding any trace of his father. Indeed, one day as the reading room is emptying out, Austerlitz has a conversation with his friend Lemoine, “about the dissolution, in line with the inexorable spread of processed data, of our capacity to remember” and the “collapse” that Lemoine already sees the Bibliotheque Nationale undergoing. Austerlitz does not lead a failed life, despite the fact that he fails to find traces of his father perhaps buried beneath the Bibliotheque Nationale. Had he not been in a kindertransport he might have, as one critic has noted, been little more than a backwater Welch farmer. Rather, his life, transmitted in a work that transcends our generic classifications, becomes a testament to the sufferings and struggles of second generation Holocaust survivors and, not the less, the creation of new architectural structures that, in their quest for perfection, are, as Austerlitz says, “an official manifestation of the increasingly importunate urge to break with everything which still had some living connection to the past.”
Can't you tell me the reason, she asked, said Austerlitz…
Sometimes, so Lemoine told me, said Austerlitz…
One sentence near the end sprawls across eight or nine pages, the clauses fading in and out of each other dreamily, like an interesting train of thought that goes through your mind just before you drop off to sleep. The number of paragraph breaks in the whole book can be counted on one hand. All this is in the service of recreating the effects of memory, as Sebald sees it: its unreliability, its fluidity compared to the rigid unchangeability of actual past events.
Especially past tragedy. Because what Austerlitz is remembering is something he has spent his life trying to repress: his early childhood as part of a Jewish family in Prague in the 1930s. Hence, his meditations on architecture or natural history in the early part of the book all seem to be skirting round something else, as yet unnamed; and when finally he begins to trace the fate of his parents, there are a series of complex and rewarding thematic call-backs which tie the novel together very beautifully: an illustration seen in a Welsh children's Bible, for instance, of Israelites camped out in the desert, is echoed later by a description of a Nazi encampment in central Europe. Austerlitz's own name seems to be working hard, with its associations of war; and indeed it's only a few central letters away from the most infamous Holocaust site of all – one that's never mentioned in this book but which can be intimated from comments about family members ‘sent east’.
This is not a ‘Holocaust novel’ in the usual sense, though – its real subject is not exactly what happened in the middle of the last century, but rather how Europe can and should remember it (Europe as a whole – this is a novel that deliberately ranges over cities, and languages, from across the whole continent). The vital importance of remembering, and also the complete futility of trying. And the futility also of expressing what we feel about it, because for Sebald language is always at best a poor approximation of reality, ‘something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us’. I disagree with this assessment, and I think Sebald's novel is in itself a weighty counter-argument. But nevertheless it's a very moving thesis written with a great deal of artistry, and if I felt more admiration than affection for it, that's perhaps just because I read it in a state of cold wonder at what he was managing to describe – ‘a kind of wonder,’ as Sebald says elsewhere, ‘which is in itself a form of dawning horror.’
Page long sentences, reflections on memory, the past, architecture, ruins, history, atrocity, etc., etc. It's really good. Don't take my word for it with this review and just read
Austerlitz follows the encounter of our unnamed narrator with Jacques Austerlitz, one of the children on the kindertransport out of war-torn Europe to the relative safety of the UK. As soon as the four year-old Austerlitz gets to his British family, in Wales, they strip him of his identity and give him a new name. Growing up in the cold (both physically and emotionally) house in Bala with two distant adults for company, Austerlitz stagnates. Only the escape to a boarding school brings him some satisfaction, to the point where the loathes going home at holidays. It's during his time at the boarding school that he first finds out that his actual name is very different from the one he has been using for much of his life.
Our narrator encounters Austerlitz infrequently, but each time the story picks up without introductions or unnecessary small talk. Slowly, through the meandering tale that he tells, we find out about his past. Or rather, what Austerlitz found out about his past. The tangents and extra information are wonderful snippets of a great mind, but I can see how these would be irritating to some readers.
We find out parts of his past gradually, but there's no happy ending there. I preferred it that way; a happy ending in such a book would seem forced and fake. Instead, some of the threads are left open with hints as to what happened.
This is a brilliant book, but it isn't for everyone. The lack of structure, or the seeming lack of structure, will put some people off. I really wished that I could have gone away for a few days, sat down and read the book without the interruptions that my life contains. It would have been a far more satisfying way of reading the book.
Fot those who havent read him, the book is sort of Bernhard,Kafka,Borges,Proust,and Lenz combined all together, but he is even a lot more than that.
Austerliz is slowly discovering the history of his life, in a misshapen world - of reality and memory.to discover
Sebald, (1944-2001) has been described as, "one of contemporary literature's most transformative figures." A retrospective on his writing said that his four prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz are, "...utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction,
This very fine novel is a calm, even slow-moving, meditation on the nuances of space and time and memory, and of all the hopes and the fears, the internal and external influences known and unknown and maybe unknowable, that make us the individuals that we are.
The narrator of the story is Austerlitz himself, but we hear him at one remove through the principal narrator, an unnamed "I" who recounts what Austerlitz has told him, during visits and encounters that are sometimes years apart. Later in the novel, the connection is moved one degree further when Austerlitz recounts the words of a third person. This has the effect of holding the reader a little at bay, to observe and judge what Austerlitz is describing.
The story begins in 1967 in a waiting room in a railway station in Antwerp where the narrator meets Austerlitz and strikes up a conversation concerning Austerlitz's evident interest in taking photographs. Austerlitz is a professor of architectural history; our narrator shares that interest and the two talk in the railway buffet until nearly midnight. A friendship is formed based on shared interests and, over the years, shared intimacies and observations from Austerlitz. We learn, eventually, that Austerlitz came to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport; he was adopted by a generally uncommunicative Methodist minister and wife, living in Wales, a childless couple with no idea of the hopes and fears of a young child, especially one torn from his home and family; he is told nothing about his previous life, nor about his parents (though he has memories); slowly, he comes to know of his origins and embarks upon a search to try to give structure and meaning to his memories and his life. It turns out that Austerlitz's father was trapped in France at the outbreak of the war, and though his fate can be speculated upon, it is not known; Austerlitz's mother is known to have died in Theresienstadt.
The story is a long meditation on the functioning and impacts of the Holocaust. It proceeds slowly and that might make some people put it down...what is the point of that piece about the history of fortifications?--but it would be a mistake to do so. Sebald builds atmospheres of people and places and times through webs of metaphors that overlap and reinforce each other and become clearer as the story progresses and the reader makes more and more of the connections. The references to fortifications provide a perfect example: fortifications, comprising increasingly large and elaborate designs of walls and turrets and moats were designed to keep inhabitants safe and to thwart the destructive designs of an enemy; similarly, individuals develop bulworks to protect their own lives, through integration in society, education, activities and successes in society, networks of friends, reliance on the rule of law--yet everyone of these can be crushed and swept aside leaving individuals fearful and at the mercy of evil intentions, just as fortifications of bricks and mortar were all, eventually, ignored or destroyed by advancing technologies. The metaphor works on another level too: strong walls define space and can offer protection, but they can also restrict and deny freedom and corral inhabitants.
The novel is replete with metaphors for restrictions in life, death and destruction, and rays of light that offer hope but are out of reach, such as we find the extended metaphor on fortifications, prisons, an avalanche, the construction of a dam and drowning of towns and villages, a dilapidated limeworks, doors and gateways as portals of safety and despair, large and mysterious and abandoned buildings, labyrinths of streets that hide but offer no real protection, train stations and railways, domes of buildings that offer space and air but no protection, and often, images of skylights, glass domes, glass cupolas that offer hints of light and openness, but they are only illusions. The image of an abyss is powerful: "it was truly terrifying to see such emptiness open up a foot away from firm ground, to realize that there was no transition, only this dividing line with ordinary life on one side and it's unimaginable opposite on the other."
I was also struck by this by Sebald: "I recollect that I myself saw a family of fallow deer gathered together by a manger of hay near the perimeter fence of a dusty enclosure where no grass grew, a living picture of mutual trust and harmony which also had about it an air of constant vigilance and alarm. Marie particularly asked me to take a photograph of this beautiful group, and as she did so, said Austerlitz, she said something which I have never forgotten, she said that captive animals and we ourselves, their human counterparts view one another 'à travers une brèche d'incompréhension.'"
The metaphors are pretty clear, but this reminded me sharply of Primo Levi in If This be A Man, when Levi had an exchange with a German officer:
"...that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came across as if across the glass window of an aquarium, between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany."
Sebald echoes Patrick Modiano a great deal in the search to reconstruct the past--using memories, personal and of others; documents: incomplete, missing, or even deliberately changed; the context of historical events and moments; and in particular a sort of mute testimony from the descriptions of places, buildings, objects (hence the details on addresses, street names, areas); and the self-knowledge, often unsettling, that results from the search.
Time is neither linear nor compartmentalized in the sense of a defined past and present. I think Modiano would agree with Sebald: "And might it not be...that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what had gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?" This is especially true when Austerlitz is trying to discover the origins of his parents before, "the annihilation, within the space of only a few years, of their entire existence." How does one deal with the fact of this annihilation, how and why, and of the loss of the potentialities of life? In detailing this search, and playing with time, Sebald is also highlighting the fact that the effects of annihilation echo across generations.
Sebald scatters black and white photographs, ostensibly taken by Austerlitz, throughout the book. They are rarely of people; more often of places and objects; and they vary in the sharpness of the image. I like the approach; it adds to a contemplation of what Austerlitz is describing, how an image of a person or place affected him. (There is an interesting presentation on YouTube about Austerlitz and in particular the photographs.)
A wonderful, provocative, contemplative book.
The story may be simple, but the style is not. Sebald does not use paragraphs or chapters, his sentances can meander on at great lenght, and his narrative device -- monologues nested within monologues -- can be confusing. This took me quite a while to get used to (I fear that I am a Middlemarch girl at heart) though in time the style begins to resound with the substance of the novel, layering thought upon throught, memory upon memory. The layering (or perhaps more properly infusion) is illuminated with a wonderful use of language. The way in which the words and phrases and larger units are chosen and drift into one another is very beautiful in English: I wonder what it is like in German.
Nor is the content of this extraordinary book simple, in any sense. It is about memory -- anyone's memory -- and how it interacts with "real life". It is about the dead and living, and the relationship between them. And it is about the European past, and European guilt, and civilization, and language -- at one point, Austerlitz compares a language to an old city, full of byways and monuments and hidden passages. Throughout the book, it seems to me, buildings and cities are metaphores for the past as well as embodiments of it.
As many other readers note, this book at times feels more like a meditation (or a series of hallucinations) than a conventional novel, but it is painfully powerful in doing what conventional novels try to do -- make us feel the emotions of others. The description of the narrowing life of a Jew in Prague after the Nazi invasion was one of the most painful evocations I have ever read, though the horror we see directly is psychological, not physical. And in a way, perhaps there is more truth in a layered, shifting, permeable reality than in what we "objectively" experience every day. A very powerful experience. I have added "The Emigrants" to my reading list.