In the summer of 1939, five-year-old Jacques Austerlitz is sent to England on one of the so-called Kindertransports and placed with foster parents in Wales. For reasons of their own, the childless Calvinist couple erase from the boy all knowledge of his identity. Austerlitz, who eventually becomes an architectural historian, goes through life assiduously avoiding all clues that might point to his origins and to the fate of his true parents. It is only in his retirement that the past returns to haunt him and makes him explore what happened to him half a century ago.
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.
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 unnamed narrator & what was being told to Austerlitz & what was the unnamed narrator's thoughts.
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.
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...?
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would give this ten stars if I could.
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 it. Although preferably in a time when you can afford to be melancholy and brooding.
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.’
The complexity of Sebald's language and style makes Austerlitz a bit of effort to get into, but the reward is an incredibly beautiful and memorable read. It's my favorite novel, hands-down.
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.”
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 is not a futile exercise in despair. The writing is too good to allow that easy of a route. Instead, the hypnotic prose sustains us in a state of meditation. I've never read any other author who can do that. It slows your breath down. The language is easy, but serpentine, and to follow the thought is a lot of work, even though it is easy work, I find myself being carried away by it. It reminded me a lot of his other book, Emigrants, which is also excellent, but focuses on the story of just one man instead of several. I really don't know what else to say about this, it's always hard to write about Sebald. This is great stuff.
"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
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.
The story itself concern's Austerlitz's exploration of his own past, trying to track down what became of the parents who put him on a train from Czechoslovakia in 1939 when he is 4 years old to escape the coming Nazi invasion. He ends up in Wales, with a minister and his wife, who give him little love and no information about his true identity, which he only discovers as a teenager--or at least he discovers his real name. Only later does he face up to the task of discovering the truth behind his life. This comes well into the book, however. In the earlier sections Austerlitz speaks to the narrator about architecture, but as we will see, everything is related. Some reviews compare this book to the work of Borges, whom Sebald admired, and in the way it mixes fact and history into a work of fiction, that is true enough, but this novel doesn't contain the sense of the fantastic that much of Borges' work does. Even the dreams and visions that plague Austerlitz, narrated in great detail, are still firmly grounded in reality.
It is wonderful to see old memories awakening in Austerlitz as he visits Prague and other places, and as he learns more, he begins to understand some of his own past behavior and period of depression. As an academic, he struggles through a long work in German to better understand the Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration where his mother was sent. But while the Holocaust is at the center of the book, it isn't the main focus in my opinion. Rather, it is a book about how the past affects us in ways we may not even understand. In that sense, the book is more Faulknerian than Borgesian. ("The past is never dead. ... Actually, it's not even past.") Austerlitz, like the rest of us, will never find all the answers he seeks. But Sebald has brought this fragile, complicated character to life and given us a glimpse of real and psychological horrors that cannot--and must not--be forgotten.
A nameless narrator stands between the reader and Jacques Austerlitz, recounting how they meet by accident and then seem to keep meeting until a sort of friendship is formed. At first, Austerlitz talks only of architecture; eventually, he reveals a story of lost identity and emotional starvation as part of the World War II Kindertransport, and how he manages through sudden memories and hints of memory to find his way to his real history.
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.
Austerlitz is ultimately about identity, and the story is compelling—the main character was one of the children sent away on Kindertransport before WWII—but I never really felt like I connected with this book. The writing is very good, and I actually liked all of the architectural discussion, but I wasn’t crazy about the style.
Maybe I’m doing it wrong? Oh well.