by W. G. Sebald

Other authorsAnthea Bell (Translator)
Paperback, 2001

Call number




Random House (2001), Edition: 1st, 300 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML: Austerlitz, the internationally acclaimed masterpiece by "one of the most gripping writers imaginable" (The New York Review of Books), 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, one Jacques Aus-terlitz 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, he 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. From the Trade Paperback edition..… (more)

Media reviews

He is one of the most gripping writers imaginable. It's not the story so much that takes hold of the reader: it's the descriptions and the meditations, which can be hallucinatory in their effect. This is true of all his books, but in Austerlitz the proportion of rumination and evocation to
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narrative is larger than ever.
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1 more
Sebald zeigt sich auf der epischen Langstrecke als großer Erzähler, denn mit "Austerlitz" hat er sich selbst übertroffen und ein Wunderwerk an unvergesslicher Prosa geschaffen. Wenn Austerlitz gegen Ende meint, von ihm werde nichts bleiben als ein Stapel Photographien, so hat ihn in diesem Punkt
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sein sonst so untrügliches Gespür zum Glück doch getäuscht. Denn Sebald ist es gelungen, Austerlitz hinüberzuerzählen und zu retten in ein bleibendes Stück Literatur, das der Vergänglichkeit trotzt.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member browner56
Jacques Austerlitz is trying to regain his past in order to find out who he really is. As one of the countless innocent victims of the atrocities associated with World War II, the five-year old Austerlitz was separated from his Czech-born Jewish parents, who put him on a kindertransport to Great
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Britain in order to save his life. Raised by Welsh foster parents, he lives a fairly ordinary early existence with no apparent memories of (or interest in) his heritage. Only after a mid-life nervous breakdown does Austerlitz seek to recover as much information about his parents and their divergent fates as possible. However, given that this quest begins decades after those fates were sealed, Austerlitz is left to piece together what information he can through visits to research archives, historical sites, and conversations with elderly survivors who were first-hand observers of the horrific events surrounding the Holocaust.

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.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
I couldn't do it. I really wanted to finish this book. I finish every book I start, and even if I hate them, I enjoy writing scathing reviews. But as my wife pointed out, life is too short. It's not just the execrable prose style, which I'm sure is intentional and has some theoretical
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justification. It's not the photos- I quite like the idea of photos in novels. It's not just the idiotic attempts to be highbrow, by referencing Wittgenstein (whom the narrator thinks is a 'dark thinker'!) And it's not just the hype, which is nauseating (*this* is meant to stand up next to Kafka and Proust?) All of these things together, it's true, would give me pause. But what is truly insulting is the sub-liberal-guilt posture the narrator and Austerlitz assume: in this novel's world, all 'great' undertakings are merely hubristic and doomed to failure; all ambition for improving the world is bound to end up with the panopticon; and everything, everything, everything is in some sort of relationship to the holocaust.
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.
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LibraryThing member thorold
This has been my first encounter with Sebald -- I have to admit that I hadn't heard of him until a friend recommended this book. It was an exciting new discovery for me, and I raced through it in a weekend, but this is definitely a rich and complex book that I'm looking forward to coming back to
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and exploring at leisure, though I think I will try to read at least one other Sebald before that.

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...?
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
Really just 2½ stars for me.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
Bewildering and kind of hypnotic. It took me until halfway through the book to get engaged with it, and then I really was hooked although I felt like I was comprehending only half of what I was reading.
LibraryThing member VeronicaH.
Sebald's work is haunting. There are images and passages that will stay with you forever after reading them. It is very difficult to summarize Sebald's books as they cover so many different things in a meandering, seemingly ramdom manner. With Sebald, however, nothing is ever random. This is
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perhaps more apparent in The Rings of Saturn, which starts and ends, in a way, with Thomas Browne's Urn Burial. The summary will tell you that this is a story of a man named Austerlitz who was put on a train in 1939 in Prague to escape Jewish persecution and was adopted by a Welsh family, who told him nothing of his true identity. The book is Austerlitz's discovery of himself, his past, and his parents told through the lens of an unnamed narrator. All of that is true. But this book is so much more than that. Instead of summarizing Austerlitz, I'll give some of the topics, which are generally common themes in his work. The first is memory; how it changes, what it is, what it means, and tied directly to it: loss. In a more general sense, Sebald is concerned with the past and its role in our present. One of the most beautiful sections of this book deals with a train station and a WWII Jewish ghetto in Antwerp. Another common theme of Sebald's is walking and experiencing the land. In Austerlitz, Sebald describes (though this is really an inadequate term for what he does) an area of Wales, along the British coastline. One main feature of this area is a house which becomes, in essence, a natural history museum. Another section, near the end, deals with the Bibliotheque National of France, which has just undergone an enormous transformation and relocation. His description of the housing and accessing of the past is both lyrical, and for lack of a better word, heartbreaking. Thinking about it now, I am reminded of the architectural scenes in Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. There is an air of great melancholy and great loneliness in Sebald's prose; yet it is achingly beautiful. All of Sebald's books incorporate photographs; some relate to the material being discussed in the given passage, others do not. The most haunting of these, in Auzterlitz, is a still of a film which shows a blurry image of a woman's face half in shadow. Austerlitz believes this may be his mother. This book will stay with you, it will haunt you. It will touch your jaded, modern, cynical, heart. It may make you want to weep. He is one of the most powerful writers of this century. Let Sebald take you on a journey; I promise you, you will not regret it.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Structurally this novel is quite interesting. The two main characters meet by chance in a railway station and strike up a conversation about architectural history. The narrator of the novel is a nameless scholar entranced by the man he meets, Jacques Austerlitz, whose narration of his life is the
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substance of the book. Hence the entire book is a story within a story. Another unusual structural device is the inclusion of photographs, maps, and the like; both creating a sense that the novel is nonfiction and also reflecting the interest Austerlitz has in photography. This method of "fixing" the story in reality and history contradicts the surreal and detached atmosphere of the narration. Finally the physical structure of the language used to tell the story is unhampered by paragraphs and sentence length. Instead the story flows uninterrupted.

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.
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LibraryThing member sometimeunderwater
Just didn't take to it. Thought it meandering and ponderous. (Which were the exact reasons I loved Rings of Saturn.)

Maybe it was over-hyped.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
Some books come right to the point and you are one with the characters from the beginning. Not this one. Sebald does all he can to put obstacles between the reader and the nominal protagonist, both by style and character.

A nameless narrator stands between the reader and Jacques Austerlitz,
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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.
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LibraryThing member popolll
This is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read. The translation is miraculous. New readers must not be put off by the lack of breaks or paragraphs or, in some places, full stops (periods). I noticed a sentence that went on for four pages. Nor must one be put off by the speeches within
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speeches. The style is sublime and carries one through the most extraordinary descriptions.
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.
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LibraryThing member FPdC
A great work by the late German writer Winfried Georg Maximilian Sebald, killed in a tragic car accident in December 2001, in England, where he had been living, writing and teaching since 1966. In this long book, with only three paragraphs and a number of beautiful photographs, the narrator tells
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of his conversations with Jacques Austerlitz over the years, and of Austerlitz struggle to uncover his roots. Written in a contemplative mood, and progressing throught a series of disquisitions about art, architecture, military constructions, town planning, botany... the book let us picture the slowly growing inner doubts of the retired architectural historian Austerlitz about his own origins and the discovery of his past. This turns out to result in a long journey into traumatic events in recent european history, of which Austerlitz was part as a boy of five, transported from Prague to England in one of the kindertransport in the last days of peace in 1939, already after the invasion of Checoslovakia by the nazis, as he now rediscovers in his enquires in Belgium, London, Prague, Marienbad, Terezinbad, and Paris. Not a light reading, but certainly a compulsive one!
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LibraryThing member ChrisWildman
Prose without paragraphs yet close to dreaming and profoundly moving. An unforgetable experience, unique in its feeling and tone. Extremely recommended.
LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
"At some time in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life." p.212

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
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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
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LibraryThing member kant1066
Many reviewers have cited the difficulty of the prose in "Austeritz," but I find this difficult to comprehend. Have they never read Proust? Joyce? Faulkner? Once one has survived these trials by fire, Sebald's prose is comparatively accessible. Still others have claimed that this is a "Holocaust
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novel," and I find this equally perplexing. Certainly, while Austerlitz's childhood experience of being sent to England via Kindertransport away from his parents forms a locus for what little narrative drive there is, the themes of memory, contemporary European identity, and its peculiarly unique aesthetic vision are much more important as Austerlitz recounts his story.

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.
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LibraryThing member amelish
Sorry Ed--I'm never going to finish this one. I kept laughing at it, when I probably shouldn't have been.
LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
It is hard to tell whether Austerlitz is a memoir, a biography, an autobiography, an excursion into a nearly lost world of 19th century European architecture, a philosophical meditation on memory, trauma, and historical disorientation in relation to the Holocaust, or, at last, an historical novel
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in which any effort to “novelistically historicize” the past is sternly resisted. In brief, Austerlitz is an original novel that repels our usual generic assumptions
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.”
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LibraryThing member Widsith
Austerlitz fascinated me, but I couldn't say I loved it. Reading this book gave me the feeling of being jet-lagged somewhere in a strange city at three o'clock in the morning, having strange revelations that would seem bizarre in the daylight. Not a feeling I dislike, by any means. Sebald's
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attempts to find a prose style to match his explorations of memory and loss are beautiful and haunting, but for me at least the effect was more soporific than exhilarating. Maybe ‘hypnotic’ is a better word. The sentences ramble carefully, the sense reaching you faintly through a multiple-framing effect whereby the story is told by Jacques Austerlitz, to our distant, Sebaldesque narrator, meaning the sentences have a characteristic double-tagging device for reported speech which gives them a steady, sleepy rhythm:

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.’
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Why the hell did I decide to read Holocaust fiction on Christmas Eve? Granted, this was a breathtaking book, but still.

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
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it. Although preferably in a time when you can afford to be melancholy and brooding.
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LibraryThing member TRHummer
This is a thoroughly brilliant book. It's power does not lie in plotting--most of the book takes the form of conversation or monologue, and its events (like the events in a tragedy by Sophocles) are transparent and foreseeable--but in its incisive, beautiful, and shattering series of revelations.

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would give this ten stars if I could.
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LibraryThing member winterpages
is there a possible star inbetween "it was okay" to "liked it"? sort of like "it was written beautifully but was agonizing to read"?
LibraryThing member kingarooski
Austerlitz is not an easy read. A book that spans over 400 pages, with no chapter breaks or paragraphs. It's one long stream of consciousness, except that it's not. But it is a book that benefits from long, uninterrupted reads. Reads that I do not get. So that's my only quibble with the book; a
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quibble that's more due to my life than the book itself.

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.
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LibraryThing member samatoha
a stunning masterpiece from Sebald.
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 discover
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more from this highly emotional and complex book, will ruin the experience.but it's a must read book, that also demands a re-read.
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LibraryThing member dah_sab
It's been a few years since I read this, but I can still comfortably say this is my favorite fiction book. Every time I picked this up I was transported into the world created by W.G. Sebald. It felt almost like I was the character in the book. Very few fiction books grab me like this one did,
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where while I'm reading it the only thing I want to be doing is reading this book. When I wasn't reading it I was thinking about it. When I was sleeping I was dreaming about it. Reading this book, in fact, is like being the main character in Sebald's dream, and the dream is Austerlitz. I don't know how else to express it. Another favorite author of mine is Alan Furst. His books are more like watching a great spy movie, full of drama, where you have a personal investment in what happens to the character. So reading Furst is like watching a densely detailed movie. And reading Austerlitz is like you're in the movie yourself, totally immersed. You don't read this book so much as you experience it, or enter into it's world.
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LibraryThing member John
W.G. Sebald
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,
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travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to crate a strange new literary compound." Sebald himself once described his writing as "documentary fiction." He also believed that the horrors of the 20th century could not be approached directly because their enormity would paralyse the ability to think about them morally and rationally. They must, therefore, be approached obliquely, and is what he achieved in Austerlitz, approaching the Holocaust.

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.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is a brilliant book, but not for me at least an easy one. Several of the reviews below capture more of its extraordinary qualities than I can do: skip ahead. If you choose not to, the story is not complex, and emerges slowly - a remote intellectual learns late in life that he was sent to the
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UK as a five-year old in 1939, and undertakes a search for his own past which leads him to the horrors of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

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.
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