November is German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline! If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an annual celebration of literature in the German language. There’s a schedule of readalongs, but I’m too disorganised for that, so I’m going for the “read what you want, as long as it was originally written in German” category.
And what better book to choose than Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, a novel that I have been meaning to read for so many years that I’d almost given up hope of unearthing it from the depths of my “to-read” list.
I’m happy to report that all the good things people have said about the book over the years, all those things that made me think “I must read Austerlitz one day”, are all true. It’s a beautifully written book that seems to meander around through digressions on architecture and fortress construction and yet, through these very meanderings, slowly builds a compelling story of a life reconstructed from the chaos and destruction of the Holocaust.
The novel’s title made me think of the famous Napoleonic battle, but it has nothing directly to do with that. Jacques Austerlitz is the name of the main character, a man who grew up in a small Welsh town, not even knowing his real name until his teenage years and not discovering his origins until much later. He was a small boy when his mother sent him away from Prague on a Kindertransport to Britain, and he remembered nothing of her or his journey until decades later, when he wandered into a waiting room at Liverpool Street Station and stood there for a long time, finding:
“scraps of memory beginning to drift through he outlying regions of my mind … memories behind and within which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine vaults I saw in the dusty grey light.”
It is from these scraps of memory that Austerlitz must recover the truth of his life. He does it in the same way that Sebald writes the book: slowly and with care, gradually accumulating details until something recognisable starts to appear.
And yet, although we follow Austerlitz on this powerful journey and learn a lot about him along the way, he still remains obscure and distant. I think part of the reason for this is the narrative structure. The book is narrated by an unnamed character who runs into Austerlitz at a station in Antwerp and then again years later, and he tells us about the story that Austerlitz tells him, which often involves stories that people have told Austerlitz.
So we get a distancing effect, with “said Austerlitz” appearing regularly throughout the book in an interesting device that reminded me of Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains. And when we get stories within stories, the distance between us and the original narrator increases:
“From time to time, so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale…”
It sounds quite convoluted, but thanks to the skill of Sebald as a writer, the story is never hard to follow. He guides us through these shifting stories from different characters quite seamlessly, with the layers of story-telling adding to the obscurity of Austerlitz’s life but never losing or confusing the reader.
In fact, the descriptive writing is quite beautiful, and there are some wonderful insights not only into the darker pathways of European history but also into things like the nature of memory and the construction of identity and meaning. And the translation by Anthea Bell, who died just last month, is excellent.
I’d love to read more of Sebald’s work now. Do you have any recommendations?