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.

Austerlitz by WG Sebald

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?

9 Comments

  1. Brian Joseph 9 November 2018 at 9:31 pm

    Super commentary Andrew. This book has also been on my radar for a long time. It sounds very good. Thanks for recamending a translation. I find that seeking out a good one is important.

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 10 November 2018 at 9:05 am

      Thanks, Brian! I hope I’ve made it beep a little louder on your radar. I think you’d enjoy it!

      Reply
  2. Gayathri 13 November 2018 at 1:18 pm

    This one sounds intense and intriguing. I, as a fellow bookworm, totally understand what you mean by unearthing from your deep to read list. Great post!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 13 November 2018 at 6:17 pm

      Hi Gayathri,
      Yes, “intense and intriguing” is a pretty good description of this one 🙂 Ah, don’t get me started on the to read list. Mine is huge! I’m just happy that I actually managed to read something from it for once—usually I get distracted by new discoveries and read books that weren’t even on the list at all…

      Reply
  3. Karla Strand 13 November 2018 at 1:54 pm

    Lovely review. I’ve never read Sebald and am thankful for this introduction to his work. It’s a talented writer who can construct the distance you describe and still keep the reader interested and engaged. I also didn’t know it was German lit month; unfortunately I suffer from that neverending TBR syndrome that you mention, so I’m afraid I won’t get to one this month! Happy German reading to you though!

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 13 November 2018 at 6:22 pm

      Hi Karla,
      You’re absolutely right—that distancing effect really shouldn’t work at all. And yet somehow I kept following Austerlitz all the way through the novel, even though he remained obscure. And somehow the stories told by a minor character to Austerlitz and then to the unnamed narrator and then to us remained perfectly clear. It’s a real achievement! Maybe next year for German Literature Month 🙂

      Reply
  4. Melvin Ulm 13 November 2018 at 3:24 pm

    Great post. I especially enjoyed The Rings of Saturn

    The Rings of Saturn is the fourth novel by W. G. Sebald I have read.  I have now, for better or worse, read all his fiction.   I wish very much there were more. I felt I somehow related to this work more than the others.  Upon reflection I think this maybe because Sebald has such a unique narrative method that I needed come to understand.how to read his work. 

    This is a novel masquerading as an account of a walk about the narrator did in England.   As he walks he reflects on the things he sees, his memories of historical events somehow connected to the path of his walk.  To me it seems much of his thoughts were focused on cycles of corruption and decay hidden under something very different.  

    I found the Work entirely fascinating.  I admit I was shaken up a bit by his reflections on sugar and art:

    “In their heyday, said de Jong, the Dutch invested chiefly in cities, while the English put their money into country estates. That evening in the bar, we talked till last orders were called about the rise and decline of the two nations and about the curiously close relationship that existed, until well into the twentieth century, between the history of sugar and the history of art. For long periods of time there was little scope for an ostentatious display of accumulated wealth, and consequently the enormous profits that accrued to the few families who grew and traded in sugar cane were largely lavished on the building, furnishing and maintenance of magnificent country residences and stately town houses. It was Cornelis de Jong who drew my attention to the fact that many important museums, such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague or the Tate Gallery in confectioner to the Viennese court, which Empress Maria Theresia, so it is said, devoured in one of her recurrent bouts of melancholy.”

    Sugar plantations employed huge numbers of slaves.  Under brutal conditions, the average life expectancy of a slave was two years.  The great art of Europe arose from this misery.  I saw the cosmic truth in this.  Beauty, art, culture, great treasures, magnificent buildings in London, Amsterdam arose from misery.  I wondered how this connects to Literature.  

    Reply
    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 13 November 2018 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Mel,
      Thanks for visiting and for sharing your thoughts on The Rings of Saturn. That’s actually the Sebald novel I was thinking of reading next, so it’s good to hear that you related to this one the most. Thanks for the quote. You’re right, it’s quite shocking to think how much of European art resulted from the misery of slavery. I remember years ago reading Capitalism & Slavery by Eric Williams and being horrified by just how much of the wealth I grew up with all around me in the UK came directly or indirectly from sugar and slavery. Review here if you’re interested: https://andrewblackman.net/2012/11/capitalism-slavery/. Anyway, thanks for making these points. And I look forward to reading The Rings of Saturn!

      Reply
  5. Amateur Reader (Tom) 16 November 2018 at 5:28 am

    Yes, I have recommendations: all of it. Possibly saving the poetry for after the fiction and criticism. Austerlitz is the most conventional, the most novel-like, of Sebald’s novels, for what that is worth.

    Reply

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