on 16 March 2006
I came across Sebald's books by chance via The Rings of Saturn. At first I had no idea what I was reading. To me it seemed a new genre, not just a novel. Austerlitz follows a smiliar pattern. Sebald seems to combine travelogue, dream, history, reminiscence, psychology and even illustrates his pages with long -lost photographs. It is like stumbling into a drawer and finding the faded, collected remnants of someone's consciousness. The non-stop non-paragraphed writing resembles a kind of manic dream state. I hope this doesn't sound off-putting and perhaps you have to read it to understand. Underlying his writing is a luminous humanity. We follow Austerlitz as he grapples with his anxiety and distress, his "sense of rejection and annihilation" which links his story to the wider currents of Europe's history of denial and admission. I don't recommend Sebald: he deserves, or rather requires, to be read. Words like dreamlike and haunting don't do this justice. He truly pushes writing into a new, enigmatic territory.
on 20 July 2007
Austerlitz is a sophisticated book which is frequently difficult to follow, and even boring in some places, but is ultimately a very satisfying read.
The Austerlitz of the title is an architecture expert, obsessed with buildings and their accompanying history. We are told his story through a friend's recollections of conversations - an interesting decision by Sebald as it gives the narrative a strange, often misdirecting, flavour, similar to the sections of second-order narrative in Wuthering Heights.
What makes Austerlitz an interesting book is how it first shows who Austerlitz is now (the professional, highly-educated expert), and then, in the latter half of the book, delves into his childhood, right up to his life as a younger, and then older, adult. The whole book is one giant character study, rich in detail and intellectual diversions about architecture and political history. It is deliberately provocatively written (in one place a single sentence stretches several pages), but the journey is worthwhile and the content dense enough to warrant rereading of random passages long after the journey is over.
In 1939 a five year old is sent from Prague to Wales to escape the imminent disaster. He soon forgets all of his previous life and grows up knowing nothing of his past. However in adulthood he comes he is haunted by his unknown identity and by his absence of memories. The loveless Welsh household and the harsh private school are superbly described.
The book is narrated by someone who meets Austerlitz in Belgium. Their friendship continues and they meet up occasionally and Austerlitz continues to tell of the progress he has made. The writing is atmospheric and haunting - goes off into reveries on architecture, fortifications, moths, museum exhibits, maps, etc etc. I have to confess I found some of these quite irritating - and some of the vocabulary seemed deliberately esoteric.......
Austerlitz took photographs continually and the book is liberally illustrated by these. Many are very badly reproduced (deliberately?) and I am not sure how much they finally contributed to the overall narrative.
The reviews were glowing but on finishing reading it I had quite ambivalent feelings - irritation mixed with admiration. However I found that images from this book came back to haunt me days after I had finished it..... perhaps it was better than I gave it credit for!
Sebald tells a fictional story of the adult Austerlitz's search for his past, from his birth in Prague, through his early childhood, leading to his passage to Britain just before WW2 on one of the last trains sending young children to safety.
Sebald adopts a deliberately meandering style, the narrative interspersed with thoughts about science, architecture, 20th century history. The book is introspective and dense, drawing the reader into a melancholic frame of mind, around thoughts of holocaust, persecution and brutality.
Among his many descriptions of European architecture he writes about the Palace of Justice in Brussels, ". . . a kind of wonder, which is in itself a dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins"...
In reading a book like this, it is necessary to ask the question what is it about? In my view, Sebald seeks to show his readers that the consciousness of the awful horrors of the last century, effectively put a stop to any lightness or levity in the present. Our bleakest expectations of human behaviour colour our experience today so that all is shot through with memories of the dreadful things that happened a mere 60 years ago (and continue to recur to this day).
Not a happy read, but probably an "important" book and having read Austerlitz a week or so ago I find my thoughts returning to it, and wanting to revisit it.
Incidentally, the book is beautifully produced, being illustrated with a collection of black and white photographs, some of which I assume Sebald shot himself, and others which I imagine are "found" objects from his collection. The photos are incredibly melancholic, presenting an impression of extreme lonliness and human isolation. The book itself is beautifully presented, printed on rich paper with an elegant typescript and a high quality binding. I suspect it will be a collectors item in years to come.
on 20 December 2001
I was half way through this wonderful book when I read of Sebald's death in a road accident last weekend. Fortunately for us, it stands as a brilliant culmination of his four 'novels', but also shows us what we have lost.
Austerlitz has been driven to the brink of mental illness by the suppression of early childhood memories and the refusal to hear of anything that has occurred in Europe since the nineteenth century. Following his upbringing in North Wales, his life in London and his travels in Prague we see reality creeping in. Austerlitz slowly discovers himself and in doing so discovers the twentieth century for us.
Part of the pleasure of reading Sebald is the prose - measured, precise and beautifully translated - and the inclusion of photographs that contribute as much to the atmosphere as the text. There is also much of Thomas Bernhard here - the lack of paragraph breaks, the long sentences, the story told by a first person relating a long conversation with a second or third, a main character who has spent his life researching some obscure topic but will never manage to put pen to paper (Bernhard's Concrete and The Lime Works), and a preoccupation with compromised morals. There is perhaps even a nod to Bernhard with the description of the Nazi rally in Vienna's Heldenplatz - the subject of a play by Bernhard.
I was entranced by The Rings Of Saturn but Austerlitz is even better - easily the best book I read this year. That we will not have any more books like this I find unbearable at the moment.
If Austerlitz appeals to you, then do try Bernhard too - The Loser or Cutting Timber would be a good place to start.
on 9 March 2010
I have just finished reading this book and have been completely stunned at how powerful and moving it is. Those reviewers who have found the book uninvolving seem to be criticising the novel for not being what they wanted rather than looking at what it actually is - complex in narrative approach and yet utterly beguiling to read throughout. As an evocation of the force and weight of the past as it bears down on the present for individuals and for societies, the feeling of entrapment in a web of forces we cannot quite grasp and the powerful sense of loss and abandonment felt by the protaganist, this novel has no equal. It is not a difficult book to read, as some reviewers have suggested. They seem to be implying that they don't get it, therefore it is failing. This is certainly not a book for 'literary snobs' as one writer asserts - my own favourite writer is Cormac Mcarthy - but Sebald is a master stylist and unquestionably a writer of the greatest power. Like all great writing (and what connects the unlikely coupling of McArthy with Sebald) it is what is not said that is more powerful than what is. A word of congratualtions to the translator - the prose works magnificently throughout, despite the sometimes awkward "Austerlitz said" that are not always required.
on 24 August 2009
Yes, Sebald's other major works are all beautifully written, profound, and insightful. but they lack narrative force, or propulsion (and in this way are reminiscent of the similarly negligent Perec or Calvino). They essentially consist of a series of vaguely themed anecdotes and musings, and often remind me of a grim existentialist version of the TV programme QI. This is not to say that i don't value them, but i do regard them as difficult books to read, cover to cover, as novels. They are, perhaps, best enjoyed as books to dip in and out of, and are closer to something like Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet or Burton's wonderful treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Good, then, but not quite the supreme masterpieces some would claim. Austerlitz, however, is a masterpiece, in that it contains the same beautiful descriptions and philosophical weight that elevates Sebald's writing beyond most other authors, but marries these gifts to a story worth reading, in-itself, as a story. Lovers of modernist fiction would tell you that plot is unimportant. Ignore them. The true greats are able to tell a great story AND move emotions AND massage the intellect. With this novel Sebald confirmed himself as one of the true greats.
on 16 June 2013
Finnegans Wake was a kick up the literary backside for me as I struggled at first to find new ways to make sense out of apparent nonsense. In the end I settled on reading it out loud, which gave me plenty of space on buses and trains as I chuntered my way through what soon revealed itself to be an insightful and hilarious discourse on being human and, more particularly, being Irish. Austerlitz delivered another boot to the bum because it doesn't look much like a novel (all those photos and illustrations), read like a novel (soliloquies delivered to an unidentified narrator sporadically encountered through the text), or conclude like a novel (the "ending" is time going on, as it always does while we're still alive). It also contains one of the profoundest meditations on time I've ever read, inspired by a visit to Greenwich, as is a similar disquisition in Ali Smith's There But For The. But Austerlitz's preoccupation with time is central to his quest to find out what happened to his parents as the Nazis carted them off to the camps and he was hastily sent from Prague on Kinderstransport to a strictly religious household in Wales. One criticism of Sebald is the lack of humour in his work but the stunning writing more than makes up for this deficiency and perhaps laughs are inappropriate in what is essentially a lament for the tragic and different country - literally - that is Austerlitz's past.
on 14 October 2009
The unreality of the action of Austerlitz - several meetings between two men, giving rise to unexplained trust, which prompts a series of increasingly revealing monologues by one of them, Jacques Austerlitz - is a device which presents its real and entirely convincing substance to great effect. The book is an intuitive and imaginative and image-rich exploration of the relation between past and present. It does not, however, supply, or even seek, unarguable answers to the questions that result.
Jacques Austerlitz discovers the reasons for his distant and fragile nature in his early childhood in continental Europe, during the first years of the Nazi holocaust. His search is unresolved, however, so that his adult personality remains distant and lonely and always searching. The narrative simply fades at the end. Ideas about loss and suffering and separation and trauma are put forward and explored in a poetic way. The calm, uninvolved tone of the book, and the really beautiful manner in which the narration goes forward, by use of lively images both literary and literal (photographs interspersed in the text), make it rather easy to read, even though there is little direct human interaction, virtually no conversation, and an almost dreamlike quality to the entire work.
This is a brilliant book but maybe not of universal appeal.
I would not have thought of reading a book with no paragraphs and few full stops if I had not been intrigued to understand what made "Austerlitz" so talked about when it was first published.
From the outset, I was carried along by the hypnotic power of the great wave of prose which describes the anonymous narrator's occasional, usually chance visits in railway stations or cafes with the eccentric loner, Jacques Austerlitz. I was also very taken with the strange, dark little photographs embedded into the text to illustrate certain points - these are meant to be part of Austerlitz's collection, but must have been acquired somehow from many sources by the author and the story adjusted to include them.
A lecturer in art history, Austerlitz launches into lengthy monologues without any sense that he might be boring his audience to death, which means that you need to have an interest in architecture to get through the opening pages. Realising that the narrator is the best listener he will ever find, Austerlitz proceeds to recount his odd, and rather sad childhood in Wales, as what turns out to be the fostered son of a fanatical clergyman and his wan wife. In the very striking descriptions of the Welsh countryside -like a Turner landscape in words, I began to see the author's power.
It is gradually revealed that Austerlitz was brought to Britain on the "Kindertransport" to escape the Nazis. After years of repressing his early memories, he realises that he has also avoided close emotional relationships with anyone, and feels a compelling need to trace his family, find out what befell his parents and see the places where he lived before his life was ripped apart by the Nazis. Some of the most moving passages cover his "detective work", meeting with his former "nanny" and recognition of places he must have seen before.
This novel is certainly original. It cannot be judged by normal standards in that plot is of no interest to Sebald. Although the stream of consciousness always makes perfect sense, passing impressions - such as the resemblance to strange landscapes of the shadows on a wall - are deliberately given more weight than significant events. Significant friendships are only implied in Austerlitz's emotionally stunted, autistic world - yet he can unburden himself to a near-stranger. The author is keen to convey his theory that time is not linear in our minds - in some atmospheric places - say, an old courtyard - one may experience now the time of a past age, and so on.
At times, I felt overwhelmed by the self-indulgent excess of some of the author's "verbal digressions". I found that I could only cope with a few pages at a time. There being no chapters to provide natural breaks, it was frustrating to have to put the book down mid-sentence because one could not bear to plough on to the next full stop, several pages further on.
I also wondered if the device of the narrator was necessary or even desirable, leading as it often did to the clunky "and so, as X told him, Austerlitz said....".
The sudden and arbitrary ending - making the point that the rambling account could have gone on for ever, also left me feeling flat and a little disappointed.
Overall, this is probably a flawed masterpiece. I did not need it to inform me of the horror of the Holocaust, but it makes an effective contribution to the body of work which reminds people of what no one should ever forget.