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3.8 out of 5 stars
Austerlitz
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 25 April 2004
This book is a great joy. It is highly unusual in that it is composed inone long paragraph. Yet somehow the intricacies of the story unfolds andpasses through many facets and episodes. It is like nothing else that Ihave read but it held my attention all the way through. A new way oflooking at old themes of war, loss, memory and friendship. It is not alight read but it is far from being hard work having an elegance in styleand compassion for the characters that ensures you care about what you arereading. Definitely a five star read.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 2 February 2007
I couldn't put this book down. I found it to be a thoughtful, clever, unsentimentalised account of how Nazi policies (and Europe's reaction to them) impact on one Jewish individual. As the subject pieces together the threads of his own past, making sense and struggling to come to terms with them, the reader travels with him, and makes sense of our history.

I disagree with the previous reviewer - there is a strong narative pace which kept me turning the pages - digressions not withstanding. Despite the well known sequence of events Sebald succeeds in avoiding clichés. This is the most successful attempt I have encountered to make the scale of these events human.

I read this English translation, and the ideas still jump off the page at you - I wish I could read in the original German. It is a wonderful wonderful book and I can't recommend it enough.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2007
This is the first Sebald book I have read, and from the first page to the last I found it fascinating.

Firstly, the writer's style is unsurpassable: simply fantastic;

secondly, the book is so full of information and detail, it can't help but be intriguing -- Sebald even includes images (he was a keen photographer and collector of old images) which give the story another dimension.

The book is like a documentary, a novel, a history book and an encyclopaedia ... all wrapped up in the most amazing prose.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
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!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 11 May 2003
For me one of the most extraordinary and moving books I have ever read. Austerlitz is a brilliant engagement with the ramifications of historical trauma (in this instance, the Holocaust) and the way that it impacts on identity. This is a rich and multi-layered narrative that has as one of its themes the very process of making sense of horror through narration. Sebald has written a deeply humane and ethical rendition of the intimate reverberations of grief within the individual psyche, yet the structure of his book suggests that others are always crucial in coming to terms with the self and its struggles. The central character, Austerlitz, pieces together his lost history only with the aid of the unnamed narrator and the stories of others whose lives have been dislocated by fascist brutality. While the struggles of the self, Sebald suggests, are enacted hidden from the view of others, our stories are always bound up with other narratives, and that attending to these different tales may aid our quest for an authentic mode of being.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
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.
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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.
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