In the early pages of the W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (Modern Library—Random House, 298 pages), in the year 1967, the narrator visits the Antwerp Nocturama. There he comes upon a woebegone raccoon who “sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.”
The raccoon pokes his snout into the story shortly before the title character, Austerlitz, appears for the first time, but this haunted animal is perfectly emblematic of the confused and bewildered hero. Of course, the narrator himself—whose name is not given—also appears prior to the appearance of Austerlitz. We never learn much about him except that he is German, but, like the scene with the raccoon, his appearance at the start also adumbrates that of Austerlitz, in that the two characters much resemble one another.
The narrator reveals that he has an interest in unusual architecture, that he often is oppressed by a strange malaise. Like Austerlitz, he is a wanderer in a solitary world, apparently a bachelor, feeling ever apprehensive and guilty. He tells us that after a fire in Lucerne he has “an uneasy, anxious feeling which crystallized into the idea that I had been to blame, or at least one of those to blame, for the Lucerne fire.” He appears not to know exactly who he is or what he is doing. He travels repeatedly from England, where he lives, to Belgium, “partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me.” Always unsettled, not at ease within his own skin, he returns to live in his native Germany at the end of 1975, and, “scarcely a year later,” he is back in the UK. Why? We are not told.
This narrator may be an alter ego of the writer Sebald, but probably that is too easy a correlation to make in such an extremely complex novel. He is, at any rate, a sort of doppelgänger of Austerlitz, and the two dopplegäng their way together all through the narration. Not that they travel together, but in their aimless wanderings across Europe they keep running into one another. Or, as the narrator writes, “our paths kept crossing, in a way that I still find hard to understand” (27). Yes, strange, otherworldly forces propel the narrative action of this novel, make things happen, bring people together.
They meet by chance, they look at buildings, they talk, and, eventually, they become not exactly friends, but close acquaintances. At one point they do not see each other for twenty years—from 1976 to 1996—at which time they renew their friendship, “which had been both a close and distant one,” well, which was it?
When they meet again in London—already forty-three pages into the book—Austerlitz picks the narrator as the man to whom he wishes to relate his life’s story. Austerlitz is a novel that goes out of its way not to tell a story in any way resembling the traditional straight narrative. A novel told the traditional way would begin with the sentence we do not get to until page 44: “Since my childhood and youth I have never known who I really was.”
Austerlitz talks, the narrator listens; Austerlitz relates all the particulars of his life, while the narrator reveals practically nothing about his. There are grounds, in fact, for asserting that the narrator does not really exist, that the weird, neurotic Austerlitz has himself written this book about his life, but is too fearful to narrate the story directly. So he invents this intermediary figure, this double character to get the story told not directly, but obliquely. If so, the fact that he makes his narrator German is one of the supreme ironies of the book. For Austerlitz, above all, pronounces a quiet blanket anathema upon the German people, for all the depredations they visited upon Europe in the time of the Second World War.
So it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, that Austerlitz himself is both principal protagonist and narrator—or it would be if the novel were originally written in the language in which I read it, English. But Austerlitz could not have written this book, since the original is in German, a language he barely knows at all, has resisted ever learning.
Trains Going Everywhere and Nowhere, Details Run Amuck
On the first page the narrator comes chugging into Antwerp on a train, into one of the many, many railway stations that show up in the novel. The book, in fact, could be titled, Trains Going Here, There, and Everywhere, but, Ultimately, Nowhere. We learn later that as a little boy in Prague, Austerlitz loved watching trains, and the central event of his life—an event that threw his psyche out of kilter for all time—was a train journey from Czechoslovakia, across Germany, to England, on a children’s transport that saved his four-year-old Jewish life.
As the narrator enters the railway station in Antwerp, he “begins to feel unwell,” and “this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium.” He walks the streets of the inner city; like all of the streets of so many cities and towns in this novel, they are meticulously named for the reader. Everything, in fact, is described with a thoroughness of detail. The very narration of the book is drowning in detail, much more detail than any reader could possibly need. Here is the narrator, travelling by train to London to see an ophthalmologist:
“I looked out at the flat, almost treeless landscape, the vast brown expanse of the plowed fields, the railway stations where I would never get out, the flock of gulls which makes a habit of gathering on the football pitch on the outskirts of Ipswich, the allotments, the crippled bushes overgrown with dead traveler’s joy on the embankments, the quicksilver mudflats and channels at Manningtree, the boats capsized on their sides, the Colchester water tower, the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, the empty greyhound track at Romford, the ugly backs of the terraced houses past which the railway line runs in the suburbs of the metropolis, the Manor Park cemetery and the tower blocks of flats in Hackney, sights which are always the same and flit past me whenever I go to London, yet remain alien and incomprehensible in spite of all the years that have passed since my arrival in England” (36).
I love the “crippled bushes overgrown with dead traveler’s joy”; there’s a detail that belongs in this novel reeking in apprehension and malaise. The cited passage above is long, but constitutes only a small part of the entire description, which goes on and on and on, as do so many similar descriptions throughout the book, those of the narrator and those of Austerlitz. There is a certain deliberate “Germanness” in the way the whole novel is written, as if the author wishes his very narrative style to embody the way Germans have to have things thoroughly catalogued. Later on, when we come to the heart of the story—the tale of the Holocaust—attention to petty detail is a constant: emphasis on the German “mania for order and purity,” descriptions of how the Germans plundered the personal belongings of the Jews they arrested, made endless listings of all the household items, how they kept detailed accounts of all activities in the concentration camps, how efficiently and ruthlessly they murdered innocent people, crossing them off their lists, one by one.
Returning now to the beginning of the book. The narrator arrives in Antwerp on a train, begins his solitary amblings about—uneasily, in a steady malaise—and this perambulation continues, on the part of the narrator, or on the part of his main character, Austerlitz, throughout the rest of the novel. After contemplating the raccoon with his piece of apple, the narrator makes his way to the Central Station, marvels at the fantastical architecture there, goes into the Salle de pas perdus, which the waiting room is called—it helps to know French if you want to read this book—and meets by chance, for the first time, the man named Austerlitz, who is sitting there making notes on architecture in that “Waiting Room of Lost Steps.”
At their first encounter—this is the early summer of 1967—the two men talk about architectural history and the history of the building of this railway station. If you are interested in odd bits and pieces of facts about architecture, you’re in for a treat in reading the rest of the novel. If you, however, have no such interests, you are in for some hard slogging. Railway stations galore, how and when they were constructed, complete with photographs of them inserted into the text. Monumental buildings, the monstrosities of European architecture, the soullessness of so many buildings, the most gruesome of architectural eyesores (concentration camps and ghettos), the building holding the archives in Prague, where Austerlitz goes in an attempt to learn about his past.
A book full of buildings, and very few of them described as models of grace and beauty. While in Belgium at the beginning of the novel, the narrator visits the fortress of Breendonk, and the novel ends when he makes another visit there, to this “monolithic, monstrous incarnation of ugliness.” Why do we build useless, outsize buildings? There is a hint that we do this because we anticipate their crumbling into ruins, and we like the idea of destruction embodied in the ruins. Breendonk is also salient in the novel in that it is here that the narrator first imagines the travails of people in concentration camps—the most important theme in the book—and here that he looks in his imagination at the German guards and remarks, tellingly, “I had lived among them until my twentieth year.” Had he been born just a bit earlier, the narrator may be surmising, he himself could have been one of those guards.
We learn that Austerlitz—who makes his living as a professor in a university—has been studying architecture for years—not as a student or professor of architecture, but on his own. He wishes to put all his fragmentary studies together into a huge book, but at such time as he is ready to begin writing that book he is suddenly repulsed by all of his own research. He ends up publishing nothing on architecture, and has the first of several nervous breakdowns. He seems to implicate the very style of buildings in the unconscionable behavior of the human beings who built them. The architectural style of the capitalist era embodies “the compulsive sense of order and the tendency towards monumentalism, evident in law courts and penal institutions, railway stations and stock exchanges, opera houses and lunatic asylums.” Human beings are guilty of beastly behavior, and our buildings are accomplices in our acts of beastliness.
The Novel of User-Unfriendly
Returning, for the last time, to the beginning of the book. We have reached page 14, only to see our collocutors—the narrator and Austerlitz—ambling about discussing architecture, blending in some discussion on the existence, or nonexistence of time, when Austerlitz suddenly goes off on another tangent: the construction and architecture of fortifications. This business trudges on for several more pages, and the puzzled reader finds himself wondering what in the world this book is going to be about.
I’ve seldom encountered a novel made deliberately so difficult to read. Mired in a discussion of fortifications reminds me of something. Ah, yes, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, how Uncle Toby got his wound in the groin. But I never made it all the way through that book. And here, on page 14, it begins to appear that I won’t make it through this one either. The relentless narrative plods on inexorably, providing no breaks for separate chapters, seldom even for paragraphs. The reader swims through the dense high waves of prose, finds no purchase for a temporary rest. Only the occasional em-dash intrudes, and you grab onto it when you can, rest there briefly and tenuously, before breast-stroking off again, though lengthy sentences rife with detail. Help, help, somebody throw me a life preserver!
A page full of dialogue is faster and easier to read than a page crammed with narrative. Most novels use direct speech to give the reader a break from long narrative descriptions. Not this one. How about throwing in a bit of humor, to ease the strain? Nope. You won’t find a good laugh in the whole of Austerlitz. What is the point of making the reading of a book so unaccommodating for the reader? I can only assume that since the subject matter concerns man’s inhumanity to man, Sebald wants to get a feel for this subject into the very narrative style of the book. Austerlitz lives a life of agony, the Jews suffered unspeakable things, so here, reader, in your face: here’s a touch of how oppressive life can feel.
Another oddity about the style. The narrative is persistently oblique, as if the neurotic Austerlitz cannot bear to have it told directly. The narrator listens to Austerlitz and relays to the reader what Austerlitz says, but he also sometimes relays what Austerlitz says in reporting what other characters say. Here is a passage in which the blanket condemnation of Germany and Germans is conveyed by having Austerlitz’s father Maximilian speak through Vera through Austerlitz through the narrator to the reader: “Maximilian, in spite of the cheerful disposition which he shared with Agáta, had been convinced ever since I knew him, said Vera, so Austerlitz told me, that the parvenus who had come to power in Germany and the corporate bodies and other human swarms . . . had abandoned themselves from the first to a blind lust for conquest and destruction . . . Nonetheless, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not in any way believe that the German people had been driven into their misfortune; rather, in his view, they had entirely re-created themselves in this perverse form, engendered by every individual’s wishful thinking and bound up with false family sentiment . . . so Vera recollected, said Austerlitz, Maximilian would tell the tale of how . . . etc., etc., etc. All the italics above are mine. Weird writing, this. In his review in the London Review of Books, James Wood mentions “all the ways in which Sebald contrives not to offer an ordinary, straightforward recital.”
Austerlitz was published twenty years ago. Given the notorious deficiency of reader skills here in the year 2020, I can imagine practically no reader nowadays making it all the way through it, especially considering that the book demands at least a second reading—before you can begin to realize how it is put together.
Upon Second Reading
A short time into your second reading of the book—if you are a diligent reader—you begin to notice that the jumbled mess of narrative in the early pages is not a mess at all. The “I” narrator, while obscure, has an important role in the book, as doppelgänger of Austerlitz and for his Germanness. The theme of railway stations and railways jibes with the central story of the oppressed Jews, shunted off to concentration camps by railway, and with the story of a lost little boy, separated from everything and everyone he has ever known and shipped off by train from Prague to the UK in 1939. Even the clock at the Antwerp Station foreshadows the theme of time throughout the novel. The structure of the book consists of little action, but a lot of colloquy between characters, who tell each other life stories from the past. And sprinkled in amidst the colloquy of the first few pages are adumbrations of major themes that are developed later on. Things only appear disorganized; in fact, the book is highly organized, masterfully written and structured. Maybe there should be some kind of announcement on the title page: NOTE TO THE READER. You may find this book hard going at the beginning, but slog on, persevere, gentle reader, and your efforts will be rewarded.
Periods in The Life of the Hero Austerlitz
- His first four years in Prague. Austerlitz has little recollection of these years, at least not until he returns to Czechoslovakia some sixty years after he was sent West on a children’s transport.
- Arrival in Wales in the summer of 1939; here he lives a gloomy life of isolation with the Protestant clergyman Elias and his equally distant wife.
- Years in a private school, Stower Grange, where he is sent at age 12. The is the usual dismal sort of place, a kind of British institution mired in stupidity and cruelty, but for Austerlitz anything is better than life with Elias; here at the school he meets the boy, Gerald Fitzpatrick, who is to become his best friend for life, and he finds almost a second family in Gerald’s family. This relatively happy period in his life ends several years later, when Gerald dies in a plane crash, and Austerlitz “withdraws into himself.” This withdrawal dominates the rest of his life—which, as described in the novel, involves his sense of being perpetually lost, searching for his real self.
- A climactic moment comes when the adult Austerlitz wanders as if by chance into the Liverpool Street Station in London and there experiences a moment of recollection: “it must have been to this same waiting room I had come on my arrival in England over half a century ago.” “When I saw the boy sitting on the bench [a vision of his younger self] I became aware, through my dull bemusement, of the destructive effect on me of my desolation through all those past years, and a terrible weariness overcame me at the idea that I had never really been alive, or was only now being born, almost on the eve of my death” (137).
- On another occasion Fate seems to place him in a bookstore, where he overhears two women on the radio, describing their trip to Western Europe on the Kindertransport and realizes that on precisely that same train was riding his self as a child. Fate, by the way—or, rather, ghostly presences, with which the narrative is rife—play a huge role in Austerlitz, constantly setting things up so that the hero wanders into the perfect place to receive enlightenment about his past.
- Next, he, already on old man, returns to Prague, visits the city archive to search out possible relatives, people with his unusual surname, and, with amazing ease—again, as if supernatural forces were guiding his steps—finds the apartment of his old nanny, Vera, his mother’s best friend, who relates to him the story of his parents, both exterminated by the Nazis, and of his younger self.
- Having discovered who he is, Austerlitz might have returned satisfied to his life as a professor in England, but the revelations about his past in Prague drive him to seek out information on his dead parents. While in Prague he visits the city of Terezín, site of a notorious ghetto where his mother had been sent, before being sent on, apparently to Auschwitz.
- Austerlitz decides to take the same train journey as his younger self had taken, riding a nightmare train across Germany to England. He gets off the train and wanders the city of Nurenburg, his first time ever setting foot in Germany, a country about which he knows nothing, having his whole life shielded himself from any knowledge of the country or its people. The hordes of Germans he encounters spook his nervous sensibility, and the train journey leads to another nervous breakdown, several of which Austerlitz suffers in the course of the narrative.
- As the novel ends—or rather peters out—Austerlitz is in Paris, hoping to find some trace there of his dead father, who had managed to flee Prague before the Germans arrived, but who was later rounded up in France and exterminated.
Austerlitz, the Name
The boy who goes by a Welsh name, Dafydd Elias—the surname is that of his adopted parents—learns his true name, Jacques Austerlitz, only as an adolescent, while a student at the private school of Stower Grange. At first it strikes him as odd and alien: “I could connect no ideas at all with the word . . . I had never heard of an Austerlitz before, and from the first I was convinced that no one else bore that name.” Much later he learns by chance that Fred Astaire’s real name was Austerlitz, and he runs across the name a few other times. In school his favorite history teacher, Hillary, makes much of the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), also called “The Battle of the Three Emperors,” and featured in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The boy begins taking pride in the name.
On his visit back to Prague almost sixty years after he left there, he goes to the municipal archives and finds out the names of all the Austerlitzes who were living in the city in 1938. Their professions—one is a rabbi—reveal the name as strictly Jewish. With the list of names and addresses in hand, Austerlitz sets out to track down his relatives, and he is led immediately to his own old address, where he finds Vera, the woman who was once his nanny and the best friend of his mother.
Later we learn that in Paris, where Austerlitz has studied and lived, there is a gare d’Austerlitz—how appropriate that in a book teeming with railway stations one has the same name as the hero of the book—and a quai d’Austerlitz. Most telling of all, there is also in Paris the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot, known to the prisoners during the Nazi occupation as Les Galéries d’Austerlitz, where all the personal possessions looted from arrested Jews were stored, and where Nazi grandees would browse with their wives, “choosing drawing room furniture for a Grunewald villa, or a Sèvres dinner service, a fur coat or a Pleyel piano.” Some reviewers of the book have also pointed out the resemblance in sound between Austerlitz and Auschwitz, a word whose very sound evokes horror, and the camp where the mother of the hero presumably dies.
Time and the Living Dead
A recurrent theme throughout the novel is the theme of time. At their first meeting (p. 8-9) the narrator and Austerlitz encounter a concrete manifestation of time—later called “the most artificial of all our inventions”—in the image of the “mighty clock” in the buffet where they sit. This clock has “a hand some six feet long traveling round a dial which had once been gilded, but was now blackened by railway soot and tobacco smoke. During the pauses in our conversation we both noticed what an endless length of time went by before another minute had passed, and how alarming seemed the movement of that hand, which resembled a sword of justice, even though we were expecting it every time it jerked forward, slicing off the next one-sixtieth of an hour from the future and coming to a halt with such a menacing quiver that one’s heart almost stopped.” More evidence here that the doppelgängers of the narrative are meant to be a double representation of Austerlitz himself—in that it is difficult to conceive of two men who have just met having this rather strange mutual perspective on the movements of a clock’s hand.
Austerlitz avoids the whole conception of time, battles against it throughout the novel. He refuses to wear a watch, rebelling against the idea that time can run his life, “keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was.”
While a student at Oxford Austerlitz goes with his old history teacher, Hillary, to visit various dilapidated country houses. In one of them, Iver Grove, they come upon a billiards room in desuetude for years. “It was as if time, which usually runs so irrevocably away, had stood still here, as if the years behind us were still to come, and I remember, said Austerlitz, that when we were standing in the billiards room of Iver Grove with Ashman, Hillary remarked on the curious confusion of emotions affecting even a historian in a room like this, sealed away so long from the flow of the hours and days and the succession of the generations.”
It is precisely this state of time held in abeyance that Austerlitz searches for in his quest for his dead parents. He wants desperately to believe that they still exist somewhere, and that if he can find the seam that exists somewhere in time, he can be back at one with them. “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision. As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all.” Another good title for this book: The Man Who Was Not.
While searching for some trace of his father in Paris, Austerlitz sometimes imagines that he could still be alive, and still walking the streets of the city, “just waiting, so to speak, for a good opportunity to reveal himself. Such ideas infallibly come to me in places that have more of the past about them than the present. For instance, if I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last . . . that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone on before us and is for the most part extinguished, and we must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time.” More good titles for this book: (1) The Far Side of Time; (2) The Gravitational Field of Oblivion.
Austerlitz’s perpetual sensation of the fluid boundaries of time, and of himself attempting to cross those boundaries, is also tied in with his constant sensation that he is not really alive, or that he is living someone else’s life instead of his own. “At some time in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life. Later, on a walk through the deserted town— [Marienbad in this case, in 1972, but the novel is full of deserted towns, where ghostly characters promenade]—and up to the fountain colonnade, I kept feeling as if someone else were walking beside me, or as if something had brushed against me.” Of course, only later does he discover that as a small boy he had been in Marienbad with his parents and nanny (in 1938), so that the presences brushing against him on his second trip there are the ghosts of his relatives and his younger self.
The tormented Austerlitz believes in ghosts. Late in the novel he mentions “the suspicion I had always entertained that the border between life and death is less impermeable than we commonly think.” In the early pages, describing his life as a boy in Wales, he describes the Welsh cobbler Evan, who tells him ghost stories, “tales of the dead who had been struck down by fate untimely, who knew they had been cheated of what was due them and tried to return to life.”
Although the boy does not make the connection, later on there is no doubt that such ghosts include his own dead parents, deprived of their lives by the Nazis. Austerlitz always has the feeling as a boy that something has been hidden from him: “Sometimes it was as if I were in a dream and trying to perceive reality; then again I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me, the reverse of a shadow, so to speak.” Much later in the book (224-25), in reprising the train journey he made as a boy from Prague, across Germany, to England, he mentions “another idea which had obsessed me over a long period: the image of a twin brother who had been with me on that long journey, sitting motionless by the window of the compartment, staring out into the dark . . . whenever I thought of him I was tormented by the notion that towards the end of the journey he had died of consumption and was stowed in the baggage net with the rest of our belongings.” In this case the twin could be his younger self, whose memories of Prague he has repressed, but the idea of the twin also suggests the theme of the doppelgänger (see above) and the narrator, a kind of twin to Austerlitz.
In describing his wanderings around London in a state of nervous breakdown, Austerlitz writes in part: “I thought several times that among the passengers coming toward me in the tiled passages, on the escalators plunging steeply into the depths, or behind the gray windows of a train just pulling out, I saw a face known to me from some much earlier part of my life, but I could never say whose it was. These familiar faces always had something different from the rest about them, something I might almost call indistinct, and on occasion they would haunt and disturb me for days on end. In fact, at this time . . . I began seeing what might be described as shapes and colors of diminished corporeality through a drifting veil or cloud of smoke, images from a faded world . . .”
Wherever he goes Austerlitz encounters crowds, swarms of people, like drops of water in a river, all flowing somewhere, into some ultimate nullity, as, e.g., in Liverpool Street Station, “one of the darkest and most sinister places in London, a kind of entrance to the underworld,”: “a muffled babble of voices, a quiet scraping and trampling of feet, innumerable people passed in great tides, disembarking from the trains or boarding them, coming together, moving apart, and being held up at barriers and bottlenecks like water against a weir.” A major theme of the novel: how our dead refuse to die; the hordes of ghostly presences in all the crowd scenes suggest the return of the murdered innocents of the Holocaust, wandering, floating about in their own grievous nonexistence, in their refusal to accept how their lives were mercilessly terminated.
Photographs, Paintings, Schema
Another unusual aspect of the book’s narrative is the way graphic images are scattered about the text. Already on the second page photographs begin appearing. Who has taken them? Well, the hero Austerlitz wanders throughout the whole novel, constantly taking snapshots, but here, at the very beginning, he has not yet appeared. His alter ego, the narrator, writes of the “strikingly large eyes” of animals he has seen at the Nocturama, and “the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers”; later he mentions the similarity in looks of Austerlitz and Wittgenstein. So we can only assume that it is he who inserts into the text (on page 4) the photo of the eyes of a lemur and an owl, and (on page 5) two photos of a man’s eyes (identified by some critics as Wittgenstein’s).
Several pages later there are pictures of the Lucerne railway station and the fire there in 1971. These again, presumably, originate with the narrator, as do the photographs of the fort at Breendonk and the schema of the ground plan of the fort. The narrator visits Breendonk twice, once at the beginning of the novel and again at the end; Austerlitz never visits the place.
The narrator and Austerlitz first meet in 1967, in the waiting room at Antwerp Centraal Station, and Austerlitz is busy taking photographs at the time, many of them in connection with his plan to write a book on the architecture of European buildings. As we are informed on page 7, he has entrusted “many hundreds of pictures, most of them unsorted,” to the narrator soon after they meet again in the winter of 1996, and near the end of the book (293) the narrator comes into possession of Austerlitz’s whole collection of snapshots. So we can only presume that most of the photos and schema inserted into the text originate with Austerlitz.
Many of the photographs are rather pointless, and one would think the book could do just as well without them. Such is the picture of what is, apparently, the rucksack that Austerlitz always carries, and that of unknown British aristocrats, one with a parrot on his shoulder—this one takes up two complete pages in the middle of the book (86-87)—and the photo of two billiard balls, also encompassing two pages (106-07). At one point a Turner watercolor is discussed briefly; apparently this is what is reproduced (110)—so blurred as to be hardly visible (but maybe the blurriness of the figures is the point, in a book where ghosts are as real as people in flesh).
More congruent with the central themes of the book are snapshots that Austerlitz takes as he wanders about in search of his dead parents and his own lost past. Among these are photos of the room where the files are kept in Terezín, a morose picture of the garbage cans at that former ghetto, and pictures of the outside of the archive building in Prague—where Austerlitz receives the information that allows him to rediscover his dead childhood. The main protagonist of the novel also loves to traipse around cemeteries, constantly reinforcing his feeling that he is perhaps more at home with the dead than the living. A gruesome photograph of skeletons appears on p. 131, apparently depicting what workers found at Broad Street Station, during excavations made in 1984.
You find yourself wondering where, in actuality, did all of these pictures and illustrations come from. Did Sebald himself visit all the many places where scenes in the novel are set, taking photographs? And to what extent are the photos really of buildings and places of which they purport to be? Or does it really matter? For, after all, what we are reading is a fiction, and within a fiction, one supposes, the interpolated graphic images have a right to be fictitious as well.
When it comes to the pictures supposed to be of actual people, the fictional quality of the photographs is obvious. In the photo of a rugby team (75), the blond boy at the far right on the first row—a very German-looking boy, the ideal of Hitler youth—is identified as Austerlitz in his days of playing rugby at the private school in Wales. God knows what rugby team this really is. You wonder if some reader of Sebald’s book in Yorkshire might some day widen his eyes when he comes to that page and exclaim, “Wait, wait, that’s our Sowerby Bridge team from 1955, and that blond boy on the right is me.” The point is that the photo is fictional, as is the photo that Austerlitz finds of his mother Agáta in the Prague theatrical archives. Once his mother’s best friend, Vera “immediately and without a shadow of a doubt, as she said, recognized Agáta as she had been then.” So here we have a real picture of a real, i.e., fictitious character in a novel, but who that woman in the photograph really is remains unknown.
Central to the narrative is the photograph of a boy—young Austerlitz at age three or four, with an inscription on the back in Czech, in his grandfather’s hand: “Jacquot Austerlitz, page boy to the Rose Queen.” This picture, which also serves as the image on the cover on my paperback, depicts our young hero in February, 1939, about to accompany his mother, an opera singer, to a masked ball. In staring at the image, Austerlitz, now almost elderly, feels “the piercing, inquiring gaze of the page boy who had come to demand his dues, who was waiting in the gray light of dawn on the empty field for me to accept the challenge and avert the misfortune lying ahead of him.” As if to say: Here I am, looking at you. It’s me, your younger self; now don’t let this awful thing happen to me, and to my parents. Or if it has already happened, go back in time and make it NOT happen.
“As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had the impression more strongly than on that evening when the eyes of the Rose Queen’s page looked through me.” One more photo appears in the cover art of Austerlitz, this one on the back of my paperback: a photo of W.G. Sebald, the author. In viewing the picture of the boy on the front cover and the author on the back, some readers have jumped to the conclusion that the writer has fictionalized his own family photographs for use in his book. The page boy is young Sebald, as is the German-looking rugby player. Not so, says the critic James Wood, who has worked in Sebald’s literary archive and who identifies Wittgenstein’s eyes on p. 5. Wood discovered the actual photo of the page boy in the archive and attests that this is not Sebald. The identity of the boy has not been established, and may never be. For the purposes of his re-creation of a world, Sebald has taken an unknown boy and fictionalized him. From now on the boy in the picture can only be Jacquot Austerlitz.
One major theme of Austerlitz is that of loss. The book details human lives of loss and loss of human lives. There is so much loss on earth that it extends, improbably even to the colors of nature, which are fading away. “Alphonso once told his great-nephew [Gerald] and me that everything was fading before our eyes, and that many of the loveliest of colors had already disappeared, or existed only where no one saw them, in the submarine gardens fathoms deep below the surface of the sea.” The main protagonist of the novel, Austerlitz, has lost not only his parents; paradoxically, he has lost his life in the process of saving it.
Had his mother not sent him on a children’s transport out of Prague in 1939, he would have perished along with her at the hands of the Germans. But, despite being saved, he feels lost for the rest of his life, never knowing exactly who he is, fearful even of finding out about his past, never able to make social connections. He arrives in England speaking Czech, then never hears it spoken again. Soon he is speaking English and Welsh, but his native language is moribund. Here is how he describes its desperate struggle to survive, comparing the Czech language to a small creature in a cage: “the dying away of my native tongue, the faltering and fading sounds which I think lingered on in me at least for a while, like something shut up and scratching or knocking, something which, out of fear, stops its noise and falls silent whenever one tries to listen to it.”
Austerlitz, by the way, is a novel rife with languages. The protagonist speaks English, Welsh, French, and Czech—which, miraculously, comes alive again years after it has died, when Vera begins speaking it to him in Prague. There are passages in the novel in all of these languages, plus in Dutch and German. Of course, the biggest irony about the book—which reads as a virulent condemnation of the German people and of everything German—is that it was written in German. As part of his lifelong efforts to save his sanity, Austerlitz has avoided learning anything about Germany and cannot read German. Notwithstanding that, he forces himself to read a long book in German by H.G. Adler on the Theresienstadt ghetto (Terezín) near Prague, where his mother had been sent. Learning all the horrific details about the ghetto is already a nightmare for him. But his struggles with the language, with the long compound words, “not listed in my dictionary,” could be a self-imposed travail, as if forcing himself to suffer as did the inmates in the concentration camps. Once again we recall the suffering reader, to whose number you and I, readers of Austerlitz, also belong.
By the time Austerlitz reconnects with his nanny Vera in Prague she is an old woman, but her life has been held in abeyance since the arrest of her best friend, the mother of Austerlitz, by the Nazis. Since the boy Jacquot and his mother Agáta had departed her life, Vera “had not truly breathed” and could barely be said even to be alive. She is a walking, living ghost, like so many other human beings who drift through the pages of the novel. “Only in books written in earlier times did she sometimes think she found some faint idea of what it might be like to be alive.” Austerlitz is a novel treating the loss imposed on innocent people by the Nazi machine, and about the wraithlike survivors who still walk the streets but whom the Nazis destroyed years earlier.
The early dislocation of the main hero has made for another great loss: he has so little self-possession that he constantly wavers on the verge of a nervous collapse. His first big breakdown comes when he tries to write his book on architecture and discovers that writing—once his favorite occupation in his professorial world—no longer is a possibility. Over a period of ten pages (121-140) comes the best and most convincing description of a nervous breakdown that I’ve ever read in a novel. Eventually the writer’s block is exacerbated; not only can he not write, but “even the smallest talk or duty, for instance, arranging assorted objects in a drawer, can be beyond one’s power.” One other quotation: “Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths.”
Another breakdown, with severe anxiety attacks, comes after Austerlitz reprises the long train journey that he had made as a boy from Prague to London. Parts of the journey include passage through Germany, and after Austerlitz leaves the train to meander briefly through Nurenburg, another collapse is inevitable.
A Sexless Novel
For the doppelgängers of the narrative—the narrator and Austerlitz—not a hint is there of close family attachments over the course of the whole book. Both apparently are bachelors, and if either of them has ever had sexual congress with woman or man, the chaste pages of this novel are not about to be besmirched with a description of that congress. There is a long interlude describing Austerlitz’s friendship in Wales with Gerald Fitzpatrick, his visits with Gerald’s family, his becoming almost one of the family—the closest he ever gets to a family connection. This covers some forty-five pages, replete with superfluous details on moths, on Gerald’s scientific research, and discussion of Gerald’s relatives.
This lengthy friendship with Gerald ends when he, as an adult, dies in a plane crash that devastates Austerlitz. Was this a homosexual connection? Although Gerald too is never described as having a wife or children, there is not even a faint hint—in this novel so thoroughly purged of sexuality—that the friendship was homosexual.
In 1968 Austerlitz first meets the Frenchwoman, Marie de Verneuil, who, it appears, has a romantic interest in him, and he in her, but nothing comes of their relationship, due to his total inability to open himself up to another human being. In reference to their early days together he says, “I could not bring out the words I should have spoken then.” In the summer of 1938 he travels with Marie, at her invitation, to Marienbad, but in his subconscious is the buried memory of his trip there with his parents in 1938, and this keeps him in a state of near collapse throughout the vacation. There is a vague implication that they slept together in their room at the Palace Hotel, but if Austerlitz is even capable of the sexual act, we never are told. He explains to the narrator, “I must be alone, in spite of my longing for her.” Later he mentions “Marie, whom I lost entirely soon afterwards, by my own fault” (never explained).
The Fade-Away Ending
As James Wood has written, Austerlitz “seems to leave the book as randomly and unexpectedly as he enters it.” At the end he is still searching for traces of his father in Paris. As he tells the narrator, “I am going to continue looking for my father, and for Marie de Verneuil as well.” A continuing search for two ghosts, one dead, one living. Although Austerlitz is gone in the final scenes of the novel, he is, in a sense, still in the book, since his twin brother, the narrator, perpetuates the same anxious perambulations characteristic of the hero. At the end of the book the narrator brings the narrative full circle. He stops off in Antwerp again, to visit the Nocturama. Is the raccoon with the piece of apple still there? He also makes a second visit to Breendonk.
Just like Austerlitz he forces himself to look again at one of the dark places of the Nazi past. Just like Austerlitz he has bad dreams, is oppressed by the brutality of the buildings. He takes out and reads a book that Austerlitz has given him. Written by a man named Dan Jacobson, it describes how this man’s life was saved by emigration in 1920. He, like Austerlitz, returns to Europe (Lithuania) in search of traces of his dead relatives. Two men whose lives were saved as children, one (Austerlitz) having nonetheless, lost that life and lived on as a ghost, the other (Jacobson) having, apparently, made good use of his lucky break and lived out a successful life in South Africa. The book’s final irony.
U.R. Bowie, author of Looking Good
Excellent review of one of several excellent narratives by Sebald.