Posted by Sari
Austerlitz is the last novel of W.G. Sebald, a German author and academic who lived most of his adult life in England and was killed in a traffic accident in 2001. Austerlitz knocked a book out of my list of 32, first time this happened since I drew the list up four years a go.
Austerlitz is a strange narrative. It is a story of how its nameless narrator meets in Antwerp one Joseph Austerlitz, and keeps meeting him on and off through years. During their meetings Austerlitz and the narrator discuss about architecture, history, culture and ultimately Austerlitz's quest to find his own past.
Sebald writes in long sentences without chapters or paragraphs. I was expecting that getting into the rhythm of the text would be a chore like it is for me with Proust or later James, but somehow Sebalds narration rolled almost hypnotically from page to page interrupted only by the blurry and enigmatic photographs. It was easy to slip into the narrative even in a bus or a restaurant, slow one's heart to beat to synch with the novel.
As a historian, the themes of memory and history are naturally something I easily gravitate to, but in this case those were almost incidental. Though Sebald's vision is in itself revelatory, it is the way he echoes the themes of repression and memory in the structure and language of the book that leaves me almost speechless. In word and picture he talks from the beginning to the end about holocaust without really mentioning it : ”...I came on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegaalstraat, Pelikaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat and many other streets and alleyways...” His metaphors, images, digressions and words criss-cross and connect through history making the past, ours and Austerlitz's into integral part of the present.
Through fortresses, libraries and railway stations, tree-roots and burial grounds Sebald gently hammers his passionate but unsentimental meditation on 20thcentury Europe to the consciousness of his readers, reminding us of our shared history, and the need to remember. Do yourself a favour and read Austerlitz. It might change the way you look at literature.