Book Review – Austerlitz: W G Sebald

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The books of W G Sebald have interested me for many years now and unlike most other books, I find myself coming back to them over and over again, quickly becoming absorbed in the images and impressions they create in my own mind. Sebald’s way of travel, and his way of looking at the places he visits have even influenced my own way of seeing, causing me to think in an oblique way about the cities and towns I go to, trying to read the cultural messages communicated by the places I find myself in.

In his book Austerlitz, Sebald seems to be showing us that the holocaust was such a pivotal event of the 20th century that it is now impossible to live our lives without a consciousness of what was done to all those millions of Jewish people. So aware are we now of how thin the veneer of civilisation is on our culture that it is impossible to carry on with normal human activities; our consciousness is infected at the deepest levels with the thought of how western societies can descend so easily to such a level of horrific cruelty.

Austerlitz editions

All Sebald’s books are what might be called “difficult”, but Austerlitz (now available in a new edition with a forward by James Wood) is perhaps the most enigmatic and the one which presents some hefty problems of interpretation. Just reading the book can be a challenge, not least because of paragraphs that run on for many pages and even sentences that seem never to end. Fortunately, the new 2011 edition is greatly improved by the addition of a lengthy introductory article by James Wood. I haven’t read James Wood’s article myself but assume that it is not unlike the article “Sent East” which he wrote for the London Review of Books in the 6 October 2011 edition.

Austerlitz themes

Austerlitz is the last book Sebald wrote before his death in a car accident in 2001 and shares many themes present in his earlier books such as:

– the solitary travels during which episodes of disorientation or illness are experienced,

– the interest in seemingly dull places which few tourists would visit,

– the encounters with people who have stories of ordinary life which resonate with the author’s state of mind.

The enigmatic photographs

The book is dotted about with grainy black and white images, which are more in the category of “found images” rather than actual photographs taken on Sebalds travels. Even when they purport to be portraits of people appearing in the book, this assertion is probably part of the fictional creation. Indeed, a careful study of his books suggests that Sebald occasionally found a particularly striking photograph and shaped that part of his narrative around it. An example would be the double-page photograph of a formal group at a 1920’s garden party in which one of the men has a parrot on his shoulder: I suspect that the passages about a parrot collector were suggested by this photograph. James Wood, in the article in the London Review of Books mentioned above, reports that he found the cover photograph of the boy Austerlitz in the Sebald literary archive at Marbach with “Stockport: 30p” written on the back.

I have no doubt that Sebald took some of the more contemporary photographs himself, but as Sebald said in a 1997 interview with Eleanor Wachtel for CBC Radio,

The pictures have a number of different sources of origin and also a number of different purposes. But the majority of the photographs do come from the albums that certainly middle-class people kept in the thirties and forties.

In the same interview, Sebald says that the photographs have the purpose of, “arresting time . . . they act like barriers or weirs which stem the flow”. (see Emergence of Memory, ed. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Sebald – a ghostly presence

Of course, the first person narrator of Sebald’s books is not actually Sebald in the way that a travelogue or an autobiorgraphy is written by the author. The voice is definitely Sebald’s, but while he is “present” in the elaborate narratives he constructs, they are definitely fiction. For the sake of clarity I shall refer to the author as “Sebald” while realising that this is not autobiography and that the events described are not real.

Austerlitz, the novel

In Austerlitz, we have accounts of Sebald’s travels, but also fictional-biography resulting from his conversations with Austerlitz, a man he met while travelling in Belgium who turned out to have been transported as a child on the Kindertransport to the home of a Welsh Presbyterian minister and his wife. While Sebald would have visited the places he describes, this is psychogeography: the books he writes are more concerned with the mind pictures created by the various locations than the the reality of the places themselves. He is interested in the memories evoked by the locations, the sense of place and the mental impressions they create. His interest is in the way memory gets distorted over time and also in the way suppressed memories can suddenly re-emerge with striking force

Austerlitz opens with a typically Sebaldian sentence:

In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one of two days, sometimes for several weeks.

Only Sebald would travel to Belgium for reasons which were never entirely clear to him, and the reader might ask how such vague intentions could lead to a visit lasting for several weeks. Before the end of the first page we are beginning to share Sebald’s sense of disorientation:

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 uncetainty of my footsteps as I walk all round the inner city, down Jeruzalemstraat, Nachtegallstraat, Pelikcaanstraat, Paradijsstraat, Immerseelstraat and many other streets and alleyways, until at last plagued by a headache and my uneasy thoughts, I took refuge in the zoo . . .

This is Sebald country in spades. Readers need to abandon all hope of finding a conventional “story” here and to lose themselves to the eddying flow of the text which will create images in their minds unlike those of any other writer. Yes, those streets seem to exist, but they are a purely random selection of streets in Antwerp, unlinked with each other. A book by Sebald is like an art installation. You can make of it whatever you will, for there is no “right” way of reading him. Every reader experiences Sebald in a unique way and the images he creates with his words and picture will resonate with the unique configuration of mind formed by the reader’s previous experiences.


Austerlitz comes in and out of the narrative in a seemingly haphazard way. Sebald and Austerlitz first meet in 1967 in the waiting room of the Centraal Station in Antwerp and talk about the architecture of the station, in which they both have an interest, with Austerlitz pointing out “Delacenserie’s eclecticism, uniting past and future in the Centraal Station with its marble stairway in the foyer and the steel and glass room spanning the platforms (which) was in fact a logical stylistic approach to the new epoch”.

They meet again in the Antwerp Glove Market, then in a back-street café, and again on the promenade at Zeebrugge, continuing their conversation and “wasting no time in commenting on the improbability of their meeting again”.

Monumental buildings

Austerlitz shares Sebald’s interest in architectural history, having what Sebald describes as an “astonishing professional expertise”. They are both interested in “monumentalism”, the tendency of 19th governments to “erect public buildings which would bring international renown to the aspiring state”. Four examples from the early parts of the book are Lucerne railway station (destroyed by fire in 1971), The Palace of Justice in Brussels, the Great Eastern Hotel in London, and the Belgian fort of Breendonk (which was used as a concentration camp by the Nazis). Sebald’s fascination with these huge buildings evokes a sense of dread, an almost agoraphobic fear of the vast spaces inside them with their closed-off rooms, endless corridors and maze-like structures. He records Austerlitz saying, “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”.

These places have the power to infest the mind with their embedded memories for days after the visit. Sebald describes a visit to Breendonk and writes that the building “seemed to be like the anatomical blueprint of some alien and crab-like creature”. While walking down one of the many tunnels inside it, he “had to resist the feeling taking root in my heart, one which to this day often comes over me in macabre places, a sense that with every forward step, the air was growing thinner and the weight above me heavier”. But the message of such places should not be resisted and Sebald meditates on the tortures and sufferings of the fort’s inmates. He reflects on the banality of torture, with good fathers from Bavaria and the Black Forest sitting in the guard’s mess-room at the end of their shift, playing cards and writing letters to their loved ones.

Austerlitz again

There is then a twenty year gap in the conversations between Sebald and Austerlitz. Sebald goes to catch a train at Liverpool Street station in London and goes into the bar to wait. As he watches the crowds of commuters he “suddenly noticed a solitary figure on the edge of the agitated crowd, a figure who could only be Austerlitz, whom I realised at that moment I had not seen for twenty years”. They discuss the architecture of the station and then Austerlitz tells Sebald that he has been looking for someone, “to whom he could relate his own story, a story which he had learned only in the last few years and for which he needed the kind of listener I have once been in Antwerp”.

By this stage of the book the scene has been set for the telling of Austerlitz’s story with a certain brooding tone having been established which will hover over the rest of the book. For this is far from being a happy book. It is dense and not a little peculiar with its fading in and out of reality, its implicit suggestion that its author is not entirely of this world, and its dark mood changes, none of which lead to anything remotely approaching joy. Despite all this its rewards are rich and have the ability to deepen the readers’ own experiences as they follow its course.

The back-story

We soon lose all sense of any difference between Sebald and Austerlitz. Austerlitz launches into an autobiographical story of his childhood in the manse of a Presbyterian minister in Wales. We read how during his early teens he discovered that the name that the minister and his wife had given him, Daffyd Elias, was not the correct one, and that his birth name, given to him by his Jewish parents in Hungary is Jaques Austerlitz.

Throughout the book, the narrative moves seamlessly between Austerlitz and Sebald and back again and the author, on many occasions, throws in a “said Austerlitz” to remind his readers that there are two characters in this book. The manner of speaking between the two is so identical that by this stage of the book we realise that the character “Austerlitz” is merely a device for Sebald to write a prolonged meditation on memory. How can a man who was transported as a young child, before memories are fully laid down, and who was brought up with no knowledge of who he really was, ever be able to function as a “normal person”?

The emergence of memory

Sebald’s classic theme of the emergence of memory is to the forefront here, as Austerlitz slowly begins to investigate who he really is, his parents memory now lost in the depths of concentration camp history. The only memories he can find are those others provide, either through by searching through archives in dusty libraries or by the discovery in Prague of his old Nanny who’s life has been frozen in the mid-1940s when everything she had was lost with the Nazi invasion of her country.

The ever-present Holocaust

The whole book is suffused with a sense of tragedy. Sebald questions how life can continue with any semblance of normality when Holocaust has been present in the world and its effects have not been fully exorcised (as though it every could be). Austerlitz himself is almost the embodiment of post-Holocaust trauma. So affected is he by the fate of his parents and family that he lives an isolated life, unable to turn from his acquired memories – for his parents fate has become his own. His alienation from other people is now so complete that he is unable to form relationships with other people.

Marie, a woman who he met during his archival researches, invites Austerlitz to travel to Marienbad in Bohemia so she can continue her researches into the spas of Europe and the two travellers appear to experience a degree of intimacy at first, with Austerlitz experiencing a “rare sense of happiness” as he listens to Marie talking. He imagines that “like the guests staying at Marienbad a hundred years ago” that he had “contracted an insidious illness, and together with that idea came the hope that I was beginning to be cured”. After spending a night sleeping next to her be felt,

A slight easing behind my forehead, the belief rise within me that I had found release at last. But nothing came of it. I woke before dawn with such an abysmal sense of distress that without even being able look at Marie I sat up like a man seasick.

He is unable to resist “the emergence of memory” which follows the revelations about the suffering caused to his forbears, and later in a conversation with Marie he says,

I must be alone, and in spite of my longing for her, I now felt it more than ever before. But it isn’t true, said Marie, it isn’t true that we need absence and loneliness. It isn’t true. Its only in your mind. You are afraid of I don’t know what. You have always been rather remote, of course, I could tell that, but now it’s as if you stood on a threshold and you dared not step over it. That evening at Marienbad, said Austerlitz, I could not admit to myself how right everything Marie said was, but today I know why I felt obliged to turn away when anyone came too close to me, I know that I thought this turning away made me safe and that at the same time I saw myself transformed into a frightful and hideous creature, a man beyond the pale.

The circle squared

At the end of the book we move back to psycho-geographical wanderings around Paris. We read of the stripping of Jewish apartments and the huge organisation behind the processing and distribution of Jewish possessions left by deported families who ended up in the camps. Sebald is at pains to show that no-one is innocent. To live with the knowledge of holocaust is to live in its shadow. There is no way out, for every step in the great cities of Europe is through territories which saw the most abomniable crimes perpetrated against men, women and children.

At the very end of the book Sebald returns to Antwerp and visits the Breendonk fort once again. Victims of the holocaust have scratched their names on the walls of the fort’s dungeons, often only a name, a date and a place of origin. He stays in a typically gloomy hotel and completes his meditations with the story of another Jewish family he finds in a book which Austerlitz had given him. The final sentence of the book reads,

I read to the end of the fifteenth chapter of Heshel’s Kingdom and then set out on my way back to Mechelen, reaching the town as evening began to fall.

Beyond forgetting

It is impossible to doubt that this book has one over-arching theme, the loss of family and heritage through the huge dislocation caused by the Holocaust. Austerlitz has no authentic memories of his past and has therefore no means to integrate his experiences today. He knows that the memories of his Welsh childhood are false memories in that he did not know who he was, nor even his real name, and yet as he discovers more about his past, he seems unable to integrate it with his present day experiences and lives in a perpetual search for a family and home he can never find. He is as much an alien as his exiled parents, with an aching void at his core. Sebald wants his readers to understand that no European can be untouched by the Holocaust. It is beyond forgetting. There is no cure for the memories it has left behind and the only response allowed to us is to read, explore and above all to remember the dreadful scar which is without healing.

As a Christian, I believe of course in redemption.  I am conscious of the way in which Christians and people of other or no beliefs tried to alleviate the suffering of the Jewish people. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed for his Christian beliefs and his refusal to take part in the Nazi system.  I think of Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps for criticising Nazi policies.  Corrie Ten Boom was imprisoned in Ravensbruck camp until the end of the war for sheltering Jewish people in the family home.  Many more people of Christian faith and no faith stood up against the regime and paid a high price for doing so. Perhaps Sebald’s bleak vision needs to be lightened a little by thoughts such as those of William Wordsworth in his sonnet , “When Philoctetes in the Lemnian Isle”:

“And trust that spiritual Creatures round us move,

Griefs to allay which Reason cannot heal;

Yea, veriest reptiles have sufficed to prove

To fettered wretchedness, that no Bastile

Is deep enough to exclude the light of love,

Though man for brother man has ceased to feel”

Ultimately though, while these words may offer some comfort, there is no real respite from Holocaust-conscioudness. The sheer enormity of the crimes committed against Jews, and against humanity itself condemn us all to walk with Sebald among the ghosts of Europe with our eyes open to what is still it’s recent and ongoing history.

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