Translated by Anthea Bell
Cult classic Austerlitz was my newbie Classics Club choice in January. It was W. G. Sebald’s final work before his unexpected death in 2001. Although he lived and worked in England from the late 1960s, he wrote all his novels in an archaic and elaborate German, but oversaw the English translations. Austerlitz‘s elaborately crafted passages mean full stops are rare, with one sentence covering up to nine pages.
To begin with I found the book, which I had been assured was a work of unparalleled genius, to be impenetrable. I read endless pages describing the unnamed narrator’s interactions with a man named Austerlitz, who he keeps running into, and who initially spends a lot of time describing various train stations of Europe in painstaking detail.
I was bored, but the text was strangely hypnotic, and eventually our narrator runs into Austerlitz in London, where they resume their conversation as though it had never paused (though their last meeting was years before). Austerlitz reveals childhood experiences, including his discovery, on the early death of his parents, that he had been living under an assumed name, Dafydd, for his entire remembered history.
In middle age Austerlitz finally confronts his past, discovering that his birth parents were Czech Jews; travelling to Prague and onto Paris with a companion he finds that in 1939, at the age of five, he was sent to Wales on the Kindertransport, and there taken in by his austere adoptive parents. On his travels he begins to recover his lost knowledge of the Czech language, along with shadowy memories.
Austerlitz moves through space and time, through dreams and ruined buildings, like a somnambulist, gradually unearthing the collective and personal horrors of his own past.
“I lay there in my semi-conscious condition for several days, and in that state I saw myself wandering around a maze of long passages, vaults, galleries and grottoes where the names of various Metro stations [….] – and certain discolorations and shadings in the air seemed to indicate that this was a place of exile for those who had fallen on the field of honour, or lost their lives in some other violent way. I saw armies of these unredeemed souls thronging over bridges to the opposite bank or coming towards me down the tunnels, their eyes fixed, cold and dead. Sometimes they manifested themselves in one of the dark catacombs where, covered in frayed and dusty plumage, they were crouching on he stony floor and, turning silently towards one another, made digging motions with their earth-stained hands.”
Sebald is famed for his works of ‘spectral geography’, and his work is interspersed with mysterious and atmospheric grainy black and white photos of people and places. (Bizarrely, The Spectator in a review of Austerlitz describes Sebald as a ‘liar’, as a photo purporting in the text to show Austerlitz as a child was in fact found by Sebald in an English junk shop, and is labelled as such on the back. Apparently the pathologically literalist journalist was unfamiliar with the concept of fiction.)
This strange, haunting, mesmeric book might be the best book that I have read about the Holocaust, a work of fiction about the defining tragedy of the 20th century.