AusterlitzAusterlitz, W. G. Sebald

In 1939, a five-year-old boy is sent on a Kindertransport from the Continent to foster parents in Wales. Until he comes to do his sixth-form scholarship exams, he grows up as Dafydd Elias, speaks Welsh, plays rugby, gets on well at school, remembers nothing outside of his current life. Before the exams the headmaster tells him that he must put the name Jacques Austerlitz, his real name, on his exam papers.

It is not until a good deal later in life that Jacques Austerlitz makes the journey, both literal and metaphorical, to find out about and confront his past. The narrative of this journey is a work of sheer genius. An investigation of identity, memory, dreams, loss, among many other things, it draws the reader in on level upon level, so much so that by the end, the desire to start again from the beginning is overwhelming.

Austerlitz is an architectural historian by career and the book opens with a disquisition on military fortifications. We soon begin to perceive why Austerlitz has chosen – or been chosen by – this particular interest: the greatest fortification of all is the one he has built up around himself. The voice of Austerlitz is reported to us through the nameless ‘I’ who is the ostensible narrator of the book, so that at all times we are presented with at least third-party narration. The layers even at this level are such that we occasionally find sentences like, ‘None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not believe that  . . .’ where the narrators are placed one inside or in front of another like protective shells. Memory is fluid, time can speed up or slow down or even become static, so that every moment is an unending now, and people may have appointments to keep in the past.  The book is shot through with misty scenes, half-lit rooms, blurred outlines, insubstantial figures.  Echoes recur and recur: swirling snow later becomes the fall of bird feathers; the two square metres of space per person in the ghetto is joltingly recalled again in the two-square-metre  television screen on a cafe wall. Ignore the names at your peril. The woman who fills in much of the past for Austerlitz is called Vera; the narrator meets Austerlitz in a bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui. Political activist Auguste Blanqui was sentenced to transportation in 1872, a sentence afterwards commuted to imprisonment; Austerlitz might be said to have suffered both punishments.

This is a book suffused with loneliness and melancholy which manages, by its brilliance, to uplift. It is a book about being haunted, which in turn will haunt. It is, in short, what great literature is about.

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