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2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
The Los Angeles Times Book Award
Synopses & Reviews
In October 2001 W. G. Sebald's fourth novel, Austerlitz, was released to the literary world's equivalent of a standing ovation. Some critics admitted their modest attempts to critique Sebald could not do this novel justice, and by the end of the year it had been named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many more. Tragically in December the same year Sebald died in a car crash at age 57. He was posthumously awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Austerlitz.
Evocative, powerful, but written in formal prose reminiscent of the 19th century realists, Austerlitz features an unnamed narrator recalling conversations he shared with the title character, an architectural historian, over a period of several decades. Austerlitz's diffuse monologues weave around world history, architecture, and natural history, all the while edging closer to the truth of his own history and identity. Austerlitz is a magnificent novel, a profound mediation on the feelings of dissociation, melancholia, and loss experienced by one man surviving the desolation of a brutal century. Georgie, Powells.com
Over the course of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers? stops across England and Europe, W.G. Sebald?s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz discuss Austerlitz?s ongoing efforts to understand who he is. An orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 and was raised by a Welsh Methodist minister and his wife as their own, Austerlitz grew up with no conscious memory of where he came from.
W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind?s defenses against trauma. Along the way, this novel of many riches dwells magically on a variety of subjects?railway architecture, military fortifications; insets, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague — in the service of its astounding vision.
"Austerlitz's story of loss and recovery has its own parallel in the conscience of Europe itself, and so it is that, by the end of Sebald's novel, a section on the inhuman architecture of Paris' monstrous new main library feels as though it's about modern history and the most elemental emotions all at once. Austerlitz is a book that unfolds in its readers' minds, gradually revealing, one by one, that the loveliest colors have not vanished from our world after all." Laura Miller, Salon.com (read the entire Salon.com review)
"Sebald's work is reminiscent of the stories of Borges, of the mysterious pictorial conundrums of Escher, of the precisely vague films of Resnais, though he is much more emotionally affecting than any of those overly cerebral magicians. He is perhaps a direct descendant of Kafka, except that Sebald's books are blessedly free of the transcendent boringness that breathes out grayly from Kafka's novels, though not from the stories or the diaries. Anyway, seeking influences is particularly fruitless in the case of Sebald, for he is unique." John Banville, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
"A lover of Sebald's realist masterpieces can't read Austerlitz without feeling that it is an homage to the golden age of English realism: a dusting off of the old Victorian machinery to see how it does with a war-orphan at the end of the twentieth century. It does well, in Sebald's hands, but still it's an homage, and, as such, it's the last thing we'd have expected from a writer whose genius has seemed, until now, all his own." Lorin Stein, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"It seems both pointless and inevitable to wonder if these talks ever actually took place; doubtless scholarship will someday tell us, as it will explain the enigmatic and eloquent photographs with which, as always, Sebald punctuates his text. But such knowledge will take nothing away from a melancholy at once exhilarating and too deep for tears. Anthea Bell's translation puts the slight fustiness of Sebald's German into an English that, however pellucid, is not quite of this time or quite English either — lovely." Michael Gorra, Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"With untraceable swiftness and assurance, W. G. Sebald's writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that make his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory. Each book seems to be something that surely was impossible, and each (upon every re-reading) is unique and astonishing." W. S. Merwin
"As Sebald's readers will expect, the novel is filled with scholarly digressions, ranging from the natural history of moths to the typically overbearing architecture of the Central European spas....Sebald writes as if Walter Benjamin's terrible 'angel of history' were perched on his shoulder." Publishers Weekly
"W. G. Sebald is a monster — a gorgeous and unwaveringly assured writer, a bold formal innovator, and a man always plunging into the core of identity, singular and national. In Austerlitz, he's created his richest and most emotionally devastating story, and this book might be his finest." Dave Eggers, "who has no right to be commenting on this man"
?Sebald stands with Primo Levi as the prime speaker of the Holocaust and, with him, the prime contradiction of Adorno?s dictum that after it, there can be no art.? Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review
?Sebald is a rare and elusive species . . . but still, he is an easy read, just as Kafka is. . . . He is an addiction, and once buttonholed by his books, you have neither the wish nor the will to tear yourself away.? Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
?Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like? One of the few answers available to English-speaking readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.? Susan Sontag
In this story of an orphan's quest for his heritage after World War II, Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, and a struggle complicated by the mind's defenses against trauma.
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