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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, November 27th, 2001


 

Austerlitz

by W. G. Sebald

A review by Michael Gorra

With The Emigrants (1996), the first of his books to appear in English, the German writer W. G. Sebald emerged as a figure remarkable both for his unforced moral gravity and for the freedom with which he crossed generic boundaries. Fiction, memoir, biography, travel it has never been clear just where in his work the borders lie, or, indeed, if they exist at all. Austerlitz looks more like a novel than anything else Sebald has yet produced; but still one balks at such an easy definition. Almost all of it describes a nameless narrator's conversations with the title character, an architectural historian and compulsive photographer, whom the narrator first meets in the waiting room of a Belgian train station. At the start Jacques Austerlitz seems as detached from the personal as it's humanly possible to be. He talks expansively about nineteenth-century buildings and keeps working away at "endless preliminary sketches" for a great study of the "family likeness" between such places as "law courts and penal institutions ... opera houses and lunatic asylums." But he will not, the narrator says, "tell me very much about his origins and his own life." That is not true. It is the narrator who resists describing his own circumstances, saying only that he was born in Germany but now lives in England, as does Sebald himself. In contrast, Austerlitz will eventually tell all that he knows, and will tell more as he learns more, as his research slides open the dead bolts of his 1930s childhood and a past that "will not...has not passed away." The Holocaust remains the ghost on every page Sebald writes; and in his learned eccentricity Austerlitz is something like an afterimage of Walter Benjamin.

Sebald makes no typographical distinction between Austerlitz's words and the narrator's, presenting their conversations without quotation marks and almost without paragraphs; it is as if they have disappeared into each other's voices. 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.


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