by W G Sebald
A review by Laura Miller
The turning point in W.G. Sebald's latest novel, Austerlitz, comes when the title character wanders into the disused Ladies Waiting Room at the Liverpool Street Station in London sometime in the 1970s. In this vast, deserted, mouldering Victorian relic of a room, he feels a terrible stirring of memory; he has been here before. A retired art historian adopted and raised in Wales by an emotionally frozen minister, Austerlitz has never known his true origins. But it's only when he enters the gloomy confines of the waiting room that he comes to suspect that the source of his insomnia and the general feeling of desolation that have been plaguing him might lie in the story of the first four years of his life. "I had never been alive," he explains of his revelation, "or was only now being born, almost on the eve of my death."
This moment arrives halfway through the book, and while much of the novel leading up to it at first seems meandering and perhaps even random, it is all in fact woven into Austerlitz's breakthrough and the past he has spent a lifetime evading. Austerlitz's story is told through his conversations with the novel's unnamed narrator. The two men meet from time to time over the course of years, sometimes by appointment and sometimes by coincidence. Their conversations wander, as conversations do, and so do the ruminations of the narrator, taking in such topics as a zoo in Antwerp featuring nocturnal animals and the similarity of the eyes of such animals to the eyes of "certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking." There are digressions on the architecture of train stations and other large public buildings; the history of fortifications and the utter folly of believing that building them can provide a city with any lasting protection; the behavior of homing pigeons; the sad lives of moths; Austerlitz's contempt for watches and clocks and his love of photography.
Sebald's fiction has a small but very devoted readership consisting mostly of other writers and critics. It's been praised as one of the few remaining examples of "noble literary enterprise" by Susan Sontag, almost always a bad sign, and no matter how much his admirers love his work, it seems to be impossible to write a review of it that makes it sound coherent, let alone appealing. All this might lead a wary reader to suspect that the average Sebald book is a slim, desiccated specimen of the modernist European novel, fastidious in its avoidance of such vulgarities as character and story and, when it can be understood at all, espousing a passive, depressive philosophy about the pointlessness of human existence.
Austerlitz is none of that, though it's not a page-turner in any conventional sense. It isn't difficult to guess what happened to Austerlitz's parents; even his own mind tries to protect him from the truth by conceiving an unexamined aversion to the German language and 20th-century European history. And yet, Sebald implies, inside each of us lies an impulse toward understanding, toward remembrance and toward feeling that fights to escape into the open air and will give us no peace if we deny it. The seemingly miscellaneous digressions in Austerlitz are pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, form a man's soul and make him whole again for the first time in decades. The novel is also a sly illustration of how the supposedly dry preoccupations of scholars are often rooted in the most intimate concerns. There's Austerlitz's telling obsession with train stations, for example, and with fortifications, structures originally built to defend their inhabitants but that always seem to wind up being used as prisons.
Even before all these pieces finally fall into place, though, each offers its own pleasures and shows why Sebald is so highly regarded by other writers. (Translator Anthea Bell Sebald writes in his native German makes it hard to remember that the book wasn't originally written in English.) There are quick, witty, almost Dickensian character sketches of a hotel manager who is "one of those rare and often rather mysterious people...who are invariably found at their posts, and whom one cannot imagine ever feeling any need to go to bed," for example. And there are radiant passages like those concerning the eccentric great-uncle of Austerlitz's school friend, a naturalist who believes that "many of the loveliest of colors had already disappeared" from the earth and who takes the boys on a midnight expedition "looking into the mysterious world of moths," some of whom are found to have "collars and cloaks, like elegant gentleman on their way to the opera."
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.