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.
The new European discovery of highbrow American critics is German writer W.G. Sebald. "What would a noble literary enterprise look like?" asks Susan Sontag, who replies, "One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W.G. Sebald." He has published translations of three mixed-genre books since 1996: The Emigrants, linked stories that have been compared to those of Vladimir Nabokov; The Rings of Saturn, a travel narrative likened to the work of Italo Calvino; and Vertigo, a novel called Proustian and Kafkaesque. These same names will reappear in reviews of Austerlitz, which shares qualities with Sebald's earlier works. Again the book follows a refined and preternaturally perceptive protagonist visiting offbeat European spaces. Again the prose is, to use an American comparison, Jamesian: delicate, infolding, elegiac, almost private. But in Austerlitz, Sebald's subject isor becomesmore explicitly public: Czech Jews caught in the Holocaust.
At fifteen, a boy named Dafydd Elias, adopted at four in 1939 and living in Wales, learns that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz. He becomes a student of architectural history, lives an ascetic life in London as a lecturer on art history, takes early retirement in 1991 and belatedly, very belatedly, pursues his past, which takes him to Czechoslovakia. In Prague, Austerlitz discovers that his parents were Jewish, that they shipped him away to safety, that his father escaped to Paris and that his mother probably died in a specially constructed ghetto at Terezin, which Austerlitz visits. Eventually he travels to Paris to investigate what happened to his father, whomay have been one of 13,000 Jews rounded up in 1942. I retell the plot of Austerlitz because without this information, most readers might never get to the novel's second half and the story of Austerlitz's parents, both of which seem intentionally withheld. Austerlitz confesses to repressing early memories he could have recovered. Late in his life, he does tell his findings to an unnamed narrator; unfortunately, like Austerlitz, he too resists knowing the past.
Since Sebald enjoys digressing, assembling curiosities and displaying his esoteric learning, readers must wait for the author to tell the story that gives the novel its weight. While waiting, I wondered if Austerlitz actually existed or if the narrator invented him as a double. The narrator coincidentally meets Austerlitz in Belgium several times in 1967, and then they run into each other twenty years later in London in a scene resembling the setting of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd," in which a sickly narrator (like Sebald's) stalks an alter ego in his nocturnal wanderings. Austerlitz's travels are literal, literary and dreamed, and the narrator dutifully writes all of them down.
I admire European sophistication as much as the next guy at The New York Review of Books, and I enjoy literary detection of the Nabokov kind, and I even find interesting the My Dinner With André monologue Sebald employs, but his treatment of the Holocaust disturbs me. The novel is like a painstakingly embroidered bedspread with the extermination of the Jews in the centeryes, in the center as cause of the restbut this center is very small in proportion to all the intricate, abstract patterning that surrounds it.
In Austerlitz, as in the fortifications Austerlitz describes, there is a "tendency towards paranoid elaboration." The elaborate patterns are imagistic (a submerged town, squirrels burying food, characters suppressing memories), referential (historical fortifications, prisons, paintings) and linguistic ("Austerlitz" is a battle, a railway station in Paris and a gallery of goods collected from Jews during the Nazi occupation of Paris). Sebald ingeniously collects and connects, but his stitches often seem self-indulgent, and the patterns are sometimes self-congratulating metaphors for the atemporal and associative movement of his book. The photographs Sebald includes should be a welcome antidote to the self-containment of the novel. More often than not, though, the photos exist to extend one of his patterns. Austerlitz comments on the "oracular utterance" of brass mortars in a shop window, and another character speaks of "the mysterious quality peculiar to such photographs when they surface from oblivion." But no matter how much Sebald's characters attempt to make readers feel the "uncanny," a key word in the novel, the photos are as artificial as the mannered, insistently anachronistic prose. When we finally get to a description of Czech Jews forced into a ghetto, Sebald presents the Nazis as if they were plot-oriented novelists.
Perhaps the form and style of Austerlitz are supposed to provide an aesthetic alternative to Nazi efficiency, a text that retains qualities of personal eccentricity and dreamy memory, facets of a European culture that Nazis attempted to destroy. Maybe, but I don't believe it. Just as finally I don't believe in Austerlitz or the narrator or the photographs, just as I don't believe in what Sontag calls Sebald's "nobility." Here's what I do believe: The Holocaust should not be an occasion for embroidery.
by Tom LeClair