- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2001

By W.G. Sebald
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Random House, $25.95, 298 pages

There is a rare, blissfully happy moment in W.G. Sebald's new novel, "Austerlitz," in which the book's young hero is met by his schoolfriend's mother, coming from her Welsh garden with misty droplets clinging to her tweeds:
"She was carrying a large bunch of rust-colored chrysanthemums in the crook of her right arm, and when we had walked side by side across the yard without a word and were standing in the doorway, she raised her free hand and put the hair back from my forehead, as if she knew, in this one gesture, that she had the gift of being remembered. Yes, I can still see Adela, said Austerlitz …"
The moment is to be treasured, for this is the story of a man who cannot remember a lot of things starting with who he is. At the same time, he is desperately committed to resisting memory when it threatens to break through the dyke of forgetfulness. For him, "reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed, and which was now breaking through the wall of its confinement." The struggle leads to a nervous breakdown, the eventual search for a lost past, and fresh anguish following its discovery.
Mr. Sebald, who has been a teacher at the University of Suffolk in England for more than 30 years, continues to write in his native German, and Anthea Bell's version of his hypnotically expressive, muted prose seems quite perfect. As to subject matter, Mr. Sebald's overarching concern in his novels has always been with displacement and return, with losses incurred in the sweep of history, and with the striving of the individual, clinging to the wreckage, to negotiate what is left of the past.
Sometimes, the people are hard to find, long gone save a lone author/first-person narrator hiking across some lonely terrain in "The Rings of Saturn," it was the county of Suffolk. In that novel, a sunken coastal village was encountered along the way, as I recall, and in the new one there is another, this one the village of Llanwddyn in Wales, submerged to make way for a dam.
Photos of Llanwddyn when still a living community have survived, and Mr. Sebald includes one or two in the book. It is his practice to seed the pages of his fiction with photographs, often wistfully evocative. Usually, though not always, the pictures are of places and things, as if they were surrogates standing in for the missing people. Here Jacques Austerlitz, among other things a keen photographer himself, speaks of how "it never seemed right to turn the viewfinder of my camera on people."
Such combining of story and pictures is not without cultural and technical interest in the age of the computer and the Internet. It reminds me of a remark made by the late O.B. Hardison, eminent Renaissance (and computer-age) scholar, years ago. Toward the end of a pleasant and discursive lunch, I had asked him whether 100 years from now we still would have print books without accompanying images or graphics? The answer I got: "Shall we have harpsichords?"
The conceit of narrative with pictures works for this novel in even more direct fashion than it did for "The Rings of Saturn" and other of Mr. Sebald's books. First, because Austerlitz entrusts a cache of hundreds of photographs to the narrator (again first-person) in 1996 toward the end of their long relationship. Second, Austerlitz has had a career as a lecturer in architectural history, taking photographs of interest in that connection down the years. Other photos also come into the possession of the narrator, for instance those of the drowned village of Llanwddyn.
The architectural photographs, prominently of railway stations and those star-shaped fortified towns one comes across in Europe, become the thread on which the novel's early action is strung, providing such clues to Austerlitz's personal life as either narrator or reader get. On the face of it, the man mainly talks, lectures really, about architectural history in its relation to civilization and such ironic phenomena as how "our best-laid plans … always turn into the exact opposite when they are put into practice."
The narrator first meets Austerlitz, "a man who then, in 1967, appeared almost youthful, with fair, curiously wavy hair …," in the waiting room (in French, the odd-sounding "Salle des pas perdus") of Antwerp's central railway station. The waiting room, with its fine old mirrors but soon to be demolished, is the pair's first talking point. Thereafter, as they continue bumping into each other when traveling, Austerlitz's monologues employ edifices and other structures at the expense of the personal. The narrator's first glimpse into his interlocutor's private life is in noting an obsession with railway stations. Later, Austerlitz will address the matter directly, saying of his architectural history scholarship:
"Moreover, I had constantly been preoccupied with that accumulation of knowledge which I had pursued for decades, and which served as a substitute or compensatory memory. And if some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my precautions, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my eyes and ears to it, …"
As the two men get to know each other, Austerlitz relates what of his life he does remember. From an early age, starting in 1939, he grew up in Wales, in the foster care of a Calvinist preacher called Emyr Elias, and his English wife, Gwendolyn. It was Elias who had taken the boy to see the sunken village of Llanwddyn and produced his album of photographs after the two returned home. Boarding schools followed, wretched as such places can only be, but to the boy they were a liberation from life with the narrowly pious Elias and ailing Gwendolyn in the little town of Bala.
The growing youth was shocked and mystified when instructed to write his name as Jacques Austerlitz on his school examination papers, that name meaning nothing to him. The care and inspiration of a good schoolmaster gave him the lift required to get a place at Oriel College, Oxford, and so he was to that extent a Welshman or Englishman, as he chose. But in the story, the narrator converses with Austerlitz in French for quite some time, not knowing that he speaks English. Later, much later for there is an almost 20 years long hiatus when the two do not see each other, they meet regularly in Austerlitz's house on Alderney Street in London's East End, and that is where his photographic collection is produced for inspection.
Women figure crucially but scarcely in Austerlitz's life. The beautiful Adela occupies but a brief interlude. There is Marie de Verneuill, an architectural historian of spas, with whom he has an affair, but is too ambivalent for his lover's patience and soon loses her.
There are other women too, but they are best met in the pages of the book though it will be the rare reader who does not cotton on early to Austerlitz's likely tragic background. In the closing pages, the protagonist echoes the novelist's enduring concern in his writing:
"And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we have also appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?"
One puts this wonderful novel down persuaded that Mr. Sebald, who already enjoys a large and admiring following of thoughtful readers, has marshaled his literary strengths on a scale greater than any he achieved before.
Other of his books have won prizes here and there, and "Austerlitz," one feels, should get all of them.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide