Austerlitz is the second novel I’ve read by W. G. Sebald. Like The Emigrants, it’s difficult to write about, partly because the genre is difficult to pin down. Is it documentary or fiction? Is it about architecture or is it a travelogue or is it a prose poem? It is also weirdly, circuitously moving; the sort of book (if this can be called a sort of book and not sui generis) that gets around behind you and kidnaps you into grief.
The book is about a strange, lonely man the author knows, named Austerlitz. They meet here and there, by chance, in various buildings in Europe where Austerlitz is collecting historical photographs of architecture and doing obscure research. We eavesdrop on their conversations — or, rather, on Austerlitz’s monologues. These are long discourses that begin with architecture and the way it represents tyranny or oppression (the description of the French Bibliotheque Nationale as a place that actively discourages readers is not just breathtaking, it’s spot-on.) These discussions become more intimate, and move on to the passage of time, the existential void of memory, and the deep grief of the shadow of the Holocaust.
We hear first about Austerlitz’s childhood in Wales, as the adopted son of a slightly-mad preacher. The vanished past is mysteriously present here, in the form of a town that was drowned at the bottom of a lake when a dam was completed:
At this one moment on the Vyrnwy dam when, intentionally or unintentionally, he allowed me a glimpse into his clerical heart, I felt for him so much that he, the righteous man, seemed to me like the only survivor of the deluge which had destroyed Llanwddyn, while I imagined all the others — his parents, his brothers and sisters, his relations, their neighbors, all the other villagers — still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and walking along the road, but unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide…. At night, before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water, and like the poor souls of Vrynwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me, and see the reflection, broken by ripples, of the stone tower standing in such fearsome isolation on the wooded bank.
Of course, by now we have begun to understand what it takes Austerlitz all his life and immeasurable despair to grasp: he is, indeed, submerged in dark water. He is carrying around a terrible secret, but for many years he doesn’t know what it is, because his memories are missing. He’s subject to illness, to fear, to blindness and despair, until chance cracks something open in his mind. Little by little, the memories return, and he discovers that indeed he is the only survivor of the deluge: he was part of the Kindertransport, sent to Wales as a tiny boy from Czechoslovakia for safety. Austerlitz the architectural research geek becomes a man obsessed with his parents, uncovering the history of the Jews of Prague, visiting Terezin, standing in the cemetery, hearing trains in a terrible new way.
The vision of the drowned Welsh village — the entire family, the neighbors, the whole village gone, unable to speak, but still witnessing — is typical of Sebald’s oblique approach to the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s not so much a way of talking about it as a way of making us think about how we can’t understand it. His style is dreamlike and a little formal, and there are profound silences in the text. (“That evening in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel Austerlitz also told me that there was no wireless set or newspaper in the manse in Bala. I don’t know that Elias and his wife, Gwendolyn, ever mentioned the fighting on the continent of Europe, he said. I couldn’t imagine any world outside Wales.”) The gradual erosion of these silences — when the drowned dead begin to speak — is both triumph and deep sorrow.
I mentioned earlier that the genre of these books is difficult to pin down, in some ways. As in The Emigrants, this book contains poorly-reproduced black-and-white photographs and drawings that more or less accompany the text, which give it simultaneously a feeling of documentary evidence and of theater props: crumbly relics from some age long past. (Apparently Sebald himself called it “documentary fiction,” which, okay, that’s as good as I’m going to get.) As we move deeper into Austerlitz’s reminiscences, his sentences grow longer and more hypnotic, punctuated by commas. I realized at one point that I’d just read a sentence that was eight pages long. (Let that sink in for a moment.) Eff off, Hemingway nuts.
Austerlitz is a beautiful, slow, melancholy novel. It’s a fiction of memory and of time, complex without being severe. In a line near the end of the book, Austerlitz is describing the Jewish cemetery near his house in London:
In the bright spring light shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.
Reading Austerlitz is like entering this kind of fairy tale: bright and dark with hidden meaning, drawn from another culture and time, mysteriously grown old behind the poisonous briars. And beautiful, beautiful.