W.G. Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’: The ‘Marmite’ of Memoirs or Monumental Masterpiece?

I remember a friend of mine ranting about a book that was so fiendishly impenetrable and infuriating, she left her book group because everyone else raved about it. As far as she was concerned, she had nothing more to say to any of them. I love the way books can make you react like that. I’ve had fierce literary disagreements with friends that have raged on for years, so I can understand how she felt, but I’m glad she hated that particular book so vehemently, even though I couldn’t disagree with her more. If she hadn’t been so eager to fling her copy at the first person who showed an interest, I may never have discovered ‘Austerlitz’ by W.G. Sebald.

I have to agree that it’s no easy read. The entire book is paragraph free and Sebald is clearly not enamored with the full stop – one sentence in the book spans seven and a half pages! I like challenges, so I embarked upon Sebald’s novel with the gritty determination to finish it at all costs. In fact, I found the writing strangely mesmeric, and frequently had to stop to underline or reread passages which I found particularly thought-provoking and beautiful.The book is written in the style of a memoir, and appears to meander through seemingly random unconnected topics before arriving at the real subject of the story, the history of Jacques Austerlitz.

After discovering that his foster parents had not only changed his name, but extinguished his background, history and true identity throughout his entire childhood, Jacques Austerlitz’s blank past begins to haunt him, and taken to the brink of mental collapse, he begins to seek out the truth of his early years.

When I first read the book, I enjoyed Sebald’s eloquent and informative ramblings about fortresses, railways, moths, and even pigeons, but I didn’t see their relevance. I put it down to Sebald’s desire to capture the random nature of thought and inner meditation, so I was surprised by how profoundly affected I was when Austerlitz accesses early memories that have been lost to him for decades. I didn’t just cry, I felt like I was experiencing some kind of memory retrieval of my own.

Rereading the book again this week, I paid close attention to the fabric of the text to try and work out how Sebald’s seemingly dry musings on time, life and loss could move me on such a deeply emotional level. What I discovered was that while the writing appears to be random, it is full of subliminally rich, often repeated words and images that build throughout the book so that when Austerlitz begins to recover a lost memory, we have subconsciously built up layers of connected words and images that deeply resonate with our historical knowledge of the period, creating the sense of memories resurfacing, just out of reach.

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‘several of them had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosphers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking’.

For example, the passage about moths and the powdery traces of their wings builds on the earlier reference of the swirls of talcum powder left by Austerlitz’s foster mother as she approached death. There are numerous references to encampments, the Exodus, the rucksack, and the painful separations associated with railway stations, that hover like mist around the narrative colouring the emotional landscape. All of the subjects in the memoir connect in some way to Austerlitz’s past and the horror of the holocaust that scarred so much of Europe and left a devastating legacy of tragedy and diaspora.

When Austerlitz’s memory is jolted by radio discussion of the kinder-transport in the bookshop near the British Museum, the proprietor Penelope Peacefull, reads out a crossword clue

One way to live cheaply and without tears?

The answer is, ‘rent free’.

When you consider that in the Old Testament, to rend or tear one’s garments was a sign of deep mourning, and grief particularly over the loss of truth, it couldn’t be more poignant. Sebald’s subtle repetition of these references creates a quiet yet emotionally charged backdrop to the personal Odyssey of this solitary, broken man.

Austerlitz W.G.Sebald, Agata

Agata

The numerous black and white photographs that illustrate the book, act like silent monochrome witnesses, leading us to believe that this is more memoir than fiction. Personally I don’t believe that is the case, though it has been brilliantly crafted to appear so. However, I don’t think it matters whether Sebald is telling the truth or not. Austerlitz may or may not be real, but his journey is a powerful and worthy representative of so many, whose stories remain an aching void.

The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was [Jacobson’s] image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again’.

Sebald, Austerlitz

‘as if the pictures had a memory of their own and remembered us…  and those no longer among us … in our former lives’.

As a final note, I’m dedicating this post to my husband as today is his birthday. For over twenty years I’ve recommended books to him that I know he’ll love, which he then won’t read due to his being inordinately stubborn. By some lucky chance, his resolve weakened on the day I gave him this, and ‘Austerlitz’ has been his favourite book ever since.

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