Austerlitz

by JDP

This is a novel that reads like an erudite dreamscape: meandering recollections are punctuated by abstract photography and lengthy symbolic digressions on any number of architectural, entomological, and historical topics. Austerlitz succeeds as a profound meditation on the intricacies of memory and the passage of time.

W. G. Sebald / German / 2001 / 298 pages
Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

There are aspects of every life perhaps best left forgotten. One’s youthful indiscretions, a jilted lover, an angry email sent to the wrong inbox — we all have our individual traumas we’d rather forget. Sometimes, as when we move to another city, pick up a new hobby, or make new acquaintances, the task of forgetting is made easier by way of novelty and compartmentalization; we can focus on another activity that we associate with another place and another time. But we are not always afforded such luxury. I might have to return to the city of my undergraduate years, for instance, and confront head-on the memories, however unpleasant, it evokes. I may someday run across an alienated friend by accident in a coffeehouse. There are certain books, movies, and albums that I associate so strongly with past stages of my life that I must steel myself psychologically before pulling them off the shelf. I am constantly waging a war with myself to dissociate the changing of the seasons from past events that are inscribed on my psyche in calendric fashion.

When the present is conflated with the past, I am frequently unsettled. I don’t know how, as an example, to square the reappearance of a high school acquaintance with my post-graduate existence in another city under a completely different set of circumstances. I occasionally visit a locale from my youth and stand aghast at the degree of separation between my past self and my present self. To me, there is a territorial division inherent in the passage of time. There is a particular manifestation of myself that owns the apartment where I resided in Omaha from 2006 to 2008, but it is not “me” in my present form. When I have had to return to that address in later years, I tend to keep a lookout for a 22-year-old version of me that must be lurking around every corner.

I am overstating my case a bit, but the hypothesis, at bottom, is simple: memory and time are complicated, maddening forces that tend to exert much more control over our present selves and actions than we’re comfortable admitting. This is a theme taken up repeatedly in in the novels of the German author W. G. Sebald, most notably in Austerlitz, the story of a European man who painfully rediscovers long-forgotten memories about his childhood as he visits different cities throughout the European continent. Whether it be an immigration record, a song, or the architecture of a subway station, the novel’s protagonist is continually confronted by contemporary objects that drum up memories he has unconsciously tried to block out for decades. Toward the end of the novel, he is so thoroughly enmeshed in this past-present crossover that he laments: “I no longer knew in what period of my life I was living.” This fog (both chronological and psychological) permeates Austerlitz completely: it is a novel of rainstorms, cold climes, lethargy, exhaustion, and unknowingness. At its best, the prose is pleasantly intricate and measured; at its infrequent worst, it is honestly a bit boring.

Across its peaks and valleys, though, the geography of the book is almost wholly unique. Writing in margin-pushing, paragraphless, dialogueless form, Sebald structurally draws from Bernhard but stylistically gives us something much different: Austerlitz is dramatically less manic and fast-paced than, say, Bernhard’s Woodcutters. Instead, Sebald peppers the narration with extended retrospective monologues that lead seamlessly into digressions on obscure academic topics like the architecture of medieval fortresses or the archival advancements of the modern day library. Generally, these asides function as direct symbolic analogues to the protagonist’s main concerns. The discussion of castle walls, for example, readily calls for comparison to his efforts to psychologically erect walls to defend himself from his past. The extensive digression on library organization similarly calls to mind the inherent difficulty in archiving and storing large amounts of data, be they memories or something else entirely. In this way, Sebald expertly crafts on-point sidebars that pile rich textures onto his themes.

Of additional interest are the several dozen black-and-white photographs that have been inserted into the text as a companion to the narration. As opposed to a “deluxe” or “illustrated” edition of a novel, however, these photographs are a vital component of Austerlitz as an original manuscript. The protagonist is an avid photographer who takes simple pictures of the things he sees during the course of his travels (typically building architecture and landscapes, though the occasional photo of a person or animal crops up). He often sits at the table in his kitchen, randomly mixing the photographs together and drawing them out of a pile for consideration. For the reader, they are not presented so randomly, or, at least, no more randomly than the somewhat scattershot method by which we’re given the narration. Rather, the pictures track closely with the sentences around them, occasionally reflecting in exact and minute capacities whatever description of a train station, for example, we’ve just finished reading. The photos are sometimes large and at other times small; occasionally they take up an entire page or span multiple pages; generally they are of a high resolution, but several are blurred or overly abstract in their composition; I found more than a few somewhat unsettling and many others beautiful.

But the dense prose and photographic punctuation have their minor flaws as well; the former in that the novel’s subject material is so melancholy that the prose at times needs more buoyancy to really propel the narration; the latter in that there are so many pictures of doors and roofs that they begin to lose their initially arresting effect. I tend not to require two weeks’ time to navigate a 300-page novel, but this was an outlying case.

I will say that it’s an investment that pays dividends. While, at heart, Austerlitz is the story of one man’s struggle to come to terms with his past, it is also, cast more broadly, the story of a continent’s efforts to make sense of an historical epoch: the Holocaust. It is here, I think, that Sebald really succeeds and it is also here that I found similarities (in substance rather than style) to my recent perusals of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. Both authors bring a unique artistic voice to a tragedy that threatened to destroy art altogether and, though quite different in their composition, both novels’ mature and nuanced treatments of this period in Europe’s history are very much required reading. While Levi anchors his observations in rigorous empiricism, however, Sebald gives us a treatment steeped in the mystical nature of human recollection. Indeed, it is almost impossible to read Austerlitz without turning your thoughts inward to examine your relationship with your own past.

Rating: 8 / 10

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