Austerlitz

W.G. Sebald

A bit too elegiac of a novel for the early summer, Austerlitz is still worth any potential struggles in making it through the endless paragraphs — at times as much as twenty-five pages long. The character, and really the voice of the book, Jacques Austerlitz meets the nameless narrator as they are both appreciating the architecture of the Antwerp train station, starting a decades-long friendship that seems to consist of them running into each other unexpectedly and then Austerlitz talking this guy’s ear off about his life for hours on end. But his story is fascinating.

After immigrating to England when he was 4, his adoptive parents never told him where he was from and, though he learned his real name as a teenager, he made no attempt to find out anything about his early life. But the past refuses to be suppressed, and, well into his adult life, Austerlitz finally becomes compelled to try to untangle the mysteries of his origins, which are tied up in the complex agonies of the Holocaust.

The long sections are at least broken up with photographs and other images inserted throughout the text, though the origins of these are peculiar. It’s clear that some are intended to be photographs Austerlitz took and some are diagrams or illustrations mentioned nearby in the text, but the book maintains this fiction to the point of not noting any credits for them. It makes me want to believe that Sebald found a box of photos and papers and wrote this entire, invented life history around them to capture the simultaneously fragile and durable qualities of memory.

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