Austerlitz

Written by W.G. Sebald
Review by James Hawking

While this review was being written, W. G. Sebald’s obituaries appeared, describing the author’s death in a car accident, possibly from a heart attack while driving. In the preceding weeks, he had been the subject of admiring profiles while the book received enthusiastic reviews and numerous appearances on lists of best books of the year.

Austerlitz is not so much an historical novel as a novel about history and memory. Jacques Austerlitz realizes that he was one of the Jewish children transported from Czechoslovakia to Wales just before the outbreak of World War II. An unnamed narrator meets with Austerlitz in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1990’s to hear his story. After discovering his birth name, Austerlitz sets out on a quest which eventually leads him to his mother’s house in Prague where he recaptures significant memories of his past, some of them occurring involuntarily in a Proustian fashion, with a memory of his childhood triggered by stepping on uneven pavements in Prague. With the help of friends, travel, and memoirs of the period, Austerlitz begins an effort to understand the world of the mother and father he lost.

The narrative flows almost without interruption, with the entire book divided into only eight paragraphs and a few scattered stars to indicate sections. Photographs and drawings appear throughout the text, often illustrating Austerlitz’s observations on architecture and art history. The Holocaust is the central event of the book, even though events are reconstructed in a fragmentary and distant fashion. By telling the story through a displaced European intellectual years after the events, Sebald creates an indirect evocation of the Holocaust, a story too horrible to confront directly.