Uncomfortable Truths

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There is no book more haunting than W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). I would not advise anyone unfamiliar with his earlier books to make it their introduction to his work, because his decision to do away, in this one, with paragraphs, and the way in which the narrative unfolds, are disconcerting enough when first encountered to be off-putting. It is necessary to make an act of trust – to put yourself in his hands; and this may be a problem for anyone who has not yet learned to trust him by reading his wonderful The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I doubt whether I would have persisted beyond the first thirty-odd pages of Austerlitz if I hadn’t already learned that wherever Sebald led, I must follow him.

A reader soon becomes used to the lack of paragraphs. It means that the rhythm of Sebald’s sentences has to do all the work of carrying you along, and you have only to read a page aloud to hear that his sense of rhythm, perfectly understood by his translator Anthea Bell, is faultless, making his prose so flexible and subtle that no visible pausing-places are necessary to allow you to draw breath. Its steady onward flow becomes hypnotic, so that you feel as though you are being swept along on a broad river. Finally, this effect contributes a great deal to the power of the book as a whole.

The journey on which you are being carried takes you through the life of Jacques Austerlitz, who arrived in England from Prague at the age of 4 on one of the Kindertransports which brought Jewish children to Britain when it began to be apparent that the Nazis intended to wipe out the Jews. He was taken in by a Welsh Calvinist preacher and his wife who raised him as Dafydd Elias, depriving the unhappy child of his name, his language, and soon of his memory of his past, giving him in return a loveless life so unremittingly bleak that when, at the age of 14, he was sent to a dreadful boarding-school it seeme

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