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 seemed like relief and freedom.
A friendship there led him into happiness – a period evoked with such touching beauty that by making everything that Austerlitz could love and enjoy so vivid, it eventually makes the stripping away inflicted on him by fate more terrible. An accident brought this happiness to an end. Thereafter he buried himself in the career of an historian of architecture, assiduously suppressing his emotions, hopes and any thoughts about his origins, until after his retirement increasing uneasiness leading to a breakdown forced him into a search for clues as to where he came from and who he really was. Following them, he reached the truth.
He went to Prague and found Vera, a friend of his mother, who used to look after him when his mother, who was an opera singer, was working, and as they talked details began to emerge from what had been darkness: his mother’s warmth and beauty, the places he and Vera used to enjoy on their walks, even at moments words from the language they spoke. There was an intense though painful joy in this reawakening, until they reached the point at which Vera had to describe what had happened to his mother: how one by one her freedoms were curtailed, how she was forbidden to work, forbidden to visit coffee houses, forbidden to go to the cinema or concerts, forbidden to use public telephones, forbidden to enter a laundry or a dry-cleaner’s, forbidden to walk on the side of the street nearest a park . . . until she was summoned, with hundreds of others, to a collection point and vanished to Terezin . . . from where, Vera didn’t know when, she vanished for good.
How readers will react to Austerlitz’s discovery of all this I cannot tell; but I know that I was so hypnotized – so totally possessed – by what I was reading that I became physically colder and colder until I suddenly realized (to my amazement) that the blood in my arms might have turned to ice.
You do need to be quite brave to read Austerlitz. The story takes you through a great deal that is interesting, and indeed fascinating: wonderful excursions into history, architecture, natural history (including a magical extended passage about moths!) which sometimes feel at first as though they are irrelevant but which always contribute something vital to the story’s fabric. But what essentially Sebald is exploring is the worst that human beings can do, and have done, to each other. A German who was a child during the years when the Nazis were putting the ‘Final Solution’ into practice, he was a writer whose abundant gifts of sensitivity, wit, erudition and empathy were unfailingly employed with the highest degree of moral integrity, so how could he escape that subject? One wonders whether there were times when he felt it to be like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, but if he did, it did not prevent him from going to the heart of it . . . and refusing, at the end of Austerlitz, to follow the rules of polite writing and allow us the comfort of catharsis. A great writer does not examine terrible truths in order to comfort or entertain. He does it as part of the human struggle to understand ourselves and make a stand against what is wrong with us.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 28 © Diana Athill 2010