Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald

Read: October 2008

Austerlitz in one tweet sized chunk:
For me, Austerlitz is too distant, difficult to pin down and insular. Yet there is ethereal beauty which intrigues, and has me wanting more

It is impossible to study and work at UEA for seven years and not develop almost mythical reverence for the life and work of W.G. Sebald. The Assistant Manager at Waterstone’s, who has been there twenty-five years and seems to know absolutely everyone, has never read any of his work and yet talks about him in hushed tones, calling him Max, and never forgetting to mention what a thoroughly likeable guy he was. Visiting authors, on spotting a Sebald novel at their signings, are often besieged by lecturers and customers wishing to discuss his unique and enthralling prose, his contribution to the university, or his untimely death, tragically killed in a traffic accident in the midst of his prime. It is often noted that at the time of his death he was rumoured to have been on a shortlist of three for a Nobel Prize for Literature.

So, for many years I have felt my reading experience to have a gaping Sebald shaped hole in its midst. It is impossible for such talk not to rub off on you, and I had the notion that I would love him if I ever got around to it. But too much expectation can be a dangerous thing to carry into a reading experience, and I was wary to try.

In the end, though, one should not allow vague preconceptions to govern what one thinks about an author or their work. It was largely an accident which led me to begin my Sebaldian adventure with his last book, published shortly before his death and very different to the rest of his work. It was included in a Waterstone's ‘Prize Winners’ promotion and I got a TPR (Title Page Returned – when a book arrives at a bookshop damaged and has its title page removed and returned to the publishers in order to claim credit,) and that was that.

is a strange book, unlike anything I have read. No, that is too easy a cliché. It echoes lots of things I have read, and has been echoed by other authors too. It does, however, have a style and atmosphere which is all Sebald’s own. It is a story of memory and forgetting, of rediscovering history long after it has taken place and made you who you are. Jacques Austerlitz is now in his late middle age, a successful architectural historian. But the past has begin to haunt him: there are truths which have eluded him, an entire history wiped from his mind as a young child. And now, intermittently, during a series of chance encounters with our unnamed narrator, he recounts the story of his life: from a secret childhood in Czechoslovakia in the 1930's, to flight across Europe and a Calvinist upbringing with foster parents in Wales. Over the course of these meetings Austerlitz and the narrator strike up a friendship, and between them they filter and redraw Austerlitz's entire life.

is a dense novel, full of ethereal ponderings and misty uncertainty. It is un-paragraphed, with long sentences and interspersed with Sebald's own photographs, which don't so much contribute to the plot as help build the general atmosphere of the prose. There is a real sense of place, whether it is the opening in a railway station in Belgium, or walking quietly around Mile End Cemetery in east London. There is a particularly perceptive passage describing the after-work drinkers around Liverpool Street station which I appreciated,

“I had for a good while been watching the toilers in the City gold-mines as they came to meet at their usual watering hole early in the evening, all of them identical in their dark-blue suits, striped shirts and gaudy ties, and as I tried to grasp the mysterious habits of the members of this species, which is not to be found in any bestiary – their preference for crowding close together, their semi-gregarious, semi-aggressive demeanour, the way they put their throats back in emptying their glasses, the increasingly excitable babble of their voices, the sudden hasty departure f one or other of them – as I was watching all of this I suddenly noticed a solitary figure on the edge of the agitated crowd, a figure which could only be Austerlitz, whom I realised at that moment I had not seen for nearly twenty years."

This is how many of the stories begin, or merge, or grow from each other. There is a wonderfully esoteric sense of distant poetry and hidden knowledge that runs through the prose. Reading Austerlitz is almost like walking through a vast ancient library: you have the dust that covers everything; the faded curtains; the patrons desperately searching for something which will transform their life and work; the sense that the knowledge is calling out to you, drawing you in. It is an odd, unsettling experience.

I cannot say I loved Austerlitz. It is too distant, too difficult to pin down, too insular. While the prose is good, it did not surround me and draw me into the action, but rather seeks to keep the reader eternally at arms length. In some ways it is like early Ishiguro in its quiet complexity, the way it resounds with more than it ever needs to say. The power is in the gaps between the words. In Sebald's work, it is often in the haunting pictures.

Since finishing Austerlitz I have been told that this is not the best place to start a discovery of Sebald, that he is a taste which grows upon the reader gradually, over the course of his work. I am about to read The Rings of Saturn hoping to augment my reading of Sebald, to research a Sebald trip for Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Worlds writers (try saying that quickly) this summer, to learn about the quiet nature which surrounds us here in Norfolk.

In the mean time I am glad few people around here actually read this blog. If they did, I think my life might be in danger for daring to question the godlike genius of W.G. Sebald.

6.5 out of 10

1 comment:

Brother A said...

Thanks for the review. I finshed up this title near a week ago and am currently writing an essay on it.