Home > History, Literature, Reviews > The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

The Haunting Persistence of Memory: W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz”

A ruminating, dream-of-consciousness digression of considerable beauty and delicacy and surprising tensile strength, German writer W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz is not quite as compelling in general as it often is in specific. But then, Sebald shows us, life is simply the same. Following the ebbing and flowing reminiscences of its main character, a reticent but eloquent intellectual vagabond with an obscure family history named Jacques Austerlitz, the novel mixes ethereal architectural descriptions with moving human details and minimal plot. Events do not so much constitute the novel’s narrative as does a steady flow of memories; Austerlitz’s history is gradually revealed in exquisite detail, and he is older and more searching if not necessarily wiser by the book’s end, which is as abrupt and non-constructed as any of its earlier portions.

Born of liberal francophile Jewish parents in pre-WWII Prague, Austerlitz is transferred to the care of an austere preacher in Wales to safeguard him from the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich which swallow his parents’ lives: his mother, an opera singer, is rounded up and sent to the ghetto at Terezin (often called the Theresienstadt concentration camp, though not by Sebald) and is presumed dead either there or in the death camps beyond, while his politically-active father decamps to Paris and vanishes with nary a trace. Austerlitz quests for transient signs of their lives in the later stages of the novel, finding records in archives, hints of fates in museums, and glowing memories of them in the aging minds of those who knew them. But these traces and outlines, these fading silhouettes, are all that he can ultimately access.

Sebald’s metaphorical thesis in Austerlitz seems to be that such ghostly silhouettes of the past are always with us but ever beyond our tactile reach. He exemplifies this haunting effect of memory by utilizing Austerlitz’s twin passions, his academic profession of architectural history and his daily hobby of photography. The latter interest is expressed by frequent, spectral black and white photographs interspersed with the prose of the novel, depicting the places, people, and objects that Sebald simultaneously describes. The effect is strange and evocative, as the photographs do not dispel the mysteries encoded by memory but rather deepen and contextualize them. Photography for Sebald is not a medium of absolute definition. It is as unreliable and incomplete as our fallible human memory.

The architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz does not merely wander and take pictures, however. He has also conceived a grand, quixotic, uncompleteable academic study of architecture that aspired to make conceptual connections in the details and methods of man’s buildings that would shed light on the similar connections in man’s thinking, identity, and emotional profile. He abandons the project and destroys his volumes of research in the grips of a mental breakdown that sees him hospitalized, but Sebald’s descriptive prose proceeds from his character’s concept.

Much of the novel consists of involved, evocative descriptions of notable and less notable architecture. The novel opens in Antwerp’s lofty, impressive railway station, and takes in such diverse edifices as a thrift emporium in the aforementioned Terezin, a fortress and prison in the Belgian countryside, the state records archive in Prague, a country manor on the Welsh coast, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, London, and the forbidding, modern Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Sebald is interested in these buildings as persistent storehouses of human memory, the joys and the traumas of our lives imprinted on them like ghostly footprints or unnoticed chiaroscuro flourishes in their decoration. Austerlitz’s journey through the archive of his life’s memories employs edifices as a trail of crumbs to recall his previous path. His investigation into his continental origins and his family’s disappearance from his life commences after he inadvertently wanders into a dusty, soon-to-be-demolished waiting room in London’s Liverpool Street station where he first arrived in Britain and met his foster family. He does not know for certain, but understands, remembers, being there, and this spark kindles the fire of his quest to fill in those gaps of memory.

Sebald is masterful at sketching the implications of 20th Century Europe’s dominant ideological and sociopolitical superstructures in the comparative microstructures of these buildings. A deserted museum in Terezin (every museum Austerlitz visits is deserted or at least lonely; historical memory is not a mass diversion) sketches the minute tragedies engendered by Nazism. A comically under-attended spa resort in Soviet-influenced Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia visited by Austerlitz and a putative romantic interest named Marie emphasizes the excision of bourgeois leisure under the Communist system. And the hyper-modern, unwelcoming, inhuman monolith that is the new Bibliotheque Nationale discourages Austerlitz’s old-fashioned archival absorption, a familiar experience to contemporary denizens of the sheer glass facades of post-capitalist urbanity.

As much as we learn about Austerlitz in the course of Austerlitz, he finishes as essentially unknowable, as do many other figures in the book, none more so than the nameless narrator and kindred thoughtful spirit to whom he relates his life’s story. Sebald paints many clues and unresolved details into his canvas of Europe and the British Isles, but they never resolve. Like memory, they are persistently present but fundamentally ephemeral, and the uncanny impact of this haunting novelistic exploration of memory is similar in its scope and force.

Categories: History, Literature, Reviews
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  1. June 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm

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