If the mark of a great novel is that it creates its own world, drawing in the reader with its distinctive rhythms and reverberations, then W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz
may be the first great novel of the new century. An unnamed narrator, resting in a waiting room of the Antwerp rail station in the late 1960s, strikes up a conversation with a student of architecture named Austerlitz, about whom he knows almost nothing. Over the next several years, the narrator often runs into his odd, engaging acquaintance by chance on his travels, until finally, after a gap of two decades, Austerlitz decides to tell the narrator the story of his life and of his search for his origins in wartime Europe. Slow and meditative, relying on the cumulative effect of its sedate, musical prose and its dark subject matter (illuminated here and there with hope), Sebald's novel doesn't overturn the conventions of fiction, but transcends them. It is a love story to history and vanished beauty. Don't let the slow beginning turn you away. Austerlitz
takes its time getting off the ground, but is well worth seeing in flight. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
The ghost of what historian Peter Gay calls "the bourgeois experience," molded in the liberalism and neurasthenia of the 19th century and destroyed in the wars and concentration camps of the 20th century, haunts W.G. Sebald's unique novels. His latest concerns the melancholic life of Jacques Austerlitz who, justifiably, exclaims, "At some point in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life." The unnamed narrator met Austerlitz, an architectural historian, in Belgium in the '60s, then lost track of his friend in the '70s. When they accidentally run into each other in 1996, Austerlitz tells the story that occupies the rest of the book the story of Austerlitz's life. For a long time, Austerlitz did not know his real mother and father were Prague Jews his first memories were of his foster parents, a joyless Welsh couple. While exploring the Liverpool Street railroad station in London, Austerlitz experiences a flashback of himself as a four-year-old. Gradually, he tracks his history, from his birth in Prague to a cultivated couple through his flight to England, on the eve of WWII, on a train filled with refugee children. His mother, Agata, was deported first to Theresienstadt and then, presumably, to Auschwitz. His father disappeared in Paris. Austerlitz's isolation and depression deepen after learning these facts. As Sebald's readers will expect, the novel is filled with scholarly digressions, ranging from the natural history of moths to the typically overbearing architecture of the Central European spas. In this novel as in previous ones, Sebald writes as if Walter Benjamin's terrible "angel of history" were perched on his shoulder. B&w photos. (Oct.)Forecast: Gambling (safely) on Sebald's progress from cult favorite to major figure, Random House has picked up the author from former publisher New Directions and is sending him on an author tour. Though his latest isn't as startling and exciting as The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn, it is a significant achievement, and Sebald should continue to attract ever more attention.
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