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Austerlitz (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – September 3, 2002
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Austerlitz, the internationally acclaimed masterpiece by âone of the most gripping writers imaginableâ (The New York Review of Books), is the story of a manâs search for the answer to his lifeâs central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, one Jacques Aus-terlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, he follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion.
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The use of the Romantic format for this novel tempts the reader into believing this is the tragic story of a young Jew (or possibly just a young German) who has been separated from his parents and has lost his heritage along with any memory of his past. The rather idyllic descriptions of his childhood, aside from his emotional deprivation, further coax us into a sense that this book could turn out happily. Instead, as we begin to see what he has uncovered, and he begins to dig obsessively into the behavior of the Nazis at their prisons and internment camps, we see that his future will be destroyed by his past. Sebald indulges in what seems like a pleasant romantic divertissement that it would be nice if the past could be relived, if present and past could coexist so that people would not be separated from those who were dead. This is an abortive solution posited by the depressed Austerlitz, apparently not realizing that such a condition would result in there being no future, no movement because existence would become circular. In fact, this is what seems to happen as he goes deeper and deeper into the suffering and chaos of the Nazi period, and ends by turning his life (his immense photographic collection which represents his memories and experiences) over to the anonymous, unemotional narrator, while he heads off to the prison camp to lose himself in the specific details of what the Nazis did to prisoners, including his mother. So Austerlitz’s romantic adventure ends in the annihilation of his life and all desires, which makes one ask, is this an even vaguely “realistic” view of what would happen to a Jewish child? Or is this rather a very strange mirror image (another romantic concept frequently used by Sebald in his novel) where the Jewish child is really a German who is trying to come to terms with his country’s past, and discovers that there is no way to “come to terms” with it. Fully facing what the Germans did can only lead you to self destruction, or you can become like the narrator--not allow experiences to impact you emotionally and instead focus upon the small details of everyday life without trying to draw connections (or indeed get involved). Perhaps Austerlitz is an alter ego of the novelist, so that a Jewish man reenacts the “reality” of some average Germans during the war, including apparently Sebald’s own family who lived in quiet Bavarian rural isolation and didn’t inquire too deeply into what the husband/father did when he went away to serve in the German army.
I read the book in German, using the Bell translation to spare me from looking up Sebald’s sometimes esoteric vocabulary. And I am probably not sensitive enough to all the nuances of his word choices, but I noted a few obvious ones like the constant use of “entsinnen” instead of the more common “erinnern,” which Bell always translates as “remember,” which indeed both words mean. However, the nuance is that the latter is a more intellectual mental activity, possibly of something already known, while the former word contains the implication that the memory is based upon sense impressions of something not yet known, which is critical to understanding what Sebald is saying. Everything in this book is focused on the impact of sense impressions upon what a character decides to do, think, remember or realize. A key point in this respect is Austerlitz’s observation that “We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious” (Bell, 134), which is much more concisely expressed by Sebald (my translation) “We take almost all the decisive steps in our life out of unclear, inner movements” (197).
This is one of his infrequent short sentences, which have more impact for their infrequency. In the German original there are no paragraph breaks in the entire book (oddly the English version inserts them), and German sentences are stretched to their limit running sometimes an entire page (again the English version frequently shortens them). Mostly notably the narrative about the Canadian who built his own guillotine in despair over his wife’s death is contained in one long sentence, giving the reader no pause to feel sentimental or focused upon any gruesome detail. Rather the reader is pulled inexorably along to read the whole story, after which the narrator regretfully reflects that Austerlitz’s silence probably shows that the narrator’s emphasis upon the absurd aspects of this story was tasteless (147, German edition). Indeed, the narrator is remarkably devoid of emotional sensitivity, and after many harrowing or moving recitals, he immediately switches to factual details about the landscape through which the two are walking or other environmental details. Even though this may reflect Sebald’s desire to distance his narrative for the reader, or to imply that environment can either support or destroy emotional responses, in fact the narrator is being revealed as a man (probably) who listens carefully, doesn’t respond emotionally to Austerlitz’s story of his inhibited search for his lost parents, and seems equally focused on the most mundane details of his own immediate experience. Which is just another way that Germans (or anyone) may use to avoid full human involvement in life.
So, unfortunately, the English translation rather poorly serves Sebald’s style and his artistic vision. Yes, longer sentences would be more difficult for the English reader, but even in the German they are not normal and force the reader to suspend his imagination and conceptualization until all the details have been presented, much like a jury asked not to make a decision until all the evidence has been presented. In addition, the circular flow of the German language reinforces Sebald’s focus on the recurrence and interconnection of sensory perceptions, and this also fails in the translation, which become closer to a standard, abrupt, emotionally focused English narrative style. (See especially the guillotine story.) The lack of paragraph designations forces the narrative into a complexly interwoven linear narrative that tries to encompass a non-linear world. Because there are no breaks the reader does not have an intellectual sense that one complex of ideas is concluded and another will now begin. Instead all the experiences and ideas become fused into a single cognitive narrative flow, much like the endless reflections, memories and ideas that come from Austerlitz, so that one can hardly tell where a piece of reflection ends and another idea begins, because in fact there is no arbitrary end or beginning. This is a fundamental concept in Sebald’s novel--everything flows together and finding the end or the beginning is impossible because, like Austerlitz’s experience in the London train station, the end and the beginning may be the same. Similarly, time is conceived by Austerlitz (and implicitly by the author) as inseparable into past, present and future, for the present grows out of the past, which continues to “inhabit” it, while simultaneously shaping the future. This is the deduction he finally draws from his study of late 19th century architecture: the grandiosity of the bourgeois, capitalist world that ultimately debauches into Fascism with its grandiose thousand-year Reich.
Simultaneously this train of thought leads to the idea that the dead and the living coexist; there doesn’t appear to be direct communication, but visions of the dead are stimulated usually by an environmental influence that awakens a sense memory. Austerlitz with his hyper-sensitivity, once he resolves after his experience in the Liverpool St. Station to begin to actively explore his previously repressed past, is especially susceptible to environmental influences; in fact, after a visit to a veterinary museum with its collection of typical 19th century medical anomalies, he breaks down into hysterical epilepsy and becomes catatonic. He has often suffered from panic attacks, and his constant repression of self-knowledge of his past, avoidance of human contact and immersion in obscure, highly technical research (which itself is quite diffuse and will never result in any significant finding or publication) show that as a social human being he is barely functional. After throwing away his years of notes and writings, all he preserves is his vast black-and-while photographic collection of what he has observed throughout his life (these are the pictures in the novel), which he donates to the narrator at the end of the novel. These pictures, which are as enclosed as his own life has been, can be shuffled around and seem to show new meanings, but are ultimately silent, like the anonymous narrator, with whom he has maintained a tenuous connection. Obsessively Austerlitz narrates his story, broken up by lengthy periods when the two don’t meet, then times when they meet unexpectedly at random, and Austerlitz jumps back into his narrative without introduction, takes long pauses, and basically treats the narrator as a kind of silent therapist, who may not really understand what Austerlitz has gone through.
The first half of the novel focuses on Austerlitz’s English experiences. There is a seemingly endless chain of reflections about his experiences, first as a child in an emotionally cold Welsh pastor’s house, where his real heritage was completely withheld from him, except for the fact that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz, which was needed for him to be legally enrolled into English schools. At school his intellectual abilities and physical endurance gained him acceptance into this otherwise feudal world of the powerful and the exploited or subservient. He is mentored by a teacher awed by his intellectual acumen who takes him under his wing when his foster father dies. André Hilary is the first person to treat him as a worthwhile human and perhaps awakens some sense that humans can be lovable, as does his friendship with another student who is fascinated by flying and astronomical speculation. In visits to this friend’s unique family Austerlitz can briefly see how another family lives, although this one is also not quite normal, with one set of the men fascinated by scientific exploration (including an ancestor’s contact with Darwin who was writing his key work on species) while the other set of males is mired in the most obsessive and self-denying Papism. His friend’s tragic death in a plane accident effectively cuts Austerlitz off from normal human interaction, after which he begins to defensively encapsulate himself. Austerlitz’s focus on fortifications as a war technique and the tactic’s demonstrated ineffectiveness clearly show that Austerlitz’s personal choice will be ineffective, and perhaps is even responsible for some of his own torments, just as many of the fortresses were turned into places of torture for Nazi victims. Although he is certainly a victim of Nazi aggression and has lost his family through no fault of his own, his decision to avoid human contact and awareness of his past, depressing as it may be, means he has actively worked toward his own victimization.
About half way through the book, after lengthy descriptions of bourgeois architecture throughout Europe (halls of Justice with convoluted passages leading to dead ends), bird collections (showing English fascination with the flora and fauna of their colonial empire), and various other excursions into aspects of recent European civilization, Austerlitz reveals his epiphany in a Liverpool Street train station under renovation where he is able to slip unseen into an untouched section, in which he begins to sense the people who once passed through. The idea that the present is built upon submerged layers of the past, which are in the process of being either destroyed or irrevocably distorted and forgotten is a constant theme in the novel, very explicitly revealed in the new Paris National Library described at the end of the novel, which is indeed built upon the wasteland where confiscated Jewish goods were collected and evaluated. The new grandiose library, inhospitable to users due to its strict security and confusing layout, confirms for Austerlitz that modern governments, much like those of the past, show little respect for the individual’s needs when they conflict with the desires and needs of those in power.
Austerlitz’s vision in the train station, which is of both a prison and liberation, awakens forgotten memories of his arrival in England as a child, but now Sebald begins to allow Austerlitz to have experiences that are at the least highly unusual and at worst the hallucinations of a psychologically disturbed person, which in fact he is. A stream of coincidences and accidental associations leads him to think that he must have been sent from Prague via a child transport, so he goes to that city, meets a helpful Czech woman and due to his unusual name is immediately sent to the correct address where his mother previously lived. There he immediately meets a neighbor who was his mother’s friend and nursed him as a child. Thus he is able to find a living witness to his parents’ transportation. This leads to a lengthy exposition of Austerlitz wandering around the city with the helpful neighbor, Vera, reawakening all his four-year-old memories, then searching the theatre collection to find a picture of his mother (which Vera confirms), and also beginning to explore the life and experiences of those sent to Theresienstadt (Terezin), which was his mother’s fate. Vera also recounts his father’s observations of German mentality and behavior during the Nazis’ rise to power, which leads him to flee to Paris just before Prague is closed. Both the descriptions of the Nazis’ influence in Germany (the Germans becoming like a giant single body swayed by the will of Hitler) and the details of the concentration camp are well known, so Austerlitz’s journey of discovery is new only to him, amazing as that may be. (Sebald claims that British school instruction about European history ends with the Napoleonic era, as this coincides with British self interests. Probably the same could be said about German school instruction prior to WWII.) Austerlitz’s psychic abilities are routinely evident, in his sensing in a Prague train station that he fragmentarily remembers the comic he was given or his mother’s shoulder when he was sent away. Almost everyone around him (except the narrator) has the same hyper-sensitivity to the environment, which is also often fused with their own memories.
Thus the narrative raises the question, if Austerlitz is so unique, psychically wounded and hyper-sensitive, how do his experiences relate to a contemporary reader? Are we to feel sorrow, dismay, disgust? Is this a portrait of a Jewish man who cannot come to terms with his past and will remain crippled throughout his life? Is this almost a “Gothic, romantic” story about a non-hero whose experiences haven’t allowed him to achieve a better understanding of himself and the world, but have instead reduced him to a barely functioning individual with no purpose to his life? Are we to become trapped in his emotional debility, and start fantasizing about strange events, unusual sounds and déja-vu experiences which might coincidentally awaken some memory, and think that they contain important meanings for us? Similarly, Austerlitz frequently posits that the border between the living and the dead is permeable, so that both can “interact” (in some undefined way), which seems to be epitomized in the Balzac novel about the wounded Colonel Charbert who is thrown in with some corpses and when he comes to is terrified by the “sighs” and slight movements of the corpses. Austerlitz seizes this as confirmation of the attempts of the dead to communicate, but as anyone with basic medical knowledge will know these are simply manifestations of death and decomposition.
Hopefully Austerlitz’s fate is not the fate of all modern people, since we are all similarly powerless against social and economic developments. On the other hand, taking the path of the narrator is equally valueless, for he is a man who focuses briefly on what happens around him, as when he leaves his hotel and sees a woman lying on a stretcher, but then just walks on and buys a paper cup of coffee. He revisits the Nazi fortress, still cannot enter one of the more frightening rooms, and thinks a small house makes a very Belgian impression on him (German, 417). He reads in a book given him by Austerlitz about a Lithuanian man’s researches into his own annihilated history, reflects that in a prison camp in May 1944 when the war was lost the Germans were still incarcerating hundreds of French and other Jews, closes the book and sets out for town which he reaches at nightfall.
Perhaps these are really portraits of contemporary Germans highlighting two different approaches to their country’s past. The behaviors of the narrator and Austerlitz are how people respond after a massive social trauma, but sadly more positive options do not seem to be explored or offered by Sebald. Obsession with one’s past, whatever it contains, can be wasted effort if it doesn’t provide any answers about how to live in the present or future. While clear understanding of history and one’s personal history is important, history itself doesn’t provide accurate guidance for the future and can become a dead-end.
Sebald provides a convoluted and often contradictory examination of the effects of time, history and self-awareness on a “Jewish” man who in many respects seems to behave just like the Nazis he begins to research--endless collecting and categorizing, searching for systems to explain human and cultural developments, at the end of the novel still as obsessive in his search as he was at the beginning, but we realize the search will have no positive outcome. If time cannot be separated, then as Austerlitz observes, pain as well as pleasures will always be present, and in fact there is only stasis. As Austerlitz pursues his self-discovery, he does not become a stronger, wiser person (which might be the clichéd romantic norm), but his efforts result in his shedding all reasons to go on living. With the novel’s romantic touches of beautiful natural settings, and the wonder of creatures, like moths, with the abhorrence of cities that ultimately do not liberate but trap people into unrewarding existences, with the psychic touches of terror and mystery, the anti-hero struggling for self-knowledge and the overall melancholic tone of the novel, Sebald’s story is a dis-spiriting examination of a quasi-German man in search of his Jewish identity.