|Author:||W.G. Sebald, Anthea Bell|
Over the course of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe, W.G. Sebald’s unnamed narrator and Jacques Austerlitz discuss Austerlitz’s ongoing efforts to understand who he is. An orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 and was raised by a Welsh Methodist minister and his wife as their own, Austerlitz grew up with no conscious memory of where he came from.
W.G. Sebald embodies in Austerlitz the universal human search for identity, the struggle to impose coherence on memory, a struggle complicated by the mind’s defenses against trauma. Along the way, this novel of many riches dwells magically on a variety of subjects–railway architecture, military fortifications; insets, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague–in the service of its astounding vision.
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