(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The death in an auto accident of W. G. Sebald in December, 2001, brought an abrupt end to a challenging literary career. It was easy to classify Sebald’s The Emigrants (1996), his first novel for American readers, as an example of Holocaust literature. The last of the book’s four stories presented a famous painter, Max Ferber, a German Jew sent out of Nazi Germany as a child to safety in England. The Rings of Saturn (1998) and Vertigo (1999) resist so easy a label. Saturn’s dark intimations included not just Jews but all of Western life and achievement. Vertigo introduced Sebald’s favorite motif, the man without a habitation, the “foreigner” whose mind, Susan Sontag suggests, is in mourning and, because it can never accept the past as buried, is itself posthumous.

With Austerlitz, although Sebald again orchestrated slowly but surely towards the Holocaust, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole so exceptional a novel under so confining a rubric. To be sure, Austerlitz, like Ferber, has been uprooted as a boy to England from Central Europe—in this case not Kissingen, Germany, but Prague, Czechoslavia. However, in this novel, the word “Jewish” does not even appear until page 172—nearly two-thirds into the book. It would appear that the author wished to avoid the label; that he wanted this novel, unanchored by events alone, to join a distinguished lineage. To do so, Sebald, like every serious fiction writer, set up a system of narrative decoding that he believed could best illuminate even the darkest mindscape.

In Austerlitz, Sebald deepens his examination of the dispossessed by focusing solely on one member of his haunted company. He anatomizes Austerlitz’s inner life, but does so with the narrative assistance of a secret sharer, an inside outsider, a doppelgänger who, distanced in time from him for as long as twenty years, yet can provide a continuity Austerlitz as sole speaker would lack. The narrator and Austerlitz encounter each other for the first time in an Antwerp railway station in the late 1960’s and periodically reconnect in chance meetings in similarly transient travel zones over the next thirty years. Finally, in 1996, Austerlitz begins to relate his life story.

Although superficially Austerlitz is closer to a conventional narrative structure than Sebald’s previous novels, this conventionality is an illusion. For instance, readers, unless endlessly vigilant, may encounter difficulties in remembering Austerlitz’s unnamed spokesperson at all. Translator Anthea Bell apparently saw no alternative but to insert “said Austerlitz” scores of times, but never after quotation marks, to remind readers they are getting Austerlitz’s story secondhand. In fact, there are no quotation marks and only eleven paragraph breaks in the book’s 298 pages. Sebald relies for sequence on special devices of his own, of which his noncommittal narrator is only one.

In the words of the animated sign outside the magic theater in Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929), this novel is “not for everyone.” What Princeton Germanist Theodore Ziolkowski wrote of the title character in the Hesse novel can be applied to Austerlitz. As a storyteller, he is eidetic; that is, he is a commentator capable of producing subjective images out of what the deceptively passive narrator might seem to take as vast stockpiles of facts on military fortifications, rail stations, or the secret lives of moths.

While Austerlitz appears to be...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)