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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

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Austerlitz is a novel about a man's rediscovery of his roots, his past, and himself. The title character, Jacques Austerlitz, is a man born in Central Europe to Jewish parents and, as the persecution of the Jewish population is underway, is able to escape the Holocaust as a small child when his mother manages to send him as part of a Kindertransport (transport of children) by train and ferry to the U.K. He is raised in Wales by foster parents and does not learn the full story of his childhood and parents until he is an adult.

A main point of the story is the way trauma affects people and causes them to bury, to fail to remember, or to transform the past. Austerlitz has, all along, at least a semi-conscious memory of his past, but it is not until he hears a conversation between strangers about the time and place of his own roots that he deliberately seeks out his starting point in life, returning to Prague, the city of his birth, and re-connecting with Vera, the woman who was his nanny when he was a four-year-old. The gradual rediscovery of his early childhood, in which the facts about himself and his parents become more and more explicit, is his uncovering of a fundamental truth not only about himself, but about human nature and the horrors people are capable of inflicting upon others. But it's also in some way emblematic of a process we all go through in life, in coming to terms with ourselves and with the outside world, and in understanding the nature of reality.

Austerlitz is a teacher, a professor of art history at a London university. His entire life, before he undertakes his journey as an adult to his childhood home, has focused on intellectual matters and on details of historical fact, of the design of buildings, of the details of planning that went into man's architectural and artistic achievements. As we read further and further in the book, arguably much of his obsession with detail can be seen as a redirecting of his mental process, perhaps to avoid the traumatic elements that formed his early life. It is trauma that both creates and then, in some sense, takes apart Austerlitz's life as he delves deeper into the past, and the fate of his parents as victims of the Holocaust is revealed to him. The novel's ultimate message is one of hope, but it's also one in which we are shown that the character, the inner being of all of us, is shaped and reshaped by what is hidden from us, buried in the subconscious. Though Austerlitz's parents suffered the worst fate, they, and Austerlitz himself, are symbols of the universal human condition.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1457

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 only a traveler with his inevitable rucksack, his alter ego is really filtering—and elevating—mundane déjá-vu to some higher level of consciousness. What keeps Sebald’s writing evocative, even in translation, are the pictures framed in Austerlitz’s mind’s eye—never more vividly than during a visit to London’s Royal Observatory when Austerlitz explains why he has never owned a clock of any kind:

I have always resisted the power of time . . . keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope . . . that I can turn back and go behind [time], and there I shall find everything as it once was . . . in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occured but are waiting to do so at the moment we think of them . . .

If humans are indeed formed forever by what happens long before puberty, is Jacques Austerlitz, intellectually advanced, ruled by the damnation of not knowing his earliest past and obsessed, like Proust’s Marcel, by the compulsion to rescue it from oblivion?

As if to reinforce an inner journey about whose source and destination he remains puzzled—almost diffident—Austerlitz documents every visitation in the real world with photos and all sorts of graphics which are amazingly reproduced on the very pages where they are relevant. There are eighty-five of these—far too many—and their efficacy is mixed. Without them, Sebald would have had a book of under 200 pages. With them, that quality that Sontag praised collectively in Vertigo as “an exquisite index of the pastness of the past” can become in Austerlitz a distraction. Album photos from the Prague years are the best, including the book’s cover illustration of Jacques, at five, lavishly costumed as the Rose Queen’s page. It is easy to infer that this is Sebald.

In fact, it is in recounting his childhood that Austerlitz finally engages the reader’s interest. Austerlitz was brought up as the son of a Calvinist pastor named Emyr Elias and his wife Gwendolyn. His is not the displaced child’s life so classically portrayed in W. Somerset Maugham’sOf Human Bondage (1915). Its poignancy is muted by its being as-told-to. Yet the scene at boarding school where he learns his real name resonates. Even a year later, told that Napoleon won a great victory at a town named Austerlitz and more recently that dancer Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz, he still deplores his name’s alien sound.

Although frequently referring to his English years as “false,” Austerlitz settles there as an architectural historian. Britain stands as a buffer against a past he resists. Many of his reunions with his alter ego take place at London’s Great Eastern Hotel, perhaps talismanic of the direction he will finally take to solve the mystery of his identity.

At last, Austerlitz finds himself—in both senses of the word—in Prague, where he locates an animated old woman, Vera Rysanova, who once worked as a maid for his real mother, Agáta, who was an actress. Agáta did not make it out of Czechoslovakia; first she was interred in the camp of Terezín, then transferred, presumably, to Auschwitz and died. Vera produces the photo of the costumed Jacques, aged five, which triggers the memory of a dream in which he returned to the family apartment whose burned-out remains he now photographs:

I know that my parents will be back from their holiday, and there is something important which I must give them. I am not aware that they have been dead for years. I simply think they must be very old, around ninety or a hundred . . . But when at last they come through the door they are in their mid-thirties at the most.

Austerlitz is moved to another disclaimer about time: “It does not seem to me that we understand the laws governing the return of the past. . . . we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead.”

From Prague he goes to Paris, the last-known whereabouts of his businessman father Maximilian Aychenwald, and then to the suburb of Drancy, where doomed internees were placed on trains for the death camps. He leaves his interlocutor in Paris and changes trains, appropriately, at the Gare d’Austerlitz. He must now go to the foothills of the Pyrenees, to a village called Gurs where in 1942 there was a camp, his father’s last-known stop.

In “A Mind in Mourning,” the first comprehensive essay in English on W. G. Sebald’s three translated novels, written nearly two years before the publication of Austerlitz, Susan Sontag stresses the primacy of the journey. In Sebald, she emphasizes, “it is the return to a place of unfinished business, to retrace a memory, to repeat (or complete) an experience; to offer oneself up . . . to the final, most devastating revelations.” The reader welcomes late starters like Sebald, who published his first book at forty-six. Only Joseph Conrad, who wrote his first novel in his fortieth year, comes to mind as being, like Sebald, one who traveled widely in seldom-charted realms and out of whose memory an eidetic universe reveals itself on the printed page.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 126 (October 15, 2001): 110.

The New Republic 225 (November 26, 2001): 35.

The New York Review of Books 48 (November 1, 2001): 26.

The New York Times, October 26, 2001, p. E42.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (October 28, 2001): 10.