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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Austerlitz is a novel that unfolds as a memoir told by the title character, Jacques Austerlitz, to the narrator. It is a story of his discovering his childhood roots in the Central Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, which had been overrun by the Nazis.

The narrator meets Austerlitz, a...

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Austerlitz is a novel that unfolds as a memoir told by the title character, Jacques Austerlitz, to the narrator. It is a story of his discovering his childhood roots in the Central Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, which had been overrun by the Nazis.

The narrator meets Austerlitz, a teacher at a London art institute, first in Belgium in the late 1960s, but it's not until some thirty years later that Austerlitz uncovers, or re-discovers, his own past and relates to him what he knows.

As a child in the 1940s, Austerlitz lives in a foster home in Wales and is brought up by a couple named Elias; until sometime in his early youth, he knows his name only as David Elias. He eventually learns that he was born in Prague, Czech Republic (at that time Czechoslovakia) to Jewish parents. His mother had managed to arrange for him, at the time a four-year-old, to be transported out of Central Europe (as was done with other children) by train and ferry to the United Kingdom, where he was adopted by the Eliases. Austerlitz, in spite of at first having no explicit recollection of his life with his biological parents, has always sensed something remote and traumatic about his origin and remembers fragments, disconnected bits and pieces of it. Only when he hears a radio broadcast of two women talking about Prague in the late 1930s does he begin to recapture the past. He travels to Prague, and through research at the archives building, he is able to locate a woman, Vera, who was the next-door neighbor and was his nanny when he was a small child. The pieces of Austerlitz's "previous" life gradually fall into place; he begins to remember his mother, Agata, and his father, Maximilian, both of whom perished in the Holocaust.

Austerlitz is a story of memory. Jacques Austerlitz's memory was buried by trauma but then was re-ignited by that same trauma—which never left him, even in the "safe" life to which he escaped as a child. As a teacher of art and architectural history, Austerlitz, from the start of the narrative, is a man obsessed with detail. He fixates on the details of the history of buildings, such as the railway station in Antwerp—on their dimensions, on the way their designers planned them, and so on. At every stage of the narrative we see his (and the narrator's) scientific curiosity (even with seemingly obscure facts about insects, for instance), but we realize eventually that the details he concerns himself with are in some sense partly a means of his burying the past. He seems to be focusing on the external qualities of things, rather than his own internal story. The discovery of his own story, and that of his parents and the Jews of Europe, forms the center of the narrative. It is a process which even at the close of the novel seems, like everything else in life, to be ongoing, having no beginning and no end.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641

More than any of his other novels, Austerlitz is Sebald’s meditation on the power of memory and its role in the creation, transformation, and destruction of identity. Like his previous books, Austerlitz weaves fact and fiction, documentary and reality, photographs and writing into a powerful exploration of human psyche. However, unlike Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz contains a relatively straightforward plot that most readers can follow without much difficulty. The characters often speak interchangeably and without quotation marks to distinguish the speaker, but Jacques Austerlitz does not meander too far off his path when he tells his story.

Late in life, Austerlitz sets out to learn his history. Raised as Dafyyd Elias in Wales, he is now living in England, which he believes to be his native country. Austerlitz barely remembers his parents, and it takes some intense archival work for him to discover anything about his early life in Prague. Born in Czechoslovakia, Austerlitz’s Jewish mother—who could not leave the country—sent her son to England in one of the many Kindertransports organized in Czechoslovakia before World War II to save children. The narrator meets up with Austerlitz in Belgium, where they strike up a friendship based on their mutual love of history and architecture. Ten years later, the two meet again in London, where Austerlitz begins to tell the story of his origins, unfolding for himself and the narrator his own identity and history.

Although his mother’s decision to put her son on the Kindertransport most certainly rescued him from the Nazis, it shut the door on his ability to know himself. More important, he lost his family, his past, and his language. Much like Max Ferber in The Emigrants, who stops speaking German the day he arrives in England and thereby shuts himself off from his past, Austerlitz’s loss of his native language shuts him off from his past. As far as he is concerned, he has been erased from life and culture. His family is not aware he is alive; he is no longer aware of his family’s fate, and he no longer possesses the one tool that can help him to feel truly a citizen of his culture—his language. Even as he slowly learns about his past, he often panics as he looks at a picture of himself as a five-year-old child and is speechless and incapable of any lucid thought because the power of his absence from his childhood is so strong. He cannot comprehend the laws that govern the return of the past and feels unreal in the eyes of those who are now dead.

Austerlitz’s conversations with the narrator enable him to reconstruct his history. Austerlitz discovers himself and his history not only through conversations with the narrator or trips to the archives in the library but also through photographs of his mother and of places related to his childhood. A picture of a house sparks a clear memory of the home in which he was raised. Photographs complicate the relationship between the living and the dead. On the one hand, the photographs frighten him; on the other hand, they transport him and open the floodgate to memory and his understanding of himself. More than any of his other novels, Austerlitz captures Sebald’s characteristic themes of loss and reconstruction of history and identity.

Sources for Further Study

Klebes, Martin. Wittgenstein’s Novels. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Kunkel, Benjamin. “The Emigrant.” The Nation 274, no. 12 (April 1, 2002): 42.

Long, J. J., and Anne Whitehead, eds. W. G. Sebald: A Critical Companion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

McCulloh, Mark R. Understanding W. G. Sebald. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

Stavan, Ivan. “W. G. Sebald, 57, German Writer Who Placed Shoah at Center of His Work.” Forward 105, no. 31 (December 12, 2001): 1.

“W. G. Sebald.” The Times (London), December 17, 2001, p. 17.

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