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Posted October 14, 2016 by

Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 12/12/2002, 12:11:19

Sorry for keeping you waiting for so long. I am swamped with work (the usual End-of-Year-Rush has struck again) and when I get home in the evening I am unable to think coherently enough to write intelligibly in a foreign language about literature. Since I did not want to postpone the discussion any longer, here’s what I did: I pinched some quotes from several different reviewers, added a few sentences of my own and I think that should be enough to set in motion a stream of well-considered and intelligent observations from the rest of you.

PS The numbers behind the quotes refer to the list of reviewers at the end of this message.

” To the hurrying eye in search of plot, characters, dialogue, these books will appear flat and cold. The text looks dauntingly clotted: the first paragraph of Austerlitz is twenty-five pages long, and toward the middle there is a sentence, a marvelous sentence, describing the detention camp at Terezín, that lasts for seven pages.” (2)

” Sebald’s tales are meditations rather than narratives. They combine elements of travelogue, art history, diary and fantasy. As a result, they do not address a subject but rather evoke and interrogate it. ” (4)

” The narrator, who remains largely hidden behind the details of Austerlitz’s ramblings, pulls the reader into worlds where dreams, memories, random associations, and reflections are seamlessly fused.” (3)

” Sebald is writing about the disorientation created by living in time and memory. In his universe, time devours memory?s thread, and characters are forever trying to recapture the strands. In the absence of memory, they feel the vertigo of life?s rush toward death. ” (4)

” It isn’t difficult to guess what happened to Austerlitz’s parents; even his own mind tries to protect him from the truth by conceiving an unexamined aversion to the German language and 20th-century European history. And yet, Sebald implies, inside each of us lies an impulse toward understanding, toward remembrance and toward feeling that fights to escape into the open air and will give us no peace if we deny it.” (1)

” The creeping horror of the fate of the Austerlitzes is communicated all the more effectively because the narrative never raises its voice. Instead it maintains a masterly and unnerving evenness of tone.” (2)

” I have read few books that provide such an intense sense of place and the relationship of buildings to their history, including, for example, a hypnotic description of how Austerlitz discovers the streets where he was born, as well as of particular places, from Antwerp railway station to Tower Hamlets cemetery.” (7)

” Austerlitz itself is a kind of majestic and mysterious ruin, a place of secret chambers, of hushed and anonymous spaces, of star-shaped structures crouching in silence under glass domes and peopled by the dead, and by the living dead. Yet for all its bleakness, this book, like Sebald’s other books, is peculiarly invigorating and, dare one say, filled with hope, of no matter how tentative a variety. Sebald’s voice is speaking out of the rubble, erecting the edifice of art.” (2)

“Not least I would recommend reading Austerlitz’s account of trying to find out what happened to his father in the new Bibliothèque Nationale and failing to do so because its design appears calculated to frustrate the aspirations of its readers, such that one realises that the mentality which led to the concentration camp at Terezen is perfectly capable of designing comparable buildings in the present. Inhumanity does not cease.” (7)

” “Austerlitz” is a book that unfolds in its readers’ minds, gradually revealing, one by one, that the loveliest colors have not vanished from our world after all. ” (1)

” Just as Austerlitz must uncover a painful personal past, so too, Sebald fears, must future generations continuously uncover the unpleasant facts of the European past. At the same time, though, it is Austerlitz’s discovery of his past that motivates him in other aspects of his life ? academics, his love life ? and one suspects that, had he not uncovered it, he would be a lonely Welsh farmer, uneasy with his life but not knowing why. For Sebald, the same clearly holds true for Europe ? if it ignores its past, it will be condemned to a future of provincialism and myopia. ” (5)

“Perhaps the form and style of Austerlitz are supposed to provide an aesthetic alternative to Nazi efficiency, a text that retains qualities of personal eccentricity and dreamy memory, facets of a European culture that Nazis attempted to destroy. Maybe, but I don’t believe it. Just as finally I don’t believe in Austerlitz or the narrator or the photographs, just as I don’t believe in what Sontag calls Sebald’s “nobility.” Here’s what I do believe: The Holocaust should not be an occasion for embroidery.” (6)

And my own opinion? Fascinating book, that slowly draws you in. Most enjoyable part: the friend’s quirky uncle in Wales. Most moving part: where Austerlitz enters the disused waiting room at Liverpool Street Station and suddenly recovers his past. I felt so sorry for the little boy who had been kept locked up for nearly a lifetime and who now finally emerged into the light again.

Hearts: not quite 5, but certainly 4 or maybe even 4.5 (Anna)

Reviewers:

1 Laura Miller, Salon.com

2 John Banville (http://www.tnr.com/112601/banville112601.html)

3 Christopher M. Leighton (http://www.icjs.org/info/Austerlitz.html)

4 John Freeman (http://www.post-gazette.com/books/reviews/20011104review874.asp)

5 Clay Risen (http://www.flakmag.com/books/austerlitz.html)

6 Tom LeClair (Book Magazine )

7 Charles Saumarez Smith (http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/)

~~

Posted by Lale on 12/12/2002, 14:13:04

: Since I did not want to postpone the discussion any

: longer, here’s what I did: I pinched some quotes

: from several different reviewers, added a few

: sentences of my own and I think that should be

: enough to set in motion a stream of well-considered

What an original and smart way to kick-start a discussion!

I have been anxious to start talking about this book because I had a suspicion that I would be the only one not rating this book at a masterpiece level. I had read Guillermo’s review at amazon and I had exchanged email messages with some of you, all of which made me believe that most people thought extremely highly of this book. I liked this book a lot too but …

It is a good book. It is a great book. However, there is a reason why punctuation marks, sentences, paragraphs and chapters were invented.

I think I know Austerlitz. I know someone. He is smart and has interesting things to say. He and his wife are not our close friends but they belong to a circle of friends whom we socialize with regularly, so we see them about once a month at someone’s dinner party or other gatherings. He is a big guy, tall and large. He sits very comfortably, leaning all the way back. Since he is tall, his head is way over the top of the headrest of the chair or the couch, so he rests his head on the wall behind. He tells long stories. It is hard to follow what he is saying because he has this voice that never changes its tone, it never goes up, never goes down, never has a question mark or an exclamation mark in it. Absolutely no variation whatsoever. The sound continues in a perpetual murmur. No body language, no facial expressions, no hand movements, no gestures at all.

When I was reading Austerlitz, I felt I was listening to this acquaintance. I was hearing his boring (yes, there is the “b” word right there, apologies) voice throughout the book.

A good book comes with many facets, displays many skills, grabs the reader with the story, with the style, with whatever tool is available. If the author has 10 different kinds of ropes to tie the reader down with, he/she must use all 10, plus he/she must also use the bed sheets, and duct tapes and plastic garbage bags to strenghten the bond. I don’t think W. G. Sebald has done that. Or at least he hasn’t done it well enough, the knots were weak and I was able to free myself easily.

I read this book twice. Or maybe even three times. I read the same pages over and over again, because I found myself so annoyed with Austerlitz’ tone of voice that I got distracted and I had to start over again. Halfway through the book, I abandoned my bookmark. It was much better to find the last photograph that I remembered seeing and start re-reading from there.

Once Austerlitz got to the Bibliotheque Nationale (and couldn’t really re-collect his thoughts again) I was reading sections over and over so many times that the end of the book was never coming. I was paddling against the current.

I know that in the “book critique” world, all of this is my fault and not the author’s. Well, then so be it. Maybe if I didn’t know that friend whom Austerlitz reminded me of, I would have been a better reader, I don’t know.

I compared the style of this book to Saramago’s Blindness which is also written in an unconventional manner: no quotation marks (you can’t tell who is speaking and who is thinking), very long sentences and few paragraphs. But that narration varied its tone, it got excited at some times, and reserved at other times. It had an interesting sound. I found that style original and praised it for its originality. It was not an annoying style. This comparison leads me to conclude that something like this can be done well and can be done badly.

Amongst the review excerpts Anna has posted, I want to comment on a few things:

: marvelous sentence, describing the detention camp at

: Terezín, that lasts for seven pages.” (2)

Actually, I found one sentence that lasted more than 10 pages. Between pages 331 and 342, there is one that goes on forever.

: ” The narrator, who remains largely hidden behind

: the details of Austerlitz’s ramblings, pulls the

The key word here is “ramblings” 😉

: ” The creeping horror of the fate of the

: Austerlitzes is communicated all the more

: effectively because the narrative never raises its

: voice. Instead it maintains a masterly and unnerving

: evenness of tone.” (2)

I agree that the lack of anger in Austerlitz’ voice makes the story all the more tragic. However, it also works against the book, that “unnerving evenness of tone”, as I have tried to express above.

Here I want to mention that I did very much like the fact that this was a monologue and not a dialogue. If the narrator was asking questions to Austerlitz or if he was commenting on what Austerlitz was saying, it would have been awful. But I would have preferred some coherence in Austerlitz’ story to make it more gripping for me.

: “Not least I would recommend reading Austerlitz’s

: account of trying to find out what happened to his

: father in the new Bibliothèque Nationale and failing

: to do so because its design appears calculated to

: frustrate the aspirations of its readers, such that

: one realises that the mentality which led to the

: concentration camp at Terezen is perfectly capable

: of designing comparable buildings in the present.

: Inhumanity does not cease.” (7)

Yes, the revelation of that connection with the library was interesting.

: Station and suddenly recovers his past. I felt so

: sorry for the little boy who had been kept locked up

: for nearly a lifetime and who now finally emerged

: into the light again.

Oh, gosh, I got so obsessed with the style, I forgot to comment on the little boy. Those people, the foster parents… Do people like them really exist? They must. Look at this scene at the mother’s deathbed:

“Then she said, so quietly that you could hardly hear her: What was it that so darkened our world? And Elias replied: I don’t know, dear, I don’t know.”

Almost four stars.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 12/12/2002, 14:44:10 , in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: Maybe, but I don’t believe it. Just as finally I

: don’t believe in Austerlitz or the narrator or the

: photographs, just as I don’t believe in what Sontag

: calls Sebald’s “nobility.” Here’s what I

: do believe: The Holocaust should not be an occasion

: for embroidery.” (6)

I don’t know what this person (Tom LeClair) is trying to say but I sense that I do not agree with him. If he means that holocaust was taken lightly in this book, or that it was used for artistic purposes, and that it was wrong to do that, I do not agree with him. The window that we were given to glimpse at the holocaust (real or fiction) was a very serious one. Fiction is allowed. He doesn’t have to believe in the narrator or the photographs. This is not a historic document. An image is created. And it is a severe one.

: And my own opinion? Fascinating book, that slowly draws

: you in. Most enjoyable part: the friend’s quirky

: uncle in Wales.

Oh, yes, Gerald and his family were wonderful. I was sorry Gerald died, but he died flying and I am sure he preferred that to any other way to go.

Lale

 ~~

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 12/12/2002, 18:35:43 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Well, I liked this book a lot because I found in it a variety of subjects, of points of view, of small side stories, that I found touching and revealing. Contrary to Lale, I liked the fact that Austerlitz tells his story in this subdued, quiet and pensive way. See, the Holocaust can give way to beautifully sad reminders of human misery, horror and evil, or it can give way to cheap political propaganda. A hysterical “damn Nazis, see what they did to my mom and dad”, would have been just another brick in the wall of Lamentations, but putting it the way Austerlitz describes it made me realize in full the utter tragedy, the perversity and the unbelievably cold horror that this most condemnable and dark episode of human history represents.

Now, I don’t think this book is about the Holocaust, but that it legitimately uses this episode as another tool to enhance what I think the book is about: identity and memory. To really highlight the role of these two concepts in our lives, a life like Austerlitz’s is really useful. Just try to imagine that your own life had been like his life, and think for a moment what you would have thought about it. Who the hell am I anyway? Where are my grandparents, cousins, memories?

Changing subjects a little, other things I liked about the book were the beauty of the descriptions of cities and places (great idea, the photos), the story of Austerlitz’s childhood friend and his family house (I agree in liking very much the naturalist Uncle), the melancholy tone throughout the book (I thought Lale would like it, but..), the random associations that stray away from the main thread (Austerlitz’s past) and that give color to this black-and-white book, and the overall dense atmosphere that the author creates. A truly European work of art.

I can understand people who put it aside, since it is a very unconventional novel (if you can call it that) that therefore takes many risks. It won on me.

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 12/12/2002, 19:23:48 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

I will reply more fully later on, but I must comment on two things that Guillermo pointed out about Austerlitz.

The first is where he writes that Austerlitz is “A truly European work of art.” I could not agree with this statement more. Reading through Austerlitz, I kept commenting to myself how this just might be THE European novel of the last several years. It has the stamp of Europe all over it, not least for the fact that all the activity in the book occurs in various cities across the continent.

This is not to say that just because a book takes place in Europe that it is a “European” book. “The Sun Also Rises” also takes place in various European locales, but it is without question a profoundly American book. Not so Austerlitz. Whether it is the refined sensibilities of the narrator (ie-Sebald), the weight of a distinctly European history bearing heavily upon the book, or what have you, this is an unmistakably European novel.

The second thing Guillermo pointed out that caught my eye was that, rather than being about the Holocaust, per se, the book is actually about identity and, maybe above all, memory. Again, I couldn’t agree more. When reading this book, I found myself constantly recalling “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” and Proust’s magnificent and unparalleled ruminations on memory. I wouldn’t put Sebald or this last book in the same class as Proust, but following in the footsteps of the Parisian master as he does, Sebald is an admirable disciple. 4 stars.

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 12/12/2002, 19:46:58 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: It is a good book. It is a great book. However, there

: is a reason why punctuation marks, sentences,

: paragraphs and chapters were invented.

Clearly they were invented to torture grammar school children. Or their teachers. Nevertheless, I didn’t mind the experimentation with style, though I agree it was not done nearly so seamlessly or successfully as Saramago.

: I read this book twice. Or maybe even three times.

This is definitely a book to reread, and I can’t say that about many books.

: I know that in the “book critique” world, all

: of this is my fault and not the author’s.

Oh Lale, it is SO your fault. How could you? 😉

: I compared the style of this book to Saramago’s

: Blindness…I found that style original and praised it

: for its originality.

Now your talking Lale! In fact, I suggest we compare every book we review to Saramago. What do you say?

Ok, just kidding…

 ~~

Posted by len on 12/12/2002, 20:44:17 , in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

I don’t have much to add to all that’s already been said. I’m sorry this book didn’t work for Lale, I have a sense of her frustration that sounds like that which I experienced when trying to read “In The Fall”.

Anyway, even though I have not finished Austerlitz yet, I know I will give it 4 if not 5 hearts. Life is like this, a stream of consciousness that just flows through us. It isn’t nicely organized for us in paragraphs. Memories that merely flicker and memories that we relive in as much detail as we can fill the interstices of Now. I have to give a round of applause to the translater, one would never guess that this book was not originally written in English.

I like Austerlitz the character. He is observant, he truly sees the world around him and makes connections between the disparate pieces of its endless diversity. His evenness of tone bespeaks an almost Zen acceptance of What Is, and a serene revelling in its glory.

Indeed, the only downer in this meditation is the Holocaust, which is not rubbed in our faces, but simply Is. What better way to make us ask, how could this horror possibly have come to pass?

There was a moment as I read Austerlitz when I suddenly suspected what had happened to Austerlitz’s family, and I literally said out loud, “oh no”. I had to stop and reflect on the most terrible truth, a truth that I am too frequently reminded of, that I now see evidence of several times a day.

And that is how much effort we as a species put into protecting ourselves from one another. There is so much beauty in this world, and we notice so little of it because we are so distracted by the excessive time and energy we must devote to the predators among us. Even the most glorious and extraordinary achievements of us as individuals or in groups are too often manifestations of that urgency.

Austerlitz’s genuine heroism is his ability to continue to see the ineffable beauty of the world around us despite the almost nightmarish context that we must view it from.

len.

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 12/12/2002, 22:35:59 , in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Again, the reviewer below hit upon yet another Proustian theme in Austerlitz: the link between architecture and memory. Austerlitz takes me back to Proust’s narrator Marcel, and his memorable recollections of the church steeple in the Combray of his childhood…the church steeple being a conduit for Marcel, through which to retrieve those same memories, just as in the more famous tea and madeline scene in the Overture…

: ” I have read few books that provide such an

: intense sense of place and the relationship of

: buildings to their history, including, for example,

: a hypnotic description of how Austerlitz discovers

: the streets where he was born, as well as of

: particular places, from Antwerp railway station to

: Tower Hamlets cemetery.” (7)

: 7 Charles Saumarez Smith

: (http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/)

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 13/12/2002, 6:49:06 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

I think this is a great discussion so far. Man, I love this forum we have going! As I read everyone’s comments, I seem to come to the conclusion though, that maybe I liked the book a bit “more than ye all.”

I think of Austerlitz as five stars, for sure, all the way.

Funny thing is… I’m not sure I can pinpoint WHY! But I do think that much of my fascination with it comes down to the emphasis in the book on the relationship between the realms of being dead and alive… I mean, this Austerlitz guy thinks a lot along the same lines as I do on this issue of the dead not being really dead (as in, annihilated). I have always felt that we will never be more alive, than when we are dead.

As he says “When space becomes too cramped, the dead, like the living, move out into less densely populated districts where they can rest at a decent distance from each other.”

Ah… there is TONS of this kind of stuff in the novel. And I won’t go on about it, because it’s so spooky and weird, but I love ruminating on these kind of things. I was feasting!

I love Len’s justification of Sebald’s “boring” style… . Len says, “Life is like this, a stream of consciousness that just flows through us. It isn’t nicely organized for us in paragraphs. Memories that merely flicker and memories that we relive in as much detail as we can fill the interstices of Now.”

Oh man… can I use that? It’s so true, and well put.

I want to agree with, and then add to Guillermo’s comment that this book is about “identity and memory”. 100% correct. It is. At a certain point I set the book down, grabbed a piece of paper, and I wrote the following:

“This is a book about time, and more specifically, about CONTINUITY. The irretrievable aspect of the past.

Disjunction.

Being “cut off from the past and the future” (p.101) we have only the present. But, if we have only the present, we are disconnected. Austerlitz says he feels that no matter what he talks about, it arouses in him “a sense of disjunction” (p.109). His sense of time is so other-worldly that he doesn’t even bother to own a clock! For Austerlitz, the past is not “fixed”. He says “Past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them.”

This is why when he pictures the possible re-appearance of his parents, they are not at their actual current chronological age, but at a sort-of perfect optimal age (“mid-thirties at the most”) p.185. There are laws governing the return of the past (recollection) but “we don’t understand them.”

I wrote this, and then a really strange thing happened. It was right at the part where Austerlitz finds that picture of himself (the cover picture) as a child.

I wondered… . What would it be like to be sixty or seventy-something, and see this picture of yourself, the earliest photo of YOU… . To see it for the first time.

So I closed the book and literally stared at that picture, right into the eyes, for at least 20 or 30 minutes. Concentrating. Trying to put myself in Austerlitz’s place.

I concluded that there is something really going on with that picture. In the book, for Austerlitz, he says it made him feel as if he has no place in reality.

I wondered why it would have this effect?

Then, of course… it hit me. If this was all you had of your childhood… a picture of you in some sort of fairy get-up…. The only result of staring into it would be to arouse yet more questions about yourself…

Who took the picture?

Did I run up and hug them afterwards?

Where was it taken?

Was I happy at the time?

Why am I alone in the picture?

Where is this “bare level field” today…. so bereft of any landmark that I will never find it again…

And there’s something so sure about the eyes, and the one foot forward, the head cocked ever so slightly… the eyes stare so forthrightly, as if challenging the future.

The picture perfectly represents a time when there was no disjunction. There was no disconnection. The person in that photo would have dared the future to alter him.

Optimism, hope, life… something inexplicable that pierces through the observer, looks out from those eyes.

But the future DID alter that person. It took the dare. It was lying in wait. And the present man, Austerlitz, who is the same person as the person in that picture, would look much differently in a photo today.

In fact, we are told this by the narrator, who on page 40 told us that upon meeting Austerlitz he was struck by the similarity to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein… “and the horror-stricken expressions on both their faces.”

Someone sheepish, someone fleeing in retreat from something unseen.

So I got curious, and looked up pictures of Wittgenstein, to try catch a glimpse of Austerlitz!

I will try out Lale’s new feature here, and include a picture with this posting… and voila… it worked!

It’s actually uncanny… check out the same sweep of the hair and everything… it’s as if the boy on the cover of this book defied the odds set against him, and grew up……. (physically at least).

Wittgenstein

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 13/12/2002, 7:00:18 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

P.S.

Lale, is it true, as we are told in this book, that Parisian railway stations are “marked by both blissful happiness and profound misfortune?”

 ~~

Posted by Stephen Hill on 13/12/2002, 17:36:57 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

THE DISAPPEARING WORLD

Yet again W.G. Sebald delivers in this wonderful tale of fractured memory. Sebald’s swirling narratives always make such a strong impression on me. I am always astounded by his attention for details and how many of these impressions are inexplicable linked to the character or the narrator. Even when some details can seem enigmatic at first impression, they eventually somehow illuminate some inner yearning or some broader theme, which blends into this story in the most intricate of ways.

I immediately stumbled on this. The opening scenes in Antwerp, where the narrator suffering from nausea is subconsciously driven to visit the zoo, which almost seems to spring from an invitation inspired by the towering monument to European imperialism. An image, which both expresses the 19th century triumphalist perspective of the Belgian traders, but yet at the same time resonates also as a lament to both a disappearing past and to the destruction of a bucolic or indigenous culture.

“I saw how far the station constructed under the patronage of King Leopold II exceeded its purely utilitarian function, and I marvelled at the verdigris-covered negro boy who, for a century now, has sat upon his dromedary on top of an oriel turret to the left of the station facade, a monument to the world of the animals and native people of the African continent, alone against the Flemish sky. When I entered the great hall of the Central Station with its dome arching sixty metres high above it, my first thought, perhaps triggered by my visit of the zoo and the sight of the dromedary, was that this magnificent although then severely dilapidated foyer ought to have cages for lions and leopards let into its marble niches, and aquaria for sharks, octopuses and crocodiles.” (p.4-5)

This monument to the “19th century mining, industry, transport, trade and capital” as described by Austerlitz immediately drew me into the tale. And as Rizwan already pointed it, the effect of the past events and the memories of the past, and how the protagonist Austerlitz deals with them is an essential theme upon which this book is based. Indeed, throughout the book, we are provided with many examples. The name Austerlitz itself is based upon a famous Napoleonic battle in Moravia (now Slovakia) but much like the narrator its full significance did not dawn upon me until Hilary’s description of the battle in Moravia. I knew that Austerlitz was a town of a pivotal battle, yet could not recall its exact significance, much like the narrator the past slowly unfurled itself as Austerlitz narrated his life, Austerlitz himself travelling in his imagination momentarily to Austerlitz, in an effort to recreate the past.

History and the attempt to either reclaim, restore, come to grips or connect with the past is explored throughout the book. From the outset the minute figures as seen by the narrator which are dwarfed by the giant monument at Antwerp station, seem much like the millions of characters caught within the fierce tides of history. Austerlitz, a stranger at the beginning of the book is very much in awe of the grandness of the architecture, and is pursuing a connection with the structures around him. It will not be until later, after a lifetime of personal distress, that he will begin to understand, as he gradually rediscovers his past.

He is not the only victim of history, Sebald chronicles many unfortunate soles. One that we are provided with a cursory glance, is the story of Ashman and how he desperately attempts to preserve his home from the rigours of war. When the house, which had been in his families’ hands for generations, is requisitioned Ashman resourcefully hides the doors to the billiards room and the nurseries by building false walls so that they would be remain undiminished by the many servicemen. Sadly, Ashman’s inability to maintain the building after the war still sees the ravages of time take their tool.

The life of objects is explored throughout the book, with the fierce emotional connections from a range of stimuli. The discovery of Austerlitz childhood at the waiting room at Liverpool Street Station is one such example. But also important are the photographs, his knapsack (a remnant from his days as a young boy, and part of the description when the narrator first encounters Austerlitz), are all important links to Austerlitz’s identity.

Nature itself, seems part of this impression of memory. The view of the Black Forest from the train, the moths and butterflies, which remind Austerlitz of his childhood in Wales. Indeed, I was fascinated by Austerlitz’s concern for the moths that were trapped within his house, and how he collected these poor moths. When one encounters Gerald’s parrot-collect ancestors, and the families of Calvinists and naturalists, the significance of this springs to mind.

Also with his concern with the past, and his attempt to connect with nature, it shouldn’t be surprising then that Austerlitz is repulsed by the giant modern buildings; like that in which the French library is housed.

I’ll stop rambling for now, but there is MORE TO COME

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 13/12/2002, 18:23:15 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: I have to give a round

: of applause to the translater, one would never guess

: that this book was not originally written in

: English.

Actually, you make a great point, Len. This book does read as if it were written in English. In fact, the tranlation is a work of art in its own right. Kudos to Anthea Bell.

: There was a moment as I read Austerlitz when I suddenly

: suspected what had happened to Austerlitz’s family,

: and I literally said out loud, “oh no”.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to experience an epiphany like this, as I sort of suspected that the Holocaust played a role in the story somehow. Sebald does give clues for this, I think, even early in the book; or at least, I interpreted them that way.

For example, the first reference I noticed was on p.6-7 (Hardcover US edition), recalling the 1967 visit to the Nocturama in Antwerp, where the narrator meets Austerlitz. To me, it was a foreshadowing of things to come, as I thought Sebald was comparing the people in the zoo to Europeans–Jewish or not–who had lived through and survived an event of catastrophic proportions…like a World War, or even the Holocaust. The passage reads:

“Like the creatures of the Nocturama…prompted the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that they were the last members of a diminutive race which had perished or had been expelled from its homeland, and that because they alone survived they wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures in the zoo.”

My first instinct was to think this was a reference to the Jews of Europe. But I think it has an even broader meaning than that, encompassing not just the Jews, but everyone who lived through that terrible time. It is 20 years after the fact, but that really is not much time to get over an experience so profound as WWII and all that took place around it.

Maybe I was reading too much into the passage, I don’t know. But given what unfolded throughout the rest of the novel, maybe not. Of course, it is the narrator, and not Austerlitz, who experiences this, but still…

In any case, very nice summation of the book, Len.

Posted by Stephen Hill on 13/12/2002, 19:27:38 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

“And that is how much effort we as a species put into protecting ourselves from one another. There is so much beauty in this world, and we notice so little of it because we are so distracted by the excessive time and energy we must devote to the predators among us. Even the most glorious and extraordinary achievements of us as individuals or in groups are too often manifestations of that urgency.”

Oh, so true Len, beautiful

~~

Posted by Lale on 14/12/2002, 13:39:02 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Wasn’t Terezin’s eerie emptiness very symbolic. You can see the shame almost, because you see no one? Not one single soul on the streets.

“I knew from Vera that for many years now Terezin had been an ordinary town again. Despite this, it was almost a quarter of an hour before I saw the first human being on the other side of the square, a bent figure toiling very slowly forward and leaning on a stick, yet when I took my eye off it for a moment the figure had suddenly gone.”

“Although the sense of abandonment in this fortified town, laid out like a Campanella’s ideal sun state to a strictly geometrical grid, was extraordinarily oppressive, yet more so was the forbidding aspect of the silent facades. Not a single curtain moved behind their blank windows, however often I glanced up at them. I could not imagine, said Austerlitz, who might inhabit these desolate buildings, or of anyone lived there at all, although on the other hand I had noticed that long rows of dustbins with large numbers on them in red paint were ranged against the walls of the back yards.”

“…of the shining glass in the display windows of the ANTIKOS BAZAR on the west side of the town square, where I had stood for a long time around midday in what proved to be the vain hope that someone might arrive and open this curious emporium. As far as I could see, said Austerlitz, the ANTIKOS BAZAR is the only shop of any kind in Terezin apart from a tiny grocery store.”

I wondered about Terezin a lot. First I was convinced that there had to be a plausible if not ordinary explaination for the town to be that desolate. Then I gave up. It is simply a reflection of its past, of its shame, of its sadness.

Still, the out-of-placeness of the Antikos Bazar continued to baffle me. The town is semi-dead, the only other store is a tiny grocery store, people are obviously not engaging in a lot of trade, if there are people, and we conclude that there must be, because of the garbage bins. It puzzles me, who would buy antique trinkets? There are no tourists, no activity, no people, no shopping. How can you wash off a tragedy from a place?

When you search the net for Terezin, you can find a lot of information that backs up Austerlitz story and provides more detail.

For instance this one is about the movie Austerlitz talks about (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/terezin.html):

“Hitler, the world was to be told, had built a city for the Jews, to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war. A film was made to show this mythic, idyllic city to which his henchmen were taking the Jews from the Czech Lands and eight other countries. Notable musicians, writers, artists, and leaders were sent there for “safer” keeping than was to be afforded elsewhere in Hitler’s quest to stave off any uprisings or objections around the so-called civilized world. This ruse worked for a very long time, to the great detriment of the nearly two hundred thousand men, women and children who passed through its gates as a way station to the East and probable death.”

“The Red Cross was allowed to visit Terezin once. The village of Terezin was spruced up for the occasion. Certain inmates were dressed up and told to stand at strategic places along the specially designated route through Terezin. Shop windows along that carefully guarded path were filled with goods for the day. One young mother remembers seeing the bakery window and shelves suddenly filled with baked goods the inmates had never seen during their time at Terezin. Even the candy shop window overflowed with bon bons creating a fantastic illusion she would never forget.

When the Red Cross representative appeared before this young mother, she remembers being asked how it was to live in Terezin during those days. Her reply implored the questioner to look around. Be sure and look around, as she herself rolled her own widely opened eyes around in an exaggerated manner. The Red Cross reported dryly that while war time conditions made all life difficult, life at Terezin was acceptable given all of the pressures. The Red Cross concluded that the Jews were being treated all right.”

 ~~

Posted by Lale on 14/12/2002, 13:55:35 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

I was a little confused about Agata’s photos. the one Austerlitz captured from the video and the one he found at the theatre. Do you think ther are the same woman? Did Vera confirm one or the other of being Agata? Vera’s words, or Austerlitz narration was confusing at this point:

“… Prague theatrical archives in the Celetna, and there, among letters, files on employees, programmes and faded nespaper cuttings, I came upon the photograph of an anonymous actress who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother, and in whom Vera, who had already spent some time studying the face of the woman in the concert audience which I had copied from the Theresienstadt film, before shaking her head and putting it aside, immediately and without a shadow of doubt, as she said, recognized Agata as she had been.”

So, the photo from the theatre is Agata but not the clip from the film?

Lale

 ~~

Austerlitz Train Station

Posted by Lale on 15/12/2002, 13:40:17

Gare D’Austerlitz in Paris:

Gare Austerlitz

 ~~

Austerlitz Bridge

Posted by Lale on 15/12/2002, 13:42:59

Pont Austerlitz in Paris:

Pont d'Austerlitz

 ~~

Viaduc Austerlitz

Posted by Lale on 15/12/2002, 13:47:46 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Viaduc Austerlitz in Paris:

(reserved for trains)

Pont Austerlitz and Viaduc Austerlitz are side by side, in this picture you can see Pont Austerlitz behind (or rather under) the viaduc.

Viaduc Austerlitz

 ~~

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 15/12/2002, 16:09:11 , in reply to “Viaduc Austerlitz”

Great pictures.

I would like to add a snapshot that I took of Lake Bala while on holiday in North-Wales in 1976. How do I do that? It does not have an URL. It’s just a scan (or it will be, once I’ve put it through the machine).

 ~~

Anna’s Lake Bala – 1976

Posted by Lale on 15/12/2002, 21:19:16 , in reply to “Re: Viaduc Austerlitz”

Dear Friends, here is Anna’s Lake Bala photo. She sent it along with this little note:

“Here’s my photograph of Lake Bala. At the back it says that it was taken on 16 July 1976. It was one of the few overcast days we had. For most of the rest of the time the weather was quite nice. The lake and its surroundings were very beautiful, by the way.”

Lake Bala

 ~~

Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 15/12/2002, 16:50:55 , in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

One of the things that impressed me about this book was its quotability. I suppose it’s not for nothing that Lale produces so many quotes from it. They are all so eloquent. My copy of the book has little yellow post-it markers all over it; whenever I found a passage that was particularly beautiful or otherwise noteworthy I stuck one in and reread it after I had finished the book.

Now there is one passage I don’t know what to make off. It’s the death of Gwendolyn, Austerlitz’s foster mother. As she lays dying the house and everything in it are slowly covered with a fine white dust. “No, it was not newly fallen snow wafting around the manse; what filled it was something unpleasant, and I did not know where it came from, only much later and in another book finding for it the completely incomprehensible but to me, said Austerlitz, immediately enlightening term ‘arsanical horror’.” (p. 87 of the paperback edition)

First question: what is ‘arsanical horror’? I sought for it on the net, but no such thing there. Same for ‘arsenical horror’. Does it even exist?

Second question: why is the term both ‘completely incomprehensible’ and ‘ immediately enlightening’ to Austerlitz?

I have the feeling that there is something symbolic behind this, but if there is it’s eluding me completely. Any of you guys have an idea?

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 17/12/2002, 5:56:00 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Like Lale, I had difficult with the long prose, but not with the lack of punctuation as much as with the “blandness” of the narrative. It’s not a poetic or thrilling read by far. However, it is exactly this blandness that makes it truly an honest narrative. Austerlitz (and also the narrator) is a bland guy (no vodka-swilling bunjee jumpers, are they), so the blandness of the narrative does lend reality to the expression.

Rizwan noted that the book is about identity and not (fundamentally) about the Holocaust. I agree. The point of interest for me is Austerlitz’ rootlessness, and his need to search for a past that would give him a sense connection to his own life and to the world. (However, even after he discovers the story of his past, there doesn’t seem to be a happy ending, that at last he has come home. The loss of his past is irretrievable and irremediable.)

In a documentary about a mass-relocation of orphans to farmer families which occured in the years before WWII in America, I remember a discussion of the same sense of loss. Some of the families who adopted these orphans did not offer them a loving home; the adoptions were for those parents an answer to the need for farm labor during the Depression era. (For Austerlitz, his adoption was most probably an attempt by two miserable people to escape their own emotional abyss). For the farmer orphans adopted into a loving home, the ones interviewed expressed a sense of identity with their family, a sense of belonging and comfort in the world. The farm orphans who grew up in a loveless home all had to reconcile to themselves later in adulthood the fact that in the world there is no one to whom they belong, and noone who would “miss them if they died” (as one woman said), that is, there is no cord that directly connect them with “family” (hence society, hence world) and that they must find their own way by themselves.

Austerlitz is fascinating to me because he’s really an ordinary guy (could be any professor at any university), but his angst are so palpitating, even as he blunders through life as a wall flower. He as a person is un-memorable, even his story is told in pieces, darting here and there between the greatness of the buildings and fortresses which seem to receive more stage attention than his life’s story itself. But his search is the search of Man.

That, I think, is the most touching thing in the book for me: that in our world, there are adults grown into old age still searching for their mother. They cling to bits and pieces of her, imagine seeing her in coincidental pictures, weave stories of her life from remnants of what’s known. It’s the ultimate search for Home.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 17/12/2002, 6:02:33 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: “Like the creatures of the Nocturama…prompted

: the passing thought, nonsensical in itself, that

: they were the last members of a diminutive race

: which had perished or had been expelled from its

: homeland, and that because they alone survived they

: wore the same sorrowful expression as the creatures

: in the zoo.”

For me, this passage is a foreshadow of Austerlitz himself. That he is the “last member of a diminutive race” (of his family), expelled from his homeland, alone survived, wearing a permanently sorrowful expression.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 17/12/2002, 6:06:34 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: Rizwan noted that the book is about identity and not

: (fundamentally) about the Holocaust. I agree. The

Oops, Guillermo said that, not Rizwan. I misquoted (bad scholarship! bad scholarship! sit! stay!)

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 17/12/2002, 6:23:28 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

: First question: what is ‘arsanical horror’? I sought

: for it on the net, but no such thing there. Same for

: ‘arsenical horror’. Does it even exist?

: Second question: why is the term both ‘completely

: incomprehensible’ and ‘ immediately enlightening’ to

: Austerlitz?

I had to mull this one over and over too when I read it. First impression: huh?? Second impression (after consulting dictionary): What the ..??

What I got out of that at the end (after a glass of wine or two) is: Austerlitz was reading a book and ran across the term “arsanic horror”, which to him is a completely non-sensical literarily-speaking (completely incomprehensible), but gave him a intuitive image in his mind (immediately enlightening) of the layer of white on the floor being a layer of arsenic (a grey-white powder) combined with the image (horror) of his adopted mother dying.

However, that is a bit of a stretch, because I’m assuming here that “arsanic” actually is a variant of “arsenic”, which may be complete off the mark.

 ~~

Posted by Hanh on 17/12/2002, 6:31:03 , in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

So, for the records, my vote for Austerlitz is:

– Recommendation rating: 4 stars, which in my twisted universe, means: I wouldn’t pay the price of a hard-cover book for it, but worth a paperback price, and definitely worth a pauperback price.

– Heart rating: 3.5 stars (I like better than “The Sheltering Sky” but not as much as “Baltasar and Blimunda”)

 ~~

Posted by Rizwan on 17/12/2002, 16:34:01 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

I had the same thought, Hanh: that “arsanic” was some sort of variation on arsenic. Especially with the layer of white on the floor, combined with the spectre of death. But I don’t know for sure either…

 ~~

Posted by len on 17/12/2002, 17:05:19 , in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Anna asks:

>First question: what is ‘arsanical horror’? I sought for it on the net, but no such thing there. Same for ‘arsenical horror’. Does it even exist?

My recollection from high school/college chemistry was that “arsenical” was a technical term meaning a compound (invariably toxic) of arsenic. A lookup of arsenical via Google confirmed this.

I can, as have others, only assume that arsanical is a variant of arsenical. Perhaps a translation glitch.

len.

 

Posted by Dave on 22/12/2002, 3:36:17, in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

It’s so humbling to see a word in common usage that I… yes, I, Dave, literally invented. When I originally used it in some reference here or there, I used it in an original sense.

If it is an actual word… will someone please inform me? Otherwise, I am going to apply for a patent on this word “pauperback”!

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 22/12/2002, 4:03:30, in reply to “Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Hey, I forgot to mention this point, so I will put it here, as it fits absolutely nowhere else in this thread…

I met a really nice girl as a result of reading Austerlitz in a public place!

Scene 1, Act I:

I’m sitting there at a mega-bookstore (you know what I mean…. the type of place where you can get the best coffee ever, sit and read your book, AND get the oil changed in your car all at the same time???)… anyhoo, I’m sitting there reading Austerlitz when I come across a passage en francais (there were a few huh?) and my various conjugations of “ouvrez la porte” and “fermez le fenetre” are just not helping me at all….

Scene 1, Act II:

Over to my right, at the same long table in which I’m sitting there is a girl studying anesthesiology. Books splayed all over the table. Right away, I realize she is more intelligent than I… so I ask her, “Do you read French?”

She does.

Scene 1, Act III:

“Can you tell me what this is saying?” and I show her the passage on page 264 (Hardcover version) which says “a travers une breche d’incomprehension.”

She is stumped by this word “breche”.

She gets up and runs off to the French/English Dictionary section of the store (which, by the way, is right next to the patio furniture section)… and she returns and tells me…

Scene 1, Act IV:

“In the context of what is being said here, the author is suggesting that the caged animals in the zoo look at us as though we too are imprisoned or unable to be free, and they find this hard to comprehend.”

Scene 1, Act V:

“Oh cool, thank you” I said… and in lieu of asking this girl to marry me then and there, I just sort of finished my coffee and then left the building.

Scene 2, Act I:

I get outside to see (from a block away I can see this) that in the meantime someone has smashed into my car and taken off!

Nice touch!

I now have a dented car.

(Exeunt omnes).

– See how these profound comments don’t really FIT anywhere here?

– I thank you for your patience.

 ~~

Posted by Dave on 2/1/2003, 6:24:25, in reply to “Re: Discussion of Austerlitz (finally)”

Anna says:

“My copy of the book has little yellow post-it markers all over it.”

Oh hey… mine too.

** “If I am walking through the city and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion.” (p.257 Hardcover).

** ….”perpetuated but forever just occurring.” (p.197 Hardcover).

** Austerlitz says he lives in an “orphaned frame of mind.” (p.265 Harcover).

** “It is often our mightiest projects that most often betray the degree of our insecurity.” (p.14 Hardcover).

** “…outsize buildings cast the shadows of their own destruction before them…” (p.19 Hardcover).

** “…a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.” (p.101 Harcover).

** “No sooner did I become acquainted with someone than I feared I had come too close, no sooner did someone turn towards me than I began to retreat.” (p.125 Hardcover).

** a constant wrenching insistent heartache, “caused by the vortex of time.” (p.129 Hardcover).

** “…appointments to keep in the past.” (p.258 Hardcover).

I noticed this recurring theme in Austerlitz… Boarded-up rooms. Doors withholding access to nothing but darkness and spiderwebs (see p.190 Hardcover).

Also see: the boarded-up billiard room (the door is covered over p.108 Hardcover).

Also see: earlier, there was his own bedroom windows covered over by his legalistic preacher/father Elias.

** Earlier still, he talked about his fascination with the unused rooms in that picture on p.29 (Hardcover)… the Palace of Justice.

Isolation.

Despair.

Rooms leading nowhere.

Just like Auterlitz’s search for a glimpse of his real parents.

Brilliantly done!

 

While waiting for Austerlitz: National Library in Paris

Posted by Lale on 10/12/2002, 12:18:58

While waiting for Anna to post her comments on W. G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz”, here is some info and thoughts on the new National Library of France (with which Austerlitz digresses and can never come back again.)

I agree with everything negative Austerlitz says about this library (pages 384 through 383) and I can add some more.

Up until a few years ago, France’s National Library was on rue Richelieu, a charming 19th century building. Inside the reading room, every desk had its own blue lamp. You can still visit that library and see the reading room from a small window. In other parts of the library there is always an exposition going on, when I went the last time it was an ancient coin exposition.

François-Mitterrand (1916-1996) was a man with a huge ego. He wanted to have a few things built around Paris that would mark his presidency, that would bear his signature. Among these: the glass pyramids of Louvre, the grand arche de la Défence, the new national library…

The new library initially carried his name, it was called the Franççois-Mitterrand library but now it is changed. It is called, simply, The National Library or The New National Library. Or it is called Tobiac because that’s the name of the metro station.

{The quoted texts are from the official site of the library: www.bnf.fr

The quoted texts in parenthesis, followed by a page number are from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

The rest (unquoted) is my own commentary.}

– The architect is Dominique Perrault. The choice is Mitterrand’s; he made the final decision on the submitted projects. (” … the monumental dimensions of which were evidently inspired by the late President’s wish to perpetuate his memory whilst, perhaps because it had to serve this purpose, it was so conceived that it is, as I realized on my first visit, said Austerlitz, both in its outer appearance and inner constitution unwelcoming if not inimical to human beings, and runs counter, on principle, one might say, to the requirements of any true reader.” p. 386)

– “This was the president’s final choice, announced on the 21st. August 1989. Dominique Perrault’s design for the building is based on a hollow rectangular podium block supporting a tower in the shape of an open book at each corner.” The four towers on four corners of the hollow rectangle which is later filled with trees, are supposed to look like “open books”.

– “The four glass-sheathed 79-metre high towers accommodate seven office levels shielded by movable wooden screens, and eleven storage levels protected by matching screens of insulating material.” The key word here is “shielded”. Initially there was no shielding. the towers are high and made out of glass. Something the architect had not thought of: how to protect manuscripts from the 12th century, under glass, against the sun? As an afterthought, they built wooden screens to cover the windows with. the controversy continued. The wood was coming from the rain forests!

– “The library itself is first observed through the tree-tops emerging from a garden covering some two acres in the central hollow of the podium area. The reading rooms occupy two levels around the garden, with workshops and stockrooms encircling them on the outer side.”

– “The stockrooms provide 395 linear kilometres of shelving altogether and are located partly within the podium block, next to the reading rooms, and partly in the upper storeys of the tower blocks.” So, the four tall towers are for stock, service and admin. The reading rooms are around the forest built into the hollow rectangle.

There are two kinds of reading rooms: Upper level and lower level. Upper level is pretty much open to anyone who would like to look at books that are available only with little ceremony/bureaucracy/permission and people who pay for a day pass or have a yearly pass. The lower level is open only to researchers who should bring in proof and reason of their research (a letter explaining in detail their purpose, references from their universities or from their managers etc.) In the first case it is advisable, and in the second case it is necessary that you order your books in advance and reserve a table. When you get there at your reserved time, your books will be waiting for you on your desk. This is not a lending library, by the way. You may not take out books. You do all your study there.

– “A focal point for a new urban community” – Never happened and will never happen. The architect defends his library by saying that it will come to life when society builds around it. That hasn’t happened in the last decade. the place is desolate. No parks, no cafes, no restaurants, no shops, no activity. There are a few residential complexes around. The place looks so unlike Paris, it is hard to believe.

– “Around the François-Mitterrand library, the distinctive streets and public areas of a whole new urban community, Paris Rive Gauche, are gradually taking shape.” Nothing is taking shape over there.

– With the library at its hub, the new community is forging a strong cultural identity which will be strengthened in the future as plans go ahead for a new 80 000 – 130000 m2 university centre.” I don’t know about this university centre, if it happens, it will help. But right now “the new community is not forging a strong cultural identity” because “there is no new community”.

– “A new express Metro link to the centre of Paris, the line 14, has been in operation since the summer of 1998.” This is the metro Austerlitz is talking about. It doesn’t have a driver/conductor. It is all automatic. (“Metro trains steered by a ghostly voice” p. 386)

Some pictures:

 ~~

Model of the library

Posted by Lale on 10/12/2002, 12:29:53 , in reply to “While waiting for Austerlitz: National Library in Paris”

This is the model of the library: http://readliterature.com/bibnat.jpg

Library - Model

 ~~

Forest from Normandy

Posted by Lale on 10/12/2002, 12:37:02 , in reply to “Model of the library”

This is from www.bugaud.contraste.free.fr/oeuvreverre.htm

(oeuvre verre = a work in glass, glass piece)

This artist (Bugaud) has incredible photos of Paris.

This photo shows two of the four towers and the terrace around the forest.

Library - Two Towers and Hidden Forest

 ~~

Computer generated displays on the windows

Posted by Lale on 10/12/2002, 12:41:06 , in reply to “Forest from Normandy”

This is from www.rebeccamorgan.50megs.com. Apperantly this is the personal page of a young girl named Rebecca Morgan. She and her friends have attended a light and music show at the Bibliotheque Nationale:

“nuit blanche at the bibliotheque nationale, this is the facade of the bibliotheque… it was turned into a ‘screen’ by the ‘chaos computer club’ of berlin. it was pretty amazing… each window was it’s own screen, and they all combined to form an image… the show was coordinated with some crazy music.”

http://readliterature.com/bibnatcomp.jpg

Library - Computer Show

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 18/12/2005, 10:28:54

Last evening I finished reading G.W. Sebald’s Austerlitz, I book some of you have already read and discussed on this site in 2002. As I wrote to Lale in an e-mail, I became hooked at the point early on when the narrator (who is obviously Austerlitz’s doppelganger – Austerlitz being nothing else but the narrator’s memory, or imaginary friend) describes the Breendonk fortress. There are so many features of this book that I admire, particularly the author’s ability to avoid cathartic descriptions and events (I think it was Rizwan who said that doing so would be like putting another brick in Wall of Lamentations); for example, he never visits the actual camp of Theresienstadt, but rather discovers it in a language he can not read in a meticulously written scientific account. Follows this is Austerlitz’s (the narrator’s) account of the camp, one of the most remarkable sentences I have read if for nothing else than for its sheer length (pp. 236-244 in paperback). The description is cold, realistic, not romanticized and as a result lays bare the true horror of that place.

I have been thinking a lot about Sebald’s descriptions of inanimate objects and their status as witnesses to history – how Austerlitz wonders, while taking the train back from Prague, if certain railroad pillars had in fact seen him take the same voyage decades earlier. The description of the boarded-up billiard room and Ashman’s visit to it after the war – enough “to overset his reason altogether” – and his subsequent rage directed, in the form of bullets, at the clock tower on the coach house. This idea that within that billiard room – undisturbed for a century and a half – the walls had been witness, in a fashion, to the passage of “pure time” – (for as the narrator points out, “scarcely a gosamer-thin layer of dust had been able to settle”) – or at least “non-time,” because no events had come to interrupt anything: a matrix for time travel almost.

Lale had me read the description of the Bibliotheque Nationale back in 2002 when I was in Paris and going there on a regular basis to do research. Personally, I am a fan of the building, despite the fact that Sebald’s description certainly struck a chord. I thought that his point in criticizing this building was to question the idea that history is located in books, or even in all those architectural monuments, the academic study of which Austerlitz ultimately abandoned because in it he could find no truth about his own personal history. That history may be located in the most minute detail or object that even the most labyrinthine library on the planet can not begin to house. The great irony being, that the Bibliotheque was built on top of those buildings which had housed the confiscated possessions of French Jews sent to perish.

I have also taken pictures of the Austerlitz train station in Paris, particularly the glass panels reproduced in the book. It is a truly wonderful place where one feels that the past has not yet been obliterated.

I’m three years late, but I give this book 5 stars.

C

 ~~

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 18/12/2005, 11:44:36

I am one of those who read Austerlitz three years ago, and I have fond memories of it. It’s really hard to write a good book when you have no plot at all, and most of this kind fail. But Sebald achieved wonders with this long rumination on identity, the self, the relationship between yourself and the world, and, as you correctly point, the possible role of objects in our lives. Have you or anyone else read other books by Sebald? I am inclined to give them a try.

 ~~

Posted by Christopher on 18/12/2005, 13:03:54

: Have you or anyone else read other books by

: Sebald? I am inclined to give them a try.

Guillermo,

No I haven’t read anything else by Sebald, and haven’t gotten around to looking for other titles. I must admit I was dismayed when I read his bio at the end of the book and learned that he had died in 2001. A great loss.

C

 ~~

Posted by Ladypurple on 18/12/2005, 18:57:36

I read Austerlitz years ago and enjoyed it very much in English so that I decided to buy it and read it in German as well – but have not done so yet.

I read non-fiction by him “On The Natural History of Destruction” and have other fiction on my TBR list, started in particular “The Emigrants”. I very much recommend Natural History. It is difficult to describe but you can get a sense of the book, and its importance, when you read my review in amazon.com:

cheers Friederike

Austerlitz (Modern Library Paperbacks)
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Austerlitz W.G. – Sebald – 2001

 


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