KLASSEN ON BOOKS -November 2016 - By John Klassen (Review)

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W.G. Sebald

Sebald, (1944-2001) has been described as, "one of contemporary literature's most transformative figures."  A retrospective on his writing said that his four prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz are, "...utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound." Sebald himself once described his writing as "documentary fiction."  He also believed that the horrors of the 20th century could not be approached directly because their enormity would paralyse the ability to think about them morally and rationally. They must, therefore, be approached obliquely, and is what he achieved in Austerlitz, approaching the Holocaust.


This very fine novel is a calm, even slow-moving, meditation on the nuances of space and time and memory, and of all the hopes and the fears, the internal and external influences known and unknown and maybe unknowable, that make us the individuals that we are.

The narrator of the story is Austerlitz himself, but we hear him at one remove through the principal narrator, an unnamed "I" who recounts what Austerlitz has told him, during visits and encounters that are sometimes years apart. Later in the novel, the connection is moved one degree further when Austerlitz recounts the words of a third person. This has the effect of holding the reader a little at bay, to observe and judge what Austerlitz is describing.

The story begins in 1967 in a waiting room in a railway station in Antwerp where the narrator meets Austerlitz and strikes up a conversation concerning Austerlitz's evident interest in taking photographs. Austerlitz is a professor of architectural history; our narrator shares that interest and the two talk in the railway buffet until nearly midnight. A friendship is formed based on shared interests and, over the years, shared intimacies and observations from Austerlitz. We learn, eventually, that Austerlitz came to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport; he was adopted by a generally uncommunicative Methodist minister and wife, living in Wales, a childless couple with no idea of the hopes and fears of a young child, especially one torn from his home and family; he is told nothing about his previous life, nor about his parents (though he has memories); slowly, he comes to know of his origins and embarks upon a search to try to give structure and meaning to his memories and his life. It turns out that Austerlitz's father was trapped in France at the outbreak of the war, and though his fate can be speculated upon, it is not known; Austerlitz's mother is known to have died in Theresienstadt.

The story is a long meditation on the functioning and impacts of the Holocaust. It proceeds slowly and that might make some people put it down...what is the point of that piece about the history of fortifications?--but it would be a mistake to do so. Sebald builds atmospheres of people and places and times through webs of metaphors that overlap and reinforce each other and become clearer as the story progresses and the reader makes more and more of the connections. The references to fortifications provide a perfect example: fortifications, comprising increasingly large and elaborate designs of walls and turrets and moats were designed to keep inhabitants safe and to thwart the destructive designs of an enemy; similarly, individuals develop bulwarks to protect their own lives, through integration in society, education, activities and successes in society, networks of friends, reliance on the rule of law--yet everyone of these can be crushed and swept aside leaving individuals fearful and at the mercy of evil intentions, just as fortifications of bricks and mortar were all, eventually, ignored or destroyed by advancing technologies. The metaphor works on another level too: strong walls define space and can offer protection, but they can also restrict and deny freedom and corral inhabitants.   

The novel is replete with metaphors for restrictions in life, death and destruction, and rays of light that offer hope but are out of reach, such as we find the extended metaphor on fortifications, prisons, an avalanche, the construction of a dam and drowning of towns and villages, a dilapidated limeworks, doors and gateways as portals of safety and despair, large and mysterious and abandoned buildings, labyrinths of streets that hide but offer no real protection, train stations and railways, domes of buildings that offer space and air but no protection, and often, images of skylights, glass domes, glass cupolas that offer hints of light and openness, but they are only illusions. The image of an abyss is powerful: "it was truly terrifying to see such emptiness open up a foot away from firm ground, to realize that there was no transition, only this dividing line with ordinary life on one side ‎and it's unimaginable opposite on the other."

I was ‎also struck by this by Sebald: "I recollect that I myself saw a family of fallow deer gathered together by a manger ‎of hay near the perimeter fence of a dusty enclosure where no grass grew, a living picture of mutual trust and harmony which also had about it an air of constant vigilance and alarm. Marie particularly asked me to take a photograph of this beautiful group, and as she did so, said Austerlitz, she said something which I have never forgotten, she said that captive animals and we ourselves, their human counterparts view one another 'à travers une brèche d'incompréhension.'"

The metaphors are pretty clear, but this reminded me sharply of Primo Levi in If This be A Man, when Levi had an exchange with a German officer:

"...that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came across as if across‎ the glass window of an aquarium, between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany."

Sebald echoes Patrick Modiano‎ a great deal in the search to reconstruct the past--using memories, personal and of others; documents: incomplete, missing, or even deliberately changed; the context of historical events and moments; and in particular a sort of mute testimony from the descriptions of places, buildings, objects (hence the details on addresses, street names, areas); ‎and the self-knowledge, often unsettling, that results from the search.

Time is neither linear nor compartmentalized in the sense of a defined past and present. I think Modiano would agree with Sebald: "And might it not be...that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what had gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak?"  This is especially true when Austerlitz is trying to discover the origins of his parents before, "the annihilation, within the space of only a few years, of their entire existence." How does one deal with the fact of this annihilation, how and why, and of the loss of the potentialities of life? In detailing this search, and playing with time, Sebald is also highlighting the fact that the effects of annihilation echo across generations.

Sebald scatters black and white photographs, ostensibly taken by Austerlitz, throughout the book. They are rarely of people; more often of places and objects; and they vary in the sharpness of the image. I like the approach; it adds to a contemplation of what Austerlitz is describing, how an image of a person or place affected him. (There is an interesting presentation on YouTube about Austerlitz and in particular the photographs.)

A wonderful, provocative, contemplative book.

Tags: John Klassen