Thursday, 7 November 2013

'Austerlitz' by W.G. Sebald (Review)

Time for more from German Literature Month, and today we're looking at a male author, one a few of you may have heard of.  I loved my first book by W.G. Sebald, Die Ringe des Saturn (The Rings of Saturn), so I've been meaning to get to today's offering for a long time - and what better time than November?  Time to hop on board the bus for another Sebaldian journey of discovery :)

Austerlitz*** sees an unnamed narrator, on a pointless trip to the Belgian city of Antwerp, make a chance acquaintance in an ostentatious railway station waiting room.  The person he meets, Jacques Austerlitz, is a man obsessed with buildings and form, travelling all over western Europe to inspect and photograph the architecture, and a rapport soon arises between the two men.

Despite this, they make no real plans to meet in the future, and their subsequent meetings are, once again, bizarrely random.  Even more unusual is the way that Austerlitz treats each meeting as a continuation of the last conversation, starting off their chats where they had broken off last time.  Of course, 'chats' is probably a misnomer - in reality, the book consists of Austerlitz telling his new acquaintance his story.  It's worth it though, a tale of a boy, two names and a continent at war...

Austerlitz is a holocaust story with a difference; in fact, we're not even sure it is one until half-way through.  The title character is a boy whose identity is a mystery - having grown up as Dafydd Elias in the Welsh countryside, it comes as quite a shock for him to find out that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz.  Part of the delay in finding out the man's identity lies squarely on his own shoulders though, as he deliberately looks the other way for most of his life, afraid of what he might find.  By the time he belatedly decides to search for information about his background, we sense that it might be too late (although we're also not entirely sure that it matters that much...).

Everything in the novel, despite the languid manner, is carefully planned.  Nothing is left to chance, and every detail reappears in its right place later in the story.  Near the start, the narrator offers the reader descriptions of Antwerp's old defensive walls and estates for workers to reside in.  Little do we know at the time that these off-the-cuff remarks actually foreshadow more ominous versions of the buildings later in the text.  Buildings, stars, pictures, tents in the desert - in Sebald's work, everything has its place...

The story, and the events described within it, go back and forth, are unpredictable.  Buildings in London echo train stations on the continent, lakes in different countries evoke echoes of each other (even when one of them is hiding a chilling secret).  Every detail contributes to a greater idea, another piece in the puzzle, at times a matter of life and death:
"An der wand über der niedrigen Werkbank Evans, sagte Austerlitz, hing von einem Haken der schwarze Schleier, den der Großvater von der Bahre abgenommen hatte, als die kleinen vermummten Gestalten sie vorübertrugen an ihm, und gewiß ist es Evans gewesen, sagte Austerlitz, der mir einmal sagte, mehr als ein solches Seidentuch trenne uns nicht von der nächsten Welt."
pp.83/4 (Fischer Verlag, 2011)

"On the wall above Evans' low work bench, said Austerlitz, there hung from a hook the black veil which Evans' Grandfather had taken from the funeral bier as the small, masked figures carried it past him, and it must also have been Evans, said Austerlitz, who told me once that nothing more than such a piece of silk separates us from the next life." (my translation)
Life and death, apparently, are closer together than we like to think.

This is, according to Sebald (according to Austerlitz) because time is like a river.  It flows, just like the text, but not in a straight, usual, temporal manner.  The writer provides us with frequent reminders that the past and future are always there, ready to be unlocked when someone finds the right key:
"Es scheint mir nicht, sagte Austerlitz, daß wir die Gesetze verstehen, unter denen sich die Widerkunft der Vergangenheit vollzieht, doch ist es mir immer mehr, als gäbe es überhaupt keine Zeit, sondern nur verschiedene, nach einer höheren Stereometrie ineinander verschachtelte Räume, zwischen denen die Lebendigen und die Toten, je nachdem es ihnen zumute ist, hin und her gehen können, und je länger ich es bedenke, desto mehr kommt mir vor, daß wir, die wir uns noch am Leben befinden, in den Augen der Toten irreale und nur manchmal, unter bestimmten Lichtverhältnissen und atmosphärischen Bedingungen sichtbar werdende Wesen sind." (p.269)

"It seems to me, said Austerlitz, that we don't understand the laws, through which the eternal repetition of the past occurs, but I feel more and more as if there is no time, rather just various rooms, nestled inside each other according to a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead, as they desire, can go back and forth, and the longer I consider it, the more I realise that we, who are still to be found in the land of the living, become, in the eyes of the dead, unreal and, only occasionally, under certain circumstances of light and atmospheric conditions, visible beings."
Austerlitz, unsurprisingly, is a man with no time for watches...

While Sebald plays up the idea of the closeness of the living and the dead, he prefers the reader and the action to be as far apart as possible.  As seen above, the narrator frequently reminds us that Austerlitz is speaking, taking us further away from the action being related.  In fact, at several points, we get third-, or even fourth-hand knowledge, where (for example) the narrator tells us what Austerlitz tells him of a story related by a character named Věra, who in turn is recounting the words of a man called Maximillian...

Another aspect of his style, as you may have noticed above, is his predilection for what I like to call 'Russian Doll' sentences, a mesmerising creation of clause within clause, with detail upon detail piling up until you can barely recall where, or why, the idea started.  I spent a long time translating the few lines above - trust me, I know what I'm talking about!  On top of this, the book consists of a few gigantic paragraphs, an immense wall of words, a decision which makes knowing when to stop reading a rather difficult task.  Where do you stop for the night, when the novel never really stops?

I say 'novel', but Sebald does his best to convince us at times that Austerlitz is anything but.  The book already appears more like a work of non-fiction than a story, and the frequent use of photographs to accompany the people and places described can put a momentary doubt in your mind.  In the first part of the book, especially, we seem so far away from any kind of plot, or even forward momentum, that the average reader will begin to doubt that they exist.  Slowly, inexorably, though, the scales fall from our eyes, and we begin to discern the slow, steady approach of the Nazi horrors.  And why should we rush towards that...

Austerlitz is another superb book that defies description and categorisation, as much as I've tried to do both here today.  It's a work which shows us that the line between fiction and non-fiction is a rather blurred one, and that the past and present aren't quite as distinct as we might think either.  This is a book I recommend you try, and if you do, I'm sure that you, like me, will want to read more of his work.  Add me to the list of Sebald completists ;)

*** An English-language version of Austerlitz, translated by Anthea Bell, is available from Random House