For the first time in my reading group’s 30-year history, we read a book recommended by a fictional character. It happened like this: after reading and discussing Rabih Alameddine’s An unnecessary woman (my review) in January, we thought it would be interesting if we all nominated which book mentioned by the “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya Saleh, that we’d most like to read. The book that got the most votes was Austerlitz. I was thrilled, because I bought my copy back in 2010 to read with one of my online reading groups, but never did, and because I had already read and been bowled over by his The emigrants.
But now where to start? A bit left field I think – which is probably not inappropriate given Sebald’s approach to literature. The “left field” happens to be one of my (few) never-forgotten book quotes. It’s from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and is Sethe talking about “the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” Sethe is, as most of you probably know, an American ex-slave who is living with the trauma of her past life. Austerlitz, in Sebald’s book, is a man who, as a four-year-old, had been sent from Prague to England on a Kindertransporte in 1939, never to see his parents again. Indeed, he suppresses all memory of his past life – realising later
how little practice I had in using my memory, and conversely how hard I must always have tried to recollect as little as possible, avoiding everything which related to my unknown past.
This realisation comes some 50 years later, in the early 1990s, when, one day, having become “increasingly morbid and intractable” after the death of his only true friend, he is in the Ladies Waiting Room of the Liverpool Street Station – and a memory comes back of his arrival in England. At this point, his “self-censorship”, his “constant suppression of … memories” brings about a nervous breakdown. Upon his recovery, he begins researching his past life, resulting in trips to Prague to look for his mother, and to Paris to do the same for his father. Much of this is couched in discussions of architecture – because Austerlitz is an architectural historian – forcing us to consider the role architecture plays in human history and psychology. It’s compelling, but more than that, mesmerising …
However, this book has been written about with great insight and sensitivity by reviewers at, for example, the New York Times and The Guardian, so I’m going to do something a little different, and respond to that fictional woman, Aaliya, who recommended the book to my group!
“His style, drawn-out and elongated sentences that wrap around the page and their reader …”
And I will start with the seemingly mundane, the style, because it is this that confronts us most strongly with we start the book. If you’ve never read Sebald before it could be a shock. There are almost no paragraphs – well you could say there are 5 including the beginning of the book – which means there are no real chapters. The story just continues on and on, often through very long sentences containing multiple clauses and lists. We do have a narrator, the person to whom Austerlitz is telling his story and who relates it on to us.
Strangely though, I found the writing page-turning. There is something mesmerising about the almost flat, rather melancholic, tone suffusing the narration, that you want to keep reading. At least I did – and so did most of my reading group once they’d “got into it”. The style, in other words, wraps around you.
There are motifs and images which recur through the novel, making the whole cohere, creating the tone and developing the themes. There are shadows, there’s darkness more than light, and colours are muted, mostly grey. There are star-shapes, railway stations and other monumental buildings. There are references to ghosts. Places are more often empty or deserted, than heavily populated. And there’s the mysterious operation of time and memory. All these support the narrative’s mesmerising quality.
The book also includes black-and-white photographs, encouraging us to see it as non-fiction but no, this is fiction. Austerlitz is a made-up character – but, says The New Yorker, Sebald sometimes called his work “documentary fiction”. In other words, this is a very different sort of read.
“All I am is lonely. Before I go to bed, I must put away Sebald …
… both The Emigrants and Austerlitz. I can’t read him now, not in this state. He’s much too honest. I will read something else.”
Our “unnecessary woman”, Aaliya, who lives in Beirut, has experienced war herself, been affected by its ravages. I won’t say more here, because I think what I have said about the story and it’s tone already makes clear why she feels this. Sebald is not a writer to be read at times of distress or melancholy, but his insights into what we call “the human condition” are … well, let me put it this way: this is not a book you explain, really, but one you feel. What you feel is something that affects the way you think about human history, about where we’ve been and where, unfortunately, it looks like we’re going.
“I am proud that I finished the Austerlitz project. I consider it one of the best Holocaust novels.”
Aaliya goes on to say that “I find that when a subject has been heavily tilled, particularly something as horrifying as the Holocaust, anything new should force me to look with fresh eyes, to experience previously unexperienced feelings, to explore the hitherto unexplored.” And this is why Austerlitz is powerful. Austerlitz was a young boy in a little Welsh town while the war was on so he did not experience the Holocaust directly. But, his experience of being displaced comes back to haunt him later. So this is not about a person who directly experienced the Holocaust, nor is it, though, about the second generation. It is about someone who lived at the time, but had not experienced it first-hand because his parents, who did, had removed him. He is in a sort of limbo generation – and “limbo” is probably a good description for how he feels through much of the novel.
He writes, describing his experience of another mental/physical collapse:
It was obviously of little use that I had discovered the source of my distress and, looking back over all the past years, could now see myself with the utmost clarity as that child suddenly cast out of his familiar surroundings: reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation which I had always suppressed and was now breaking through the walls of its confinement.
This statement struck me powerfully, because not only does it reflect another experience of the Holocaust – another way of looking at its impact – but it articulates the experience of our stolen generations, and, beyond that, of any children removed, for good or bad reasons, from their homes. “Reason was powerless against the sense of rejection and annihilation”. What more is there to say?
There is so much to talk about this book, so much I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to finish with a brief reference to his discussion of time, the past and memory which underpins the novel. Here is Austerlitz late in the novel:
It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not also be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has 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?
I love this organic way of looking at time, this suggestion of how we might experience, approach or understand the events, particularly traumas, that happen to us.
Our unnecessary woman, Aaliyah, calls Austerlitz a great Holocaust novel, but I’d go one step further and simply say it is a great novel. Full stop.
(Trans. by Anthea Bell)
London: Penguin, 2002