Austerlitz, Sebald’s obsessively detailed autobiographical novel is no easy read. But like its forerunner The Rings of Saturn the toil yields rewards. In both cases the narrator is easily identified as the author himself, modestly disguised, but in Austerlitz he is little more than an ear.
In case the reader should forget it, the speech direction ‘said Austerlitz’ runs monotonously and irritatingly through every page. We may wonder why the narrator-listener has such heroic patience that he is prepared to listen, day in day out, year in year out, to the story of this ailing old Jew obsessed with finding out the details of his family who perished in the holocaust. The coy but anonymous reporter (let’s call him Sebald) first met the old gentleman many years ago by chance at the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Now he has met him again. So we have Austerlitz the station, Austerlitz the man and somewhere in the distance the memory of Austerlitz, the battleground of much bloodletting in the Napoleonic wars.
Thus trains, distances (of time and space) and wars are a continual background to the eccentric narrative poured into the ear of his eager listener. On occasion we are brought back to time present with reminders such as ‘Memories like this came back to me in the Disused Ladies Waiting Room of Liverpool Street Station, memories behind which many things much further back in the past seemed to lie.’ As ever, in Sebald, the past is ever-present, each memory enfolding others, back into history, his own, Europe’s, the world’s. So the memory of a wonderful but ruined church in Salle, Norfolk, activates others. But these memories belong to Austerlitz and are the part of him he needs to share with the self-effacing narrator.
Oddly, every page of this eccentric narrative within narrative compels our attention, by its elegant prose as much as by the mazy path it traces through a human consciousness. Behind the search for lost people and lost memories is the German policy of extermination. The Trade Fair Palace at Holešovice where ‘small groups of people dragging their heavy burdens emerge from the darkness’ is the vast, badly lit palace where young Vera said goodbye to the resilient Agata. True, that is Agata’s story, as told by Vera and reported to Austerlitz whom she knew only when he was a child - but we know what happened to them all.
Facts about the holocaust are sprinkled into the narrative, but it’s the murky background rather than the essence of the tale. There have been other wars before, other mass-exterminations, which get a passing mention, but their details are no longer even a memory. Among the old photographs reproduced (a Sebald trademark) are images of relics of the fortifications at the now deserted camp at Terezin. Here ‘not a single curtain moved behind their blind windows ... but what I found most uncanny of all [said Austerlitz] ... were the gates and doorways of Terezin, all of them, as I thought I sensed, obstructing access to a darkness never yet penetrated.’
This is a haunting and long-winded narrative, its pages tightly packed with virtually no paragraphs and notorious for one sentence (out-Prousting Proust) of two and a half pages. The memories are fading, but this book is a fine memorial to the darkest period of the last century.