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Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald
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Austerlitz (2001)

by W. G. Sebald

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  1. 00
    Heshel's Kingdom by Dan Jacobson (perodicticus)
    perodicticus: Sebald mentions Jacobson's book in the final pages of Austerlitz, and it's well worth a read.
  2. 00
    Götz and Meyer by David Albahari (DieFledermaus)
  3. 00
    Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš (DieFledermaus)
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English (45)  Dutch (3)  German (2)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  All languages (52)
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Jacques Austerlitz is trying to regain his past in order to find out who he really is. As one of the countless innocent victims of the atrocities associated with World War II, the five-year old Austerlitz was separated from his Czech-born Jewish parents, who put him on a kindertransport to Great Britain in order to save his life. Raised by Welsh foster parents, he lives a fairly ordinary early existence with no apparent memories of (or interest in) his heritage. Only after a mid-life nervous breakdown does Austerlitz seek to recover as much information about his parents and their divergent fates as possible. However, given that this quest begins decades after those fates were sealed, Austerlitz is left to piece together what information he can through visits to research archives, historical sites, and conversations with elderly survivors who were first-hand observers of the horrific events surrounding the Holocaust.

Ultimately, Austerlitz is a book that explores how we remember the people, places, and things that give us our identities but are gradually receding into the past. The protagonist’s journey serves as a perfect metaphor for how, as time passes and eye witnesses to any particular occurrence pass on, those memories must be reconstructed from the libraries, museums, and written and media records where they reside. However, how accurate and complete are those “gatekeepers” of our shared histories ever able to be? That question becomes particularly poignant with regard to what occurred in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s since, more than 70 years later, so few people who lived those experiences are still around today to bear witness directly.

As compelling as I found the theme of Austerlitz to be, I actually had a somewhat conflicted reaction to the novel itself. I admire the author’s sense of invention in how the tale is told; Sebald uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style that effectively combines the fictional and historical elements of the story. Further, some of the prose is absolutely stunning in its beauty. In contrast, though, there were some elements of the book’s structure that struck me as awkward: the use of the unnamed narrator created an unnecessary distraction in how many of the sentences had to be phrased, the paucity of paragraphs made it difficult to maintain focus, and the use of so many photographs became a bit of an indulgence as considerable effort was sometimes given to describing a picture that was otherwise irrelevant to the story. So, on balance, while I can certainly recommend this book for the important ideas it develops, that is an endorsement that must unfortunately come with some reservations. ( )
2 vote browner56 | Apr 17, 2014 |
This is a wonderful book. It seems forbidding and inaccessible at first. The writing is very free and languid. Sentences continue for pages and there are layers upon layers of reported commentary. It should be difficult but it is actually almost hypnotically enticing. It is like reading a dream. The story is dark and sad and you wish for some joy. There is a little brightness when Austerlitz finds his parents' neighbour who knew him as a boy but the endless searching and accompanying despair are heartbreaking. Sebald's prose style is intelligent and fascinating. It works on so many levels - interesting narration, descriptions that make you feel you are right there and emotional sensitivity drawing you into Austerlitz's mental torment. I read this book quickly in 3 or 4 sessions, only stopping when I was too tired to continue. It felt like a short book but is actually over 400 pages. The photographs scattered throughout are brilliant. In some ways, it seems as if this book could be considered annoyingly contrived, with the pictures and the difficult structure and the lectures about architecture and history and biology but it is very gentle and modest really - just someone taking to someone else. I loved this book ( )
  rosiezbanks | Jan 22, 2014 |
I couldn't do it. I really wanted to finish this book. I finish every book I start, and even if I hate them, I enjoy writing scathing reviews. But as my wife pointed out, life is too short. It's not just the execrable prose style, which I'm sure is intentional and has some theoretical justification. It's not the photos- I quite like the idea of photos in novels. It's not just the idiotic attempts to be highbrow, by referencing Wittgenstein (whom the narrator thinks is a 'dark thinker'!) And it's not just the hype, which is nauseating (*this* is meant to stand up next to Kafka and Proust?) All of these things together, it's true, would give me pause. But what is truly insulting is the sub-liberal-guilt posture the narrator and Austerlitz assume: in this novel's world, all 'great' undertakings are merely hubristic and doomed to failure; all ambition for improving the world is bound to end up with the panopticon; and everything, everything, everything is in some sort of relationship to the holocaust.
I figure this 'great idea' is the source of the book's popularity (my copy proudly proclaims 'NATIONAL BESTSELLER'). If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that the holocaust sucked balls. In the middle ages, almost everyone could agree that 'God is great.' The literature expressing this claim was profoundly, profoundly dull. Similarly, literature which tells us that the holocaust sucked balls is profoundly, profoundly dull. This is not deep thinking, this is platitude wrapped in an extraordinarily un-inventive form.
All that said, maybe the second half is really great, mind-blowing even. I'll never know. ( )
1 vote | stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Of the books which are frequently listed as the best of the decade 2000-09 by British sources*, this was the final one I was interested in reading which I hadn't already read.
Its style has an intimidating reputation - though with a large typeface on wide-margined pages it looks like quite a fast read. I had one false start in the summer, when feeling less well: I was entranced by the account of the night-animals but thought I'd be better tackling this sentence structure when less dizzy.
Dizziness, it turns out, is a favoured Sebald theme...

After a while, those long sentences began to flow. As I've read about Proust, their structure is rather like speech. And it went fast. I can't think of any other 400 page adults' novels with such a reputation and serious subject that I've read easily in one day. (200 pages, yes, 250 occasionally, but 400?! I wonder what the page-count would be for this one using a standard layout.)

Two quotations on the back use the word mesmeric. Absolutely. I felt like an Alice falling down a succession of rabbit holes into many kingdoms. Perec and Pynchon have given me that sensation too. Austerlitz's lands are less whimsical - still wrenchingly beautiful. La jetee springs to mind. The unusual framing structure and the double reported speech are like concentric circles, Escher even, and make it feel quite unlike any other novel I've read on something which is a common subject for novels.

I remember reading a post a while ago by someone five or six years younger, observing how much of literary fiction was concerned with themes of memory related by older narrators. I suppose it's useful in an odd way to have an affinity with the common branches of these themes. I wouldn't recommend neurological illness in any shape or form, it's vile, but when I'm feeling okay it has given me - especially on top of once having had a near-eidetic memory - an understanding of experiences with memory and reflection on it usually only common to people my parents' age or older. Likewise there's a lot about traumatic experience in literature which I understand through life and theory. And about loss. (The most obvious loss biographically a parent, yet that was never the one I felt affected by: instead, roots ripped up from place was acute, and the loss of many in many different roles who were not related to me. The account of Austerlitz's disappearingness in the late one hundred and something pages re-reconciles me to some and makes me all melt-hearted for those whose backstories and habits resemble his; to others I am that person who flits in and out at random, or the one who threw the match on to the bridge.)

Sebald's themes, generally, are likely to resonate with me; he's someone I'd like to read more of, though thank fuck right now I don't want any more books again, feeling quite rightly swamped by all the ones I already have unread. Also, a book like this one - and one or two others, including the previous Perec and Pynchon, are so good and so rich that it seems profligate to read their other works when there is so much to return to in one already read.

Perec when he was a little refugee boy two years younger than Jacques Austerlitz also had a Charlie Chaplin comic when he parted from his mother.

The war. Hearing about Austerlitz learning about it as an adult, having instinctively avoided the material. How bewilderingly surreal and horrifying it is. This happened here? And because of it I am here?
I was bombarded with so much about it growing up that I made an effort to ignore anything to do with the Second World War, especially in Europe, the Germans, Eastern Europe, between my mid teens and mid thirties. Much of it on an emotional level I am still hearing as if for the first time in the last couple of years.

"At some time in the past, I thought, I must have made a mistake and now I am living the wrong life."
"what I now saw going past outside the train was the original of the images that haunted me"

Sebald is referencing Alain Resnais repeatedly. The excursions to Marienbad with their layers of memory and romance that went wrong. The film about the library which he names. Nuit et Brouillard. And the time/ memory themes in the absolutely wonderful Je t'aime je t'aime. (Which I do hope I'll one day get a chance to see with better quality English subtitles.)

I am so glad someone cares about poor fragile moths as Austerlitz and the narrator do here. (Someone I've known for a long time just told me he is doing nasty experiments on moths. They're not exactly necessary to save the world or anything so I don't excuse it. I decided not to speak to him again for a few years, but he probably won't notice. I couldn't be bothered to say anything as it won't change anything and the memory is strong from former times of having to agree to disagree because we're both very stubborn but refuse to hate each other.)

Glad to have read this after I met the Battle of Austerlitz and other of the history master's favourite themes in War & Peace.

I haven't really reviewed the book as such. It is as good as they said and I didn't think it could be. (I have the right background though.) It is also just the right amount of moving, not overwhelming; somehow a sense of magic and the exact right amount of suspended disbelief and sense of truth just where they need to be - I didn't even think about that until afterwards as it flowed perfectly.

---

* I don't think lists are an especially good way of choosing what to read; they can be rather narrow-minded, repetitive and a fuel for egotism and quiet denigration. I admire those who are very bright, more than able to read anything, yet are concerned so purely with enjoyment in leisure reading that they are entirely able to disregard any of the canon - or anything else - which doesn't appeal to them, along with any sense of pressure that one should have read it.
However, rather like one of those smokers in whom the habit is so fully a part of their personality and reflexes that deep down they can't ever imagine being without it (regardless of knowing it's not good for them and those nearby), I unfortunately find media-generated lists a comfortable and reassuring way to organise my reading of the many books I think look quite interesting. Even more so because of the long periods of time when I have been too busy, tired and/or unwell to read big serious novels, making it a joy to have been able to complete a few more this year and to be able to understand, and if I choose join, the collective conversations about them. ( )
2 vote antonomasia | Nov 19, 2013 |
Austerlitz is not an easy read. A book that spans over 400 pages, with no chapter breaks or paragraphs. It's one long stream of consciousness, except that it's not. But it is a book that benefits from long, uninterrupted reads. Reads that I do not get. So that's my only quibble with the book; a quibble that's more due to my life than the book itself.

Austerlitz follows the encounter of our unnamed narrator with Jacques Austerlitz, one of the children on the kindertransport out of war-torn Europe to the relative safety of the UK. As soon as the four year-old Austerlitz gets to his British family, in Wales, they strip him of his identity and give him a new name. Growing up in the cold (both physically and emotionally) house in Bala with two distant adults for company, Austerlitz stagnates. Only the escape to a boarding school brings him some satisfaction, to the point where the loathes going home at holidays. It's during his time at the boarding school that he first finds out that his actual name is very different from the one he has been using for much of his life.

Our narrator encounters Austerlitz infrequently, but each time the story picks up without introductions or unnecessary small talk. Slowly, through the meandering tale that he tells, we find out about his past. Or rather, what Austerlitz found out about his past. The tangents and extra information are wonderful snippets of a great mind, but I can see how these would be irritating to some readers.

We find out parts of his past gradually, but there's no happy ending there. I preferred it that way; a happy ending in such a book would seem forced and fake. Instead, some of the threads are left open with hints as to what happened.

This is a brilliant book, but it isn't for everyone. The lack of structure, or the seeming lack of structure, will put some people off. I really wished that I could have gone away for a few days, sat down and read the book without the interruptions that my life contains. It would have been a far more satisfying way of reading the book. ( )
  kingarooski | Oct 18, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
He is one of the most gripping writers imaginable. It's not the story so much that takes hold of the reader: it's the descriptions and the meditations, which can be hallucinatory in their effect. This is true of all his books, but in Austerlitz the proportion of rumination and evocation to narrative is larger than ever.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Gabriele Annan (pay site) (Nov 1, 2001)
 

» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
W. G. Sebaldprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Charvát, RadovanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hengel, Ria vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vigliani, AdaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.
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"In 2005, as part of the celebrations of its 70th anniversary, Penguin (which owns Sebald’s British imprint Hamish Hamilton) issued excerpts from 70 titles spanning its publishing history. Austerlitz was chosen to represent the year 2001 and so a 58-page excerpt from Austerlitz was published in a slim paperback under the title Young Austerlitz. The excerpt covers pages 44 to 96 in the American edition, in which Austerlitz describes part of his childhood in Wales." -Vertigo
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375756566, Paperback)

If the mark of a great novel is that it creates its own world, drawing in the reader with its distinctive rhythms and reverberations, then W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz may be the first great novel of the new century. An unnamed narrator, resting in a waiting room of the Antwerp rail station in the late 1960s, strikes up a conversation with a student of architecture named Austerlitz, about whom he knows almost nothing. Over the next several years, the narrator often runs into his odd, engaging acquaintance by chance on his travels, until finally, after a gap of two decades, Austerlitz decides to tell the narrator the story of his life and of his search for his origins in wartime Europe. Slow and meditative, relying on the cumulative effect of its sedate, musical prose and its dark subject matter (illuminated here and there with hope), Sebald's novel doesn't overturn the conventions of fiction, but transcends them. It is a love story to history and vanished beauty. Don't let the slow beginning turn you away. Austerlitz takes its time getting off the ground, but is well worth seeing in flight. --Regina Marler

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:41 -0400)

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Over thirty years, in the course of conversations that take place across Europe, a man named Jacques Austerlitz tells a nameless companion of his ongoing struggle with the riddle of his identity. A small child when he immigrates alone to England in the summer of 1939, Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh couple who raise him, and he strains to orient himself in a world whose natural reference points have been obliterated. When he is a much older man, fleeting childhood memories return to him, and he obeys an instinct he only dimly understands and follows their trail back to the vanished world he left behind a half century before, the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe.--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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