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Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Austerlitz (2001)

by W. G. Sebald

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,983692,748 (4.19)175
Recently added byibinu, hauptwerk, private library, PostandBeam, tbtlibrary, slray1957, cscottmills
Legacy LibrariesLeslie Scalapino
  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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» See also 175 mentions

English (57)  Dutch (5)  German (2)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (69)
Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
Structurally this novel is quite interesting. The two main characters meet by chance in a railway station and strike up a conversation about architectural history. The narrator of the novel is a nameless scholar entranced by the man he meets, Jacques Austerlitz, whose narration of his life is the substance of the book. Hence the entire book is a story within a story. Another unusual structural device is the inclusion of photographs, maps, and the like; both creating a sense that the novel is nonfiction and also reflecting the interest Austerlitz has in photography. This method of "fixing" the story in reality and history contradicts the surreal and detached atmosphere of the narration. Finally the physical structure of the language used to tell the story is unhampered by paragraphs and sentence length. Instead the story flows uninterrupted.

The plot is the story of Austerlitz's life as his repressed memories slowly unfold. In a sense, the reader discovers the story of his life at the same time as the man himself does. A child brought to England on a Kindertransport from mainland Europe in 1939, Austerlitz is raised by a strict Welsh minister and his wife, who do not encourage the boy to remember his former life. Eventually, the boy remembers nothing of who he is. It is only as a middle-aged adult that fleeting memories begin to return, and Austerlitz wanders down the path to his own identity.

In simple terms, the novel is a reflection on the Holocaust and its effects on the people who survived it. Because of its unusual structure and surreal atmosphere, however, the book is not one to appeal to every reader, even those interested in the Holocaust. One has to detach from expectations and history itself in order to flow with the narration. I found it to be an unusual reading experience. ( )
1 vote labfs39 | Aug 22, 2018 |
I feel like I should have liked this book more than I did.

Austerlitz is ultimately about identity, and the story is compelling—the main character was one of the children sent away on Kindertransport before WWII—but I never really felt like I connected with this book. The writing is very good, and I actually liked all of the architectural discussion, but I wasn’t crazy about the style.

Maybe I’m doing it wrong? Oh well. ( )
  sprainedbrain | May 12, 2018 |
Ich hatte noch nie ein derartiges Sprachgeflecht gelesen. Ich wurde hinein gesogen und fuhr in diesem Text wie in einem Zug 100, 200, 300 Seiten ohne zu wissen warum und wohin, bezaubert und gefesselt von der düsteren Landschaft im Fenster.
Dieses Buch ragt hoch über meinem kritisches Vermögen hervor und wird wieder gelesen werden müssen. ( )
  alik-fuchs | Apr 27, 2018 |
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 crate 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 bulworks 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.
  John | Jun 28, 2017 |
Há obras que reconhecemos serem fundamentais mas que não nos entusiasmam. Compreendemos (racionalmente) que estamos perante algo inovador ou invulgar, mas (emocionalmente) não nos conseguimos deixar embalar. Acontece-me, por exemplo, com a maior parte da poesia, com grande parte da produção surrealista, com a arte moderna (visitei o novo MAAT recentemente...) ou com quase toda a música clássica minimalista dos últimos 50 anos. E aconteceu-me com "Austerlitz" de W. G. Sebald. A escrita é belíssima, uma conversa entre dois (des)conhecidos, quase como um fluxo de pensamentos, um sonho distante, ou um pesadelo que não queremos recordar e que, dolorosamente, não conseguimos evitar (neste caso, o pesadelo do holocausto nazi). E é também inovadora e desconcertante, porque contada por dois narradores ("disse Vera, disse Austerlitz"), contribuindo assim para aumentar o sentimento de distância e de gravidade. Para mim, que fui formado e formatado na ciência, nos factos, na beleza e no desafio da simplicidade, o estilo que Sebald utilizou em Austerlitz impacienta-me e anestesia-me. O que não significa que não lhe reconheça muito valor e que não recomende vivamente a leitura. ( )
  jmx | Jun 20, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 57 (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 (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sebald, W. G.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bell, AntheaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Charvát, RadovanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hengel, Ria vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krüger, MichaelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vigliani, AdaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wood, JamesIntroductionsecondary 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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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Don't combine this title with Young Austerlitz which is merely an extract of the complete work.
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:27 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

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)

» see all 5 descriptions

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