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Austerlitz (2001)

by W. G. Sebald

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,813892,775 (4.15)216
"Austerlitz is the story of a man's search for the answer to his life's central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, Austerlitz follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion."--P. [2] of cover.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 74 (next | show all)
my favorite from sebald, his only 'novel' per some critics in the know. the challenge of the actually living austerlitz (character) precludes a monomaniacal focus on the dilapidated coastline (Rings of Saturn) and the diary entry (The Emigrants). austerlitz is often despondent, (mellifluous, melancholic) but never actually cynical. his redemptive function is a consequence of the two gifts he possesses. he has to eat at mcdonalds. and, second, he is connected (preternaturally) to the distant memories of his own youth (and the lives of his estranged parents beyond the scope of his own experience) by the most tenuous of transparent steps, by ghost (moth) stories, and by a kierkegaardian conception of time borne out of necessity. Not in a metaphysical-religious sense, but more along the lines of 'art as necessity'.

In quick succession austerlitz posits 'temporal nonlinearity', remarks with piercing clarity on the state of the afflicted, redeems the past as not having passed away, and turns back upon himself for opening the possibility of eternity in time - "the only perspective from which redemption is possible" - and, consequently, the possibility of damnation: "Could we not claim, said Austerlitz, that time itself has been nonconcurrent over the centuries and the millennia? [... Time] does not progress constantly forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing form, and evolves in no one knows what direction? [...] The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future. [...] A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, keeping myself apart from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back and go behind it, and there I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have co-existed simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and neverending anguish.—"thomas bernhard states that even the most rigorous study of philosophy can only become - in time - a kind of distant flavor. the most specific thinking - adherent to every detail - immediately degrades into 'stock-in-trade' images: 'I myself, added Austerlitz, in spite of all the accounts of it I have read, remember only the picture of the final defeat of the Allies in the battle of the Three Emperors. Every attempt to understand the course of events inevitably turns into that one scene where the hosts of Russian and Austrian soldiers are fleeing on foot and horseback on to the frozen Satschen ponds. I see cannonballs suspended for an eternity in the air [...] Hilary could talk for hours about the second of December 1805, but as he several times told us, it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly. In the end all anyone could ever do was sum up the unknown factors in the ridiculous phrase, “The fortunes of battle swayed this way and that,” or some similarly feeble and useless cliché. All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another, the invulnerable Emperor surrounded by his generals, a moment frozen still amidst the turmoil of battle. Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.'the interpretation of poetry and direct experience, by which one comes to understand metaphor "by realizing it for oneself with direct knowledge," immediately retreats into flat image at the moment of transmission: "Most of the mines, so I read as I sat there opposite the fortifications of Breendonk, were already disused at the time, including the two largest, the Kimberley and De Beers mines, and since they were not fenced off anyone who liked could venture to the edge of those vast pits and look down to a depth of several thousand feet. Jacobson writes that 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 its unimaginable opposite on the other. The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobson’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again. On his travels in Lithuania, Jacobson finds scarcely any trace of his forebears, only signs everywhere of the annihilation."(sifting and) Sorting producing an ostensible order in a set of expropriated objects at the extent of the superfine unquantifiable order with which they had previously been arranged: 'In the years from 1942 onwards everything our civilization has produced, whether for the embellishment of life or merely for everyday use, from Louis XVI chests of drawers, Meissen porcelain, Persian rugs and whole libraries, down to the last saltcellar and pepper mill, was stacked there in the Austerlitz-Tolbiac storage depot. A man who had worked in it told me not long ago, said Lemoine, that there were even special cardboard cartons set aside to hold the rosin removed, for the sake of greater cleanliness, from confiscated violin cases. Over five hundred art historians, antique dealers, restorers, joiners, clockmakers, furriers, and couturiers brought in from Drancy and guarded by a contingent of Indochinese soldiers were employed day after day, in fourteen-hour shifts, to put the goods coming into the depot in proper order and sort them by value and kind—silver cutlery with silver cutlery, cooking pans with cooking pans, toys with toys, and so forth. More than seven hundred train loads left from here for the ruined cities of the Reich.' ---
"One way to live cheaply and without tears [...] 'rent free'"

"Only at Liverpool Street Station, where he waited with me in McDonald’s until my train left, [...] a casual remark about the glaring light which, so he said, allowed not even the hint of a shadow and perpetuated the momentary terror of a lightning flash—"
imo the most successful photograph is the 'exterior fortification' early in the novel, an image depicting two lumps of stone and described as a strange mass of unknowable design (here he is almost humorous). the so-called photographic still-life and landscape are equivocal, difficult to interpret, with the general exception of those depicting people, in which prior critics' assessment of their "deconstructive" function appears to ring true) - though I am not a very close reader. ( )
  Joe.Olipo | Nov 26, 2022 |
“Like a tightrope walker who has forgotten how to put one foot in front of the other, all I felt was the swaying of the precarious structure on which I stood, stricken with Terror at the realization that the ends of the balancing pole gleaming far out on the edges of my field of vision were no longer my guiding lights, as before, but malignant enticements to me to cast myself into the depths.”

This book is a story about Austerlitz’s life, as narrated by an unnamed friend. Austerlitz migrated as a young child from Czechoslovakia to the UK just prior to WWII. The Welsh foster family that took him in did not give him any background about his origins. He experiences snippets of memory, resulting in (eventually) a search to determine his identity and what happened to his family.

“I felt that the decrepit state of these once magnificent buildings, with their broken gutters, walls blackened by rainwater, crumbling plaster revealing the coarse masonry beneath it, windows boarded up or clad with corrugated iron, precisely reflected my own state of mind...”

This is not an easy read. It is filled with lengthy, stream-of-consciousness sentences with no chapter breaks. It is sprinkled with photographs of architectural sites such as the train stations that evoke the Kindertransport and trains that carried deportees to the camps. It is an amalgamation of architectural, historical, and personal details. The reasons behind the detailed descriptions of architecture and fortresses in the beginning will eventually become apparent, but it takes patience and is not one to rush through.

It is meditative and subtle. It examines the impact of the traumatic events of WWII (which are never specifically depicted) that reverberate years later. We follow Austerlitz, via the narrator, to places that were part of the horrible events, but since his visits occur years afterward, it creates a feeling of internal dissonance (in Austerlitz and in the reader). It was not my favorite in terms of reading experience, but it certainly will linger in my thoughts.

“In my photographic work I was always especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.”
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Not that great experimental novel (like most of Sebald's work). At least it was an easy read. ( )
  Gumbywan | Jun 24, 2022 |
I found it insightful to consider the two characters as aspects of the same person. ( )
1 vote Notmel | Feb 8, 2022 |
A hypnotic read, as another review on here said. A slow searing start that, as we meet Austerlitz and hear the story of his dark and enigmatic childhood, becomes more and more mesmerizing and doomed. I wish I slowed down to read but this did fly by at times, while becoming a bit slow and detailed at other times. Some of the prose was achingly beautiful. ( )
  Gadi_Cohen | Sep 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 74 (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
Matthews, RichardNarratorsecondary 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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"Austerlitz is the story of a man's search for the answer to his life's central riddle. A small child when he comes to England on a Kindertransport in the summer of 1939, Jacques Austerlitz is told nothing of his real family by the Welsh Methodist minister and his wife who raise him. When he is a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, Austerlitz follows their trail back to the world he left behind a half century before. There, faced with the void at the heart of twentieth-century Europe, he struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion."--P. [2] of cover.

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