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Austerlitz (2001)

by W. G. Sebald

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,039962,855 (4.15)222
"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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English (82)  Dutch (6)  Spanish (2)  French (2)  German (2)  Catalan (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (96)
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First edition.
  bowlees | Nov 27, 2023 |
In 1967, our unnamed narrator meets Jacques Austerlitz for the first time at Antwerp Central Station where they share a discussion on the finer points of the architectural structure and historical significance of the same. Austerlitz is a lecturer of art history at a college in London with a passionate interest in the architectural history of heritage sites and buildings which is made more obvious through the numerous lengthy and detailed descriptions of the buildings and places visited throughout the narrative. Over the next thirty years they continue to meet irregularly in different locations throughout Europe and Austerlitz shares fragments of the story of his life and background with our narrator.

In 1939, four-year-old Jacque Austerlitz arrived in Britain on kindertransport from Czechoslovakia and was taken in by Calvinist preacher and former missionary, Emyr Elias and his wife who lived in a manse in Bala, Wales. He has almost no memories of his life before that and is only made aware of this part of his origin in 1949 by the headmaster of the private school near Oswestry he had been attending since 1946. He is told that his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and not Dafydd Elias, the name given to him by his foster parents. Unfortunately, his foster parents pass on before he can garner any further details from them.

“No one can explain exactly what happens within us when the doors behind which our childhood terrors lurk are flung open.”

Jacques finds support and companionship in André Hilary , teacher of history at his school who later assists in his naturalization process and a younger student, Gerald Fitzpatrick , their friendship lasting the duration of Gerald’s lifetime till his untimely death many years later. He holds fond memories of his many visits to the Andromeda Lodge in Barmouth with Gerald where Gerald’s naturalist Uncle and Grand-uncle fuel his fascination with landscapes and nocturnal insects and birds, moths in particular.

“Newton really thought that time was a river like the Thames, then where is its source and into what sea does it finally flow? Every river, as we know, must have banks on both sides, so where, seen in those terms, where are the banks of time? What would be this river’s qualities, qualities perhaps corresponding to those of water, which is fluid, rather heavy, and translucent? In what way do objects immersed in time differ from those left untouched by it?”

Much of the prose is dedicated to our protagonist Austerlitz’s fascination with and descriptions of old buildings, railway stations and heritage sites. Throughout the narrative, the author gives subtle hints to the protagonist’s search for links to his past as he describes the history of the various places and buildings he visits in Europe. When he finds an unused waiting room in Liverpool Station he experiences a vivid flash of memory of a younger version himself in that waiting room with his rucksack (he is seen to carry a rucksack with him on all his travels) and his foster parents receiving him at the station. When he hears a radio broadcast about children brought to Britain via kindertransport he starts piecing his family history together. His search leads him to Prague where he finds Vera, who had been his nanny while a student at Prague University and was also his mother’s friend and neighbor. Speaking to Vera, he starts to recollect fragmented memories of his childhood, the adjoining area and the language. Vera informs him that his father, Maximilian Aychenwald, had left for Paris just before the Nazi occupation of Prague preceding his family who was to join him later but was never heard from again. His mother, Agata, a singer and actress from an affluent family had stayed on after he was sent to Britain only to have all her assets confiscated and herself transported with others to Theresienstadt. The narrative progresses with Austerlitz’s travels and research into the fate of his parents and the toll of his discoveries on his mental and physical well-being as is shared with the narrator.

“We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.”

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald is not an easy book to review. To be honest, I find reviewing the book more complicated than it was to read. At the center of the novel is the Holocaust and Jacques Austerlitz , displaced from his family in an effort to save him from a far worse fate. Combining fact and fiction, the author, instead of going into graphic detail about the horrors of the death camps and the plight of the detainess , discusses the injustices of that period and the impact of the same in post war Europe , but in a more restrained tone. Life in the ghettos and camps , looting of possessions, displacement of families and the ultimate fate of those sent to locations further “east” are alluded to but in connection to Jacque Austerlitz’s story and his research into existing records and documentation that would give him more information on his parents’ respective fates, which takes place almost half a century after the events. Particularly poignant was his discovery of an abridged version of a Nazi propaganda film on the Theresienstadt ghetto to which his mother had been sent and his remastering of it to a fourth of its original speed in which he searches for a glimpse of his mother of whom he has faint recollection. Austerlitz is a deep, meditative and thought-provoking novel about a man searching for his true identity and his exploration of past events of which he has but a fleeting memory. We bear witness to the protagonist’s efforts in finding a sense of belongingness in a world that he observes and interprets but more often than not feels detached from.

The narrative progresses at a slow pace, at times excruciatingly slow, with a deep melancholic tone that is reinforced by old black and white photographs of landscapes, ruins, architecture and much more interspersed throughout the prose. The passages are long and the complex sentences are often hard to follow. I did have to go back and reread parts of the narrative more than once. The longest sentence spanning roughly eight pages is that in which the protagonist shares his description of , and observations on, his visit to Theresienstadt. Brilliant and beautiful in its complexity, Austerlitz, the novel, is an immersive experience that is well worth the time invested. ( )
  srms.reads | Sep 4, 2023 |
I hadn't read Sebald before. I came to this novel after reading a review of a recent biography. I see that this book was very moving for a lot of the reviewers, and although the part of the book about the Holocaust is certainly moving, I didn't feel that what the author was trying to do clicked for me. It is a sort of pseudo-history in which someone's appropriated story is fictionalized but also illustrated with a set of found fey photographs. It seemed sometimes that the author must have written the text specifically for the photographs. I'm new to this author and he certainly has a massive reputation, so I might come around to more stars if I cogitate over it - but not today. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
This is a novel about memory. The central mystery lies in Austerlitz's childhood; at five years old, he was transported from Prague to Britain to escape the Nazi protectorate.

The narrator is Austerlitz's interlocutor, giving the memories a layer of uncertainty and indirectness. Austerlitz's stories form an impressionistic tapestry, his interest in architectural history woven in with his suppressed childhood memories.

If there is a thesis here, it is that we never find wholeness without understanding our personal histories. We are forgetting the horrors of the Shoah, as many countries tip back towards right-wing nationalism. This is the reason why history is cyclical; the lessons we learn are not permanent before we lapse back into savagery.

This is the second novel I've read recently that deals with the German occupation of Czechoslovaka, only one episode in the larger genocide of European Jews. HHhH by Laurent Binet is the other; both remind us that narrative is our only tool to speak about the unspeakable. ( )
  jonbrammer | Jul 1, 2023 |
Brilliant, poetic, lyrical, narrator led personal fake history, against world wars ( )
  ChrisGreenDog | Jun 30, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 82 (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)
Sebald zeigt sich auf der epischen Langstrecke als großer Erzähler, denn mit "Austerlitz" hat er sich selbst übertroffen und ein Wunderwerk an unvergesslicher Prosa geschaffen. Wenn Austerlitz gegen Ende meint, von ihm werde nichts bleiben als ein Stapel Photographien, so hat ihn in diesem Punkt sein sonst so untrügliches Gespür zum Glück doch getäuscht. Denn Sebald ist es gelungen, Austerlitz hinüberzuerzählen und zu retten in ein bleibendes Stück Literatur, das der Vergänglichkeit trotzt.

» 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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