In 2001, German writer W.G. Sebald published his final novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. That novel was Austerlitz, which is about a man looking for his family and identity told by an unnamed narrator.
During one of his many trips to Antwerp in the 1960s, the nameless narrator haphazardly meets Austerlitz, a scholarly man with a broad knowledge of history and architecture, in a train station. They strike up a conversation regarding the many historical buildings in Antwerp, and drawn together by common interests, become fast friends. Though their conversations are limited to historical facts in the beginning, Austerlitz gradually opens up to the narrator. Jacques Austerlitz shares with the narrator that he didn’t know his real identity until he was attending school. In 1939, when he was barely 5 years old, Austerlitz went to live with a Minister and his wife in Wales. Having almost completely forgotten about the trip, let alone his life before Wales, Austerlitz has no memory of his true parents and the circumstances behind his situation. Years later, after his foster father died, he learns that his name isn’t Dafyyd Elias, as he was called in Wales, but Jacques Austerlitz – a name completely unfamiliar to him. It wasn’t until much later in life that he started questioning his origins and the whereabouts of his real family.
Over time, the narrator and Austerlitz meet repeatedly, at first by coincidence, then later by invitation, and through the years, Austerlitz shares with the narrator the progress he made on his quest to search for his true identity and the fate of his mother and father, which for some reason he did not embark on until recently. Through research and following leads, Austerlitz learned that he reached Wales in 1939 via Kindertransport, a program which brought Jewish children to live with families in England before the outbreak of World War II. Austerlitz learned that he was originally from Czechoslovakia, born from an opera singer mother and a revolutionist father. Austerlitz travels back to Czechoslovakia, where he reunites with an elderly family friend who sets him on the path toward the fate of his mother and father.
By researching historical documents and visiting memorial sites and museums dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, Austerlitz relives the tragedy and horrors suffered by the Jews and quite possibly his mother and father at the hands of the Nazis. In his quest to find answers, Austerlitz discovers many things about his parents and ultimately himself.
From the very beginning, the novel has a very heavy melancholy air, which only gets worse as the novel progresses into Austerlitz’s story about his search for his mother and father. The story, told solely from the perspective of the narrator, who remains nameless throughout the novel, is one long paragraphless text, with run-on sentences sometimes 11 pages long. The semi stream of consciousness style of storytelling is broken only by occasional black and white photographs taken by Austerlitz of sometimes seemingly random people and places, which serve only to make the novel more haunting. The writer’s purpose of using photos of real places and people in a work of fiction was questioned by critics and readers alike (including myself), but I later realized that by using actual photographs of the places mentioned in the story, perhaps Sebald wants readers to realize that though Austerlitz is a work of fiction, the war, Holocaust, people, and tragedy are all very real.
I have very mixed feelings about this novel. I first tried reading this in December 2013, but 30 pages in, I found it difficult to follow and decided to put it off. This time around, I was in luck because two bookish friends were planning on reading it together. Realizing that this could be my one chance to read and finish it, I decided to join the reading group. Even with a daily reading guide and two people to rant and rave to, I still struggled with this novel mainly because of its unorthodox prose and continuous discourse on history and architecture, which were sometimes hard to follow. But later, when the narrator starts to talk about Austerlitz talking about his search for his past, I faced the difficulty of having to read about the Holocaust and the tragic fate of Jewish families. Many times, because of the gloom that it brought, I found myself not wanting to open the book despite Austerlitz’s very compelling and intriguing story. This is also one of the reasons I put off writing about this for so long – just thinking about the novel is enough to make me mournful.
I still can’t decide if I like this novel or not. Though I found it boring and hard to follow at first, the novel becomes quite riveting after a while. However, there’s the heavy sadness of Austerltz’s life and the unimaginable but very real stories of the persecution and genocide of the Jews during World War II. Throughout the novel, I was torn between wanting to read it but not wanting to read it.
Having said that, do I recommend this novel? I recommend it to anyone who is interested in architecture, as this novel is chockfull of factoids and tidbits about historical structures around Europe, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in European history. I recommend it to anyone interested in the Holocaust, World War II, and the cultural implications of the Nazi Regime in Europe and the World.
However, I don’t recommend this book to anyone looking for a “light weekend” read. I also don’t recommend reading this on rainy/stormy/snowy days/nights. Read it during the day, outside, in the park – but don’t bring it with you to read on the beach, unless you want your vacation ruined. Basically, just stay away from it unless you like being really sad or depressed.
Joking aside, Austerlitz is a unique novel that tells the story of the victims of the Holocaust from a different postmodern perspective; a must-read for anyone who loves intellectual literary fiction.
Austerlitz (2001) – W.G. Sebald
Penguin Books Ltd.; 448 pages (paperback)
Personal rating: 3.5/5