W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

AusterlitzAt some point in humanity’s evolution, spurred on by an abundance of meat and the discovery of fire and cooking, which enabled us to digest more of our food’s nutrients, our brain volume trebled. Greater intelligence meant more sophisticated tools, agriculture, markets and our eventual conquest of the planet. On an individual level, our increased brain power elevated us like never before, endowing us with larger memory banks with which to form meaningful relationships with people and places, as well as an advanced language to communicate new intricacies of thought and feeling. Not all memories are good, however, and we remember the painful as surely, and often as acutely, as we do the pleasant. Or else we remember the good times gone, the friends we lost, the loved ones we no longer speak to. Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears,” one of my favourite poems, perfectly captures the sorrows of remembrance: “O Death in life, the days that are no more!”

If they do not destroy us, even the painful memories are subsumed into our identities, our understanding of who we are and even why we are. “I am a part of all that I have met,” boasts Tennyson’s Ulysses, but the reverse is surely equally true, for him as well as for us. The tragedy of Jacques Austerlitz, the hero of German academic-turned-writer W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, is that he has been deprived of these formative memories. A chance encounter between Austerlitz and the nameless narrator in Antwerp in 1967 prompts a friendship that spans decades, but the locus of conversation never strays far from the topic of Austerlitz’ identity, beginning with this harrowing confession:

Since my childhood and youth […] I have never known who I really was. From where I stand now, of course, I can see that my name alone, and the fact that it was kept from me until my fifteenth year, ought to have put me on the track of my origins, but it has also become clear to me of late why an agency greater than or superior to my own capacity for thought, which circumspectly directs operations somewhere in my brain, has always preserved me from my own secret, systematically preventing me from drawing the obvious conclusions and embarking on the inquiries they would have suggested to me.

Gradually, we come to learn the painful truth about his origins. His memories begin in Wales, where he knows himself to be the adopted son of a zealous preacher and his wife. After he excels in school and is declared eligible for a government-sponsored academic scholarship, his headmaster informs him that he must use his “real name” on all future exams; he is no longer to be known as Dafydd Elias but Jacques Austerlitz. Heretofore he had managed to suppress his curiosity about his birth parents and early childhood, but the revelation about his name launches him on a lifelong quest to discover who his parents were and how a boy by the name of Austerlitz came to be raised in Wales. He hunts down archives, scours libraries, and gradually begins to recover snippets of memories long buried in his consciousness. A visit to London’s Liverpool Street Station, for example, prompts a moment of déjà vu: he has been here before. When he overhears a radio conversation about the Kindertransport (the organized attempt to relocate Jewish children from across Europe to the relative safety of Britain) from Prague to England, he knows intuitively that he was on such a ferry, that his parents were almost certainly Jewish citizens of Prague, and he returns to his hometown to investigate.

His mother, he learns, was a Jewish opera singer. After being denied an exit visa from Prague, she is arrested by the Nazis and carted off to Theresienstadt, a ghetto constructed out of the walled city of Terezín. In the late stages of the war, the Red Cross paid a visit to Theresienstadt, where they were led on a sham tour designed to disguise the horrific conditions that prevailed there. A deceptive documentary film, colloquially referred to as The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews, was made to show off the same lies, and Sebald cleverly blends fact and fiction, as he does throughout the narrative, by having Austerlitz scour this film, first at full speed and later at a much-reduced speed, in the hope that he might discover his mother’s face among the nameless Jewish prisoners there. Here, especially, the narrative breaks down, and Austerlitz, who has always appeared morose, pitiable and lonely, descends into a kind of mania, describing the camp and his investigations in one long sentence extending several pages.

Tracking down his father takes more time, as he had managed to escape to Paris prior to the Nazi occupation of Prague, but France’s subsequent betrayal of its Jewish population sweeps him up as well, and he finds himself among the 75,000 poor souls carted off to the death camps. What ultimately becomes of his parents, Austerlitz never learns – the Nazis did not deign to keep strict records in the camps – but we are invited to infer the worst.

Despite the book’s title, Austerlitz is not its subject. Indeed, aside from his background and interests, he remains something of an enigma to the reader, as perhaps he remains an enigma to himself, his life up to now having been defined by what he had lost. No, Sebald’s true subject is memory itself, or our remarkable ability to suppress it when self-preservation demands. He endows the book with a haunting quality, partly the product of prose the literary critic James Wood describes as having an “agitated density.” I believe that agitation comes from Austerlitz’ anxiety about memory, about how easily it is lost or scattered. “I think how little we can hold in mind,” he says at one point, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.” To counteract this “draining,” Austerlitz becomes a relentless chronicler, interested not only in his life but the history of the great buildings of Europe (he studies architecture) – its forts, train stations and libraries. Fittingly, he also takes to photography, and one of Sebald’s effective devices involves including, throughout the novel, haunting photographs of people and places referenced in the narrative. (The cover image is one example. Is that the young Austerlitz, dressed in Czech finery, staring out at us?)

I began this review by quoting Tennyson, but just as pertinent are those oft-quoted lines from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Austerlitz, at one point, says something very similar, as how can he not? “And might it not be […] that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has 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?” Denied his past, Austerlitz spends his present reconstructing it, sensing, on some level, that no genuine life can be lived without this foundation. Sebald’s triumph, on every page, is to make us identify with this ghost of a man and weep alongside him.