Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reading group: Austerlitz by W G Sebald

This book, one of my favourites ever, was my suggestion for the group. Narrated by a character who seems very close to the author - a favourite technique of Sebald's, apparently (I have yet to read his other books) - it features the first-person story of Jacques Austerlitz as told to the narrator during a series of initially chance but later arranged meetings from the sixties to the nineties in various European cities and London.

A lonesome and somewhat eccentric figure, Austerlitz is a university teacher of architecture, and begins by sharing with the narrator his fascination with railway architecture - it is in a railway station that they first meet - and, perhaps more importantly, with fortresses and the paradoxes within their design which always lead to their failure as buildings of defence (and ultimate use as prisons). All of this apparently inconsequential and potentially dry material seems yet strangely resonant (although Clare in our group did not find it so). Then on a subsequent meeting (at which point even Clare became engaged) Austerlitz begins to talk more personally and relates his affectless post-war childhood in Wales as the adopted child of a Methodist minister and his wife. Here again there are resonances which seem to float without meaning: Austerlitz's obsession with the drowned village beneath a local reservoir and its tower, a local man's tales of seeing ghosts, and Austerlitz's own childhood sense of a dimension of life which remains invisible. It is only when he is at boarding school and his step-parents are no longer available for questioning (one dead and the other committed to a psychiatric hospital) that he discovers his real name, Austerlitz, and thus any inkling of his European origins, after which he fortresses himself in academic studies and the obsessions with which, during their discussions, the narrator - and this reader - become infected.

During years when Austerlitz and the narrator do not see each other, Austerlitz suffers a serious breakdown which leads him finally to set out to uncover his own origins which inevitably involve the history of Nazi Germany and the Jews.

I told the group that I loved the book, and that I was stunned by the original way it was written. Lacking chapters, it consists of only three sections entirely devoid of paragraphs and which are hardly noticeable as sections as they are divided only by asterisks. Furthermore, long sentences sweep you from one subject to another in a kind of stream of consciousness - one sentence, significantly describing life in the Theresienstadt ghetto, is 11 pages long. The book thus reads like a kind of dream with a dream's weird yet urgent and incontrovertible logic and unanswerable emotional resonance, carrying on the level of form the message that everything in the novel is after all connected: Austerlitz's seemingly dry obsessions turn out to be rooted, stunningly and vividly, in the past which was first hidden from him and which later he failed for a long time even to enquire into.

I said I thought the book was about memory and the repression of memory, and that I thought that Sebald had found a new form to convey them. There were murmurs of agreement and appreciation and Clare and new member Jo said they had loved the book too. I said that there was only one wrong note for me: I know very well that one retrieved memory can open up other lost memories in turn, but it didn't seem to me psychologically convincing that the moment Austerlitz arrives back in his birthplace he so suddenly remembers his post-British early childhood (up to the age of four-and-a-half) in such complete and wholesale detail. I asked Clare, who is a psychotherapist, what she thought about that, and she agreed.

Then Jenny, who had been very quiet up to that point, spoke up and said that she hadn't liked the book. Others were stunned and demanded to know why not. She said, Well, it's such a common story! Presumably she meant the story of the kindertransport of which Austerlitz was of course a part, and I countered that the book wasn't just about that but, as I had said, about memory and repression and the way we deal with loss and pain. Others came in and backed me up, pointing out Austerlitz's signs of repression: his obsessiveness, his depression, his inability to make relationships. Jenny said, But those are the results of his sterile upbringing in Wales. Why didn't Sebald just write about that, why create a whole elaborate device to tack on the story of the Nazis and the Jews? Jo said, No, surely his problems were caused by the replacement of his earlier happy childhood with that sterile upbringing. Jenny said, But he had no memory of that earlier time. I said, But that's the point: it was repressed; his step-parents suppressed the truth, leading him to repress his own memories. Jenny said, But why did it have to be to do with Nazi Gemany and the Jews? And anyway, he didn't repress it, he went looking for his past. I said, But he did repress it: it should have been pretty obvious which way things pointed once he found out his name at the age of 16 or so, yet it took him until middle age and a breakdown to face up to that. As for her objection to its being a kindertransport adoption rather than an ordinary one, I feel we didn't answer Jenny adequately at the time: it would not be simply the memory of an earlier happier childhood which Austerlitz would be repressing, but the climate of fear surrounding his upheaval, which a child of four-and-a-half would pick up. Surely one of the main points of this book is how we try to wipe history, and the way this is played out on the personal level in this novel is extremely moving.

Everyone else in the group thought the book was amazingly moving, and staggered that this could have been the case when the prose style was so spare, even flat, and the story distanced by the double-narrator device. In fact, I think there is something moving about this double-narrator effect: there's a kind of double-exposure which underlines the novel's theme of cloaked meanings and alternative possible lives. At times it's hard to remember which narrator is speaking: the ostensibly objective narrator becomes identified with Austerlitz, and along with him the reader. In this way the concept of narratorial 'objectivity' is challenged and at the same time Austerlitz's psychological state is given a stunning 'objective' authenticity.

John said that he thought it was perhaps the most honest book he had ever read, by which he meant emotionally honest, but Jenny retorted that it wasn't honest at all, it was all device. And then it was Doug's turn to stun us all by saying he wouldn't be reading another Austerlitz* novel. Why? we wanted know. He said that he had thought it was beautifully written, but he could hardly say like the rest of us that he loved it, he couldn't even say he liked it, because he had found it so painful.

At which Jenny said again that she didn't like it at all.

* Whoops, sorry, I meant 'Sebald novel'. (Thanks to Stephen Mitchelmore for pointing out my mistake.) Told you that narrator, author and Austerlitz all seemed close!

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

As you haven't read Sebald before, you might be pleased to know Austerlitz is his least best novel. Unfortunately, it has received undue attention because of its subject matter (the Holocaust).

Also, the "original way" is written actually isn't original at all. The translator expressed the same opinion, yet Sebald himself had doubts about the book because it was so clearly modelled on Thomas Bernhard's fiction.

Finally, am I missing some intentional humour? How can Doug decide not to read another "Austerlitz" novel.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for this, Stephen. I shall certainly read more Sebald and look up Thomas Bernhard.

No, whoops, no intentional humour - my mistake!!

Sackerson said...

It's a fantastic book! I know what you mean about Austerlitz suddenly remembering lots of stuff. I wondered about it too. All I can think is that we only have his and the narrator's word for it - and are any of us truly reliable narrators? Perhaps Austerlitz gets carried away and confuses what he is told with what he remembers. Then, perhaps the narrator gets carried away and exaggerates Austerlitz's account - the book is a game of Chinese whispers, in a way. There are other strange things: the sudden appearance and disappearance of people in Terezin seemed odd to me, in a good way. It is a poetic book and perhaps all these things can be put down to poetic licence!